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19 February 2015

Tracey Thorn: I know just how uptight I am when I find myself at a spa and unable to chill

I envy calm people for their apparent immunity to overexcitement or overreaction.

By Tracey Thorn

“Oooh, you’re terrible at relaxing,” says the massage therapist as she kneads my legs, vainly trying to release some of the tension that holds my body upright. Thanks, I think. That’s relaxing. I’m on a spa weekend, health and fitness being the mission, albeit with a stash of emergency biscuits in my bag; but a stressful week at home – domestic worries, parenting worries – has delivered me here in an uptight state of mind, and immediately I’m confronted by my lifelong inability to let go.

I’ve written before about anxiety and how humiliating it can be. Finding it hard to chill in a spa is the least of my worries much of the time, and pales into insignificance next to some of my other panicky experiences. Still, relaxation is a goal to which we must all aspire in the modern world, and it’s an area in which I often fail. Telling someone like me to relax is as helpful as telling a depressed person to cheer up, but you’d be surprised how often the command is issued, and how shaming it is not to be able to obey.

What separates laid-back people from those like me who are permanently on edge is our response to stimulation. I envy calm people for their apparent immunity to overexcitement or overreaction. They seem to have a thicker skin than I do, impervious to the minor fluctuations of everyday life. It takes something really uptempo to get their hearts racing, so they seek out roller-coasters and fast cars and cocaine – properly adventurous or risky experiences – needing that buzz to feel alive.

In contrast, I creep through life on tiptoe, trying not to set off alarms, avoiding stimulants that would tip me over the edge, the inside of my brain and body operating at roller-coaster speed much of the time, even when nothing is happening. My heart races at the slightest provocation, needing no recreational drugs to pump it up, and I’m more likely to get addicted to beta blockers than to coke. I blush at the drop of a hat, sometimes just from thinking, and can flush from chest to forehead as I sit quietly at my laptop.

“Hmm, writing another of your columns?” Ben remarks drily when he sees me like this, and quite often I am. It’s as much excitement as I can take.

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Ironically, of course, I have a relaxing voice. People tell me my records soothe them, which isn’t always what I want to hear. The disconnect between what I put into my vocal performances and what comes out the other end can be frustrating, leading me to wonder where it is that all this angst and intensity goes. Some secret part of me attempts to conceal it, converting torment into its opposite, but it’s an unconscious act over which I have no control, and I often wish my vocals were a truer representation of what’s going on in my head.

I think all this while I’m lying on a mat in the relaxation class, listening to Liz Fraser’s “Teardrop”, another vocal that strikes me as trouble masquerading as ease, born from deep and complicated thoughts, yet finding its home on a chill-out album. Still, I do find that Liz’s voice works some of its magic on me, slowing me down as I make my way to an appointment for a body scrub. There I’m greeted by a Hungarian lady who talks at breakneck pace throughout the treatment, a frantic laugh punctuating every sentence. “You’re terrible at relaxing,” I feel like saying to her. But she’s new here, doesn’t quite know how the shower works, or what height to set the massage table at, and is trying to put me, or perhaps herself, at ease.

You’d think her awkwardness would unsettle me but in fact it’s reassuring. To a tense person, it can be threatening to be in the company of the nonchalant. Their slower pace acts as an irritant, and their savoir faire feels like a reprimand, showing you up for the nervous wreck you are. But me and the therapist, we’re similar types, I reckon. So she rattles on about her family, and dry skin, and the awfulness of paper pants, and she nervously giggles, and I nervously giggle back, and finally I start to feel quite relaxed. Or as much as I ever do. 

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