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I Got Anxiety at the Most Relaxing Place in the World

Iceland's Blue Lagoon might be beautiful, but its crowds – and my natural tendency toward anxiety in relaxing places – made it hell.

by Davis Harper
12 May 2015, 5:00am

Photos by the author

As soon as I saw the white wisps of smoke pluming from the dormant volcanic fields outside the tour bus window, I started sweating. From my seat by the window, the vapor signaled that our destination was close, our 45-minute ride from Reykjavik, Iceland's capital, nearly over. My breath quickened, my thoughts raced. As everyone else shuffled with their luggage in anticipation of the arrival, I sat trapped in my seat, overcome with worry that I was suffering from an undiagnosed case of hyperhidrosis.

Disembarking a few minutes later, the driver practically peeled me off the bus. As I stood on an asphalt oasis in the middle of the Icelandic wilderness, I realized with a shudder that it was too late to reverse course. I stared at the path ahead of me, surrounded on all sides by black volcanic rock. In the distance, the glass walls of the compound loomed. A fellow traveler shouldered me out of the way as what looked like his entire extended family—dead relatives included—charged forward. I plopped down on my travel pack, took a deep breath, and tried to delay the inevitable.

You might assume from my bizarre behavior that I was approaching some sort of Hunger Games (Arctic Circle Edition) scenario. I had just arrived at the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa carved into petrified black lava, a tourist haven invariably adored by the estimated 400,000 visitors who pass through its gates each year. It is Iceland's most popular tourist destination and, in a country chock full of Kodak moments, its most photographed. National Geographic named it one of the 25 Modern Wonders of the World.

The Blue Lagoon is essentially the ur-spa experience. The water, pumped from 2,000 feet below the surface, holds a temperature of around 100 degrees Fahrenheit year-round and is packed with regenerative minerals. The Lagoon boasts incredible vistas, floating masseuses and more sweat lodges than you can shake a stick at. And thanks to Iceland's lunar landscape, it can feel like a parallel world, an ultra-pampered moonscape of wonder.

For most people. For me, the prospect of all that relaxation made my skin crawl.

The thing is, relaxing situations stress me out, and pretty much always have. I don't know when it started, but I do remember being seven years old and unable to lie still in bed as my brain cycled through various apocalyptic scenarios. I missed months of second grade with an awful case of separation anxiety from my mother, and it was always the worst when I was with her, knowing that soon we would be separated again. A few years after that, she bought me a book called The Worrywart's Companion, a humorous attempt to attack my stress by identifying it head-on. It didn't work. In my teens, I found workarounds, and for a time a combination of promiscuity, substance abuse, sarcasm, and self-deprecation made me enjoyable at parties and on vacations while I corroded from within. Now I'm in my 20s, and I've gotten better at relaxing. I can get a massage without emerging tighter than when I started. I can sit on a beach chair for more than an hour without worrying about contracting terminal skin cancer or drowning in a freak tidal wave. Meditation is still out of the question, but at least I can now cuddle without discomfort.

But I needed a test to gauge how far I had come. I figured a solo vacation to Iceland—and the Blue Lagoon, in particular—would serve as a barometer for my newfound powers of relaxation.

Having made it up the path and through the Blue Lagoon doors, I approached one of the steely Icelandic women manning the Blue Lagoon check-in portal. I felt all the progress I thought I had made evaporate like so much Icelandic volcanic water. The woman scanned my reservation slip, equipped me with a smart bracelet and pointed me, like an executioner identifying the guillotine's blade, to the locker rooms. I was swept up the stairs and into a small room packed with British teens—an Icelandic spa experience is apparently part of the English public school curriculum —and paunchy old men hunched, distressingly exposed, in front of their lockers.

At all Icelandic public pools, patrons are required to shower naked before putting their swimsuits on and entering the pool. Officially, this is done for sanitation purposes, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it's all just a big Nordic conspiracy to make Americans as uncomfortable as possible.

After navigating the labyrinthine locker rooms, I emerged at the Lagoon itself. It's more like one massive pool carved into the petrified lava. I scurried from the building through the freezing air and hopped in the water, as Nordic men in Speedos strolled casually by. I attempted a casual laugh, but it came out creaky. Looking around, I realized I had no safety valve for the stress. No significant other, good friend, travel buddy, hip flask, nothing. Not even an acquaintance I had met during my stay. There was no externalizing this time, no projecting, no sarcasm. It was just me. And 1,500 to 2,000 other tourists. I sank down to my neck, tried to take a deep breath and accidentally drank some of the lagoon water on the inhale.

There are myriad anxiety disorders out there, on top of the typical anxiety to which any biped drawing breath is prone. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is the run-of-the-mill over-thinking and constant worry, while Social Anxiety Disorder describes a heightened fear of social interaction, which "automatically brings on feelings of self-consciousness, judgment, evaluation, and scrutiny." Social phobias, panic disorder, OCD, and PTSD all fall somewhere on the anxiety spectrum, and about 40 million Americans are afflicted in a given year.

Relaxation-Induced Anxiety (RIA) is a different beast entirely. For those experiencing RIA, the physiological signs of relaxation—the slowing of the heart rate, deep breathing, shoulder loosening—triggers a wave of anxiety and insecurity. While RIA is still waiting for official inclusion into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), recent research indicates that it affects as many as 15 percent of people. One of the leaders of that research is Christina Luberto, a clinical psychology fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital. Luberto told me that the tentative treatment for RIA would be a combination of exposure therapy and mindfulness, a common practice that's been effective in treating anxiety and depression.

"You have people expose themselves to things that are frightening for them, and you kind of sit with it and nurse it and watch what happens in order to develop more of an openness to it," Luberto told me. "You learn that, yeah, the anxiety is uncomfortable, but you're capable of tolerating it."

Or, to paraphrase the immortal Joe Rogan, determine if fear is a factor for you.

When I booked my Blue Lagoon excursion, I sprang for the "Comfort" plan that included a beverage of your choice. With nothing better to do, I floated chest-deep through the opaque geothermal body fluids into the long line for the swim-up bar. and after a protracted, non-relaxing period of wait time, I scored an ice-warm Viking beer. I thought this would be some salve for my anxiety, but now I found myself wading with one arm shot straight up in the air, aimless in my pursuit of ultimate relaxation. I was treating the place like a waterpark's lazy river, scraping along the craggy floor on my knees, bumping into fellow revelers in hopes of creating some human contact. I remembered the horror stories I heard about dehydration, so I slowly sipped my beer and checked my vitals every four seconds for signs of dizziness or nausea. The mineral-heavy water can be toxic on people's hair, so I kept my head cocked skyward and my neck stiff throughout my swim.

Finally, in order to keep from completely melting down, I followed the hordes to one of the boxes situated around the Lagoon. I dug some silica mud out of a box and, like a robot who mimics the actions of humans around him, slathered it all over my face and shoulders. I heard myself say "Ahh." I laid back against the lip of the lagoon, settled my body in the water, sipped my beer, and let the mask do its thing.

For just a moment, I closed my eyes and allowed my thoughts to go quiet. I let the mash of tourist dialects fly past me without trying to interpret every inflection and surrendered to the judgment of myself and every other flabby soul floating past me in the pool. This, I would discover later, is what Luberto meant by mindfulness.

"The really interesting piece is that present-moment awareness without the intention to relax has actually been shown to increase relaxation," Luberto told me. "It's this paradoxical thing where when you try to not relax, you might find yourself more relaxed than when you're intentionally trying to relax."

I documented the way my skin sealed and tightened under the mask without worrying whether my expression would be frozen forever in a puzzled grimace. I focused on my breathing, and noticed how a deep breath made my legs and torso prickle against the mineralized water. It felt almost meditative, or at least a brief buzz of whatever full relaxation might actually be.

As soon as it began, it was over. I squinted, downed the rest of my pint and hopped out of the pool. I toweled off and made my way to the overlook to take my obligatory Instagram photo ( Caption: The Blue Lagoon #iceland #tbt #takemeback; Likes: 38) and headed back to the locker room.

There, I waited patiently as a Scandinavian teen did some VERY thorough toweling off in front of my locker. As I tried to avoid watching Sven locate his boxers, I had to chuckle at the absurdity of it all. My 3,000-mile-long, five-day pursuit of relaxation had ultimately resulted in about two minutes of something resembling meditation. Still, it was a start, and I felt buoyed by the thought of what other challenges were out there. As Luberto and any other clinical psychologist will tell you, it is not the anxiety that cripples, but "the restrictions you place on your life in order to avoid that anxiety." I had quite literally jumped off the deep end and, after a few desperate splashes, started to acquire a set of sea legs.

Or, you know, lagoon legs.

Davis Harper is on Twitter.