First, what is this thing we call restlessness? There is a range of emotional reactions to stimuli that range from pleasure to panic. Somewhere in that long, complex thread exist some reactions that we call restless; they range from mild anxiety, to not be able to sit still, to needing to do something physical or metaphysical (breathing, yoga, meditation) to alleviate the restlessness. What’s interesting is that we all intuitively understand the word, although it may mean something different from a phenomenological point of view to each of us.
Second, whence comes the restlessness? Is there a psychological or physiological cause—or a combination? Restlessness is most often seen as a psychological phenomena. Before going on stage, many actors experience extreme restlessness (e.g. anxiety, fear, stage fright). As a former actor in high school, college, and community productions, I was a nervous wreck before any performance, walking aimlessly, bouncing up and down, generally feeling an almost uncontrollable restlessness. However, the minute I went on stage, that fear, anxiety, restlessness turned into adrenalin which I used to invigorate my role. The same transition occurred numerous times in job interviews, where restlessness (isn’t it a form of anxiety?), which made it almost impossible for me to sit still, was transformed into a positive adrenalin rush when the waiting was over and the interview began.
However, there have been times when my restlessness wasn’t associated with anything concrete; it was a vague, sometimes overpowering sense of discomfort within my own body. Medication, activity, and time usually sufficed to make it go away. Other things mentioned here—meditation et al.—also can work.
But I believe there is a phenomenon that can be called physiological restlessness—you’ve no doubt seen or had yourself the experience of people just shaking their legs up and down, feet on the floor; or walking aimlessly and restlessly. It is sometimes psychological, but it can be attributed to an over-active nervous system, similar to fibromyalgia but without the pain. Medication such as Lyrica, which are not without side effects, can do an amazing job alleviating the feeling of restlessness. It is not anxiety, although it’s very hard to get most doctors to understand the difference; anti-anxiety medication has no effect on it.
Third, “supposed to do” suggests that restlessness is bad and therefore should be eliminated from the various issues going on in your life, as if there’s one and only one solution for anything perceived as a problem. Before you breathe slowly, do meditation, or take drugs, ask yourself the “why” question: What’s going on in your life that could be causing the feelings? Why are you feeling this way? It may be a signal that something wrong is going on. It could also be a signal that you’re like a race horse at the starting gate, anxious to get going. Restlessness isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s almost always (unless is physiological) an important signal from your body.
This question originally appeared on Quora: What am I supposed to do when I feel restless?
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