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Don't Be Afraid Of A Little Tension

Tension gets a bad rap, doesn't it? Especially by us yoga teachers. We are usually asking you to let go of tension, dissolve and release it, or which techniques and tools you can use to prevent and avoid it. But, like everything in life - the existence and importance of opposites are what makes this beautiful universe exist, and it is important to appreciate both - tension and ease.

This realization came to me after a tense moment with my partner recently. A year of confinement surely has created a sort of pressure cooker in many households and relationships. For most, we are spending much more time together than ever before, and that is both very beautiful - and also very challenging! Speaking through my relationship, we have definitely noticed small, seemingly insignificant matters becoming magnified by the pressure of confinement.

Now, my instinct is to take the 'peaceful route' which to me, means to avoid, ignore, or withdraw from confronting situations. Conflict makes me uncomfortable and I have the ability to catastrophize even the smallest misunderstanding. To me, an argument means that something is wrong, we are failing and this must be the end. So, instead of being there, no one wants to be there, I would prefer to run and hide. But through experience, something that I have really learned is that running away from problems robs you of the chance to resolve them and it is far better to work through something and to make it right than to hold your tongue for the sake of a 'false peace'.

I often saw tension as something bad, something negative that would lead to some sort of disaster. Perhaps, that is because I was only focusing on what happens when there is too much tension. It's like a balloon. You fill the balloon with air, which then begins to stretch, expand and take its shape. The air creates the necessary pressure inside the balloon so instead of a limp clump of rubber on the floor, it joyously floats up into the air. However, fill it too much... and - POP! But it would be silly of me to refuse to blow up balloons just because there is a possibility they will pop. If I did, I would miss out on all the balloon-filled fun?!

To feel tension is to feel stressed or worried about something. Perhaps we feel tension when we feel under pressure or are being stretched out of our comfort zones. Of course, we don't want to hang around here too long, but for many - a moderate dose of stress and tension are great ways to stay focused and motivated. Most things are either medicinal or poisonous, it just depends on the dosing. Too much stress and pressure can lead to anxiety, which will make it difficult to think clearly and make the right decisions. Too little, and we are too relaxed and bored. We may not try our hardest or give our best. Put it in the example of taking exams. If we feel the tension of getting a good grade, we will be motivated to study and prepare well for the test. With the right preparation and effort, we get a good grade. If we become too anxious about whether we will pass or not, we can become overwhelmed with the idea of failing and can no longer focus on our studies. Our minds are too distracted and our thinking unclear. If we don't care whether we pass or fail, we are very unlikely to invest the time in studying at all, wing it, and most likely underperform.

'Pressure may burst a pipe, or pressure may create a diamond' a poetic way to say some will thrive from a bit of tension and some may break. Research shows that it is all down to mindset. As I mentioned earlier in this blog, my default mindset is to perceive tension as a threat. My belief system tells me that I do not have the appropriate resources to cope with such a situation, hence harm is inevitable. Now my boyfriend, on the other hand, is the opposite. He sees moments of tension as challenges that his personal belief system tells him he is very capable of meeting. Hence, he doesn't see it as potentially harmful, in fact, he would see it as an opportunity for growth and success. So it is very interesting when we have an argument or miscommunication and tension arises in how that situation is perceived from both sides.

After an argument one day, he sent me this quote by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, [but] there is a type of constructive tension that is necessary for growth..." He was lovingly reminding me that sometimes we need to have those tense moments as we are learning to know and tend to each other's needs. Tension is an opportunity to change, to grow, to do better, and be better - it doesn't mean we are failing or falling apart. And just like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says in his speech 'When Peace Becomes Obnoxious' "peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.....peace is the presence of positive good."

Psychologists Dr. Martin Turner and Dr. Jamie Barker at Staffordshire University have been studying these different perspectives of tension and they have called them the 'challenge' and the 'threat' state. They have found those who react well under pressure are said to be in 'the challenge state’ whereas those who don’t are in 'the threat state’. Which state you are in has significant consequences, as they have been found to influence how much effort you put in, your concentration levels, how well you perform under pressure, and even have physiological differences in terms of your heart rate and the hormones you produce ( see the study here).

The good news is, that we can change our state and perception with a bit of mindful self-awareness. When we find ourselves in a moment of tension, first become aware of how we are perceiving this situation. Is it something we feel ready to accept and face or have we already started to see all the ways in which we are going to fail at it? Don't withdraw, run or hide from the tension, embrace it and lean into it. Start to see it as an opportunity to learn, grow and flourish. Focus on what there is to gain instead of what you could lose. Recognize and list all of the skills, resources, and support that you have at your disposal. Understand in which ways you can take control of the situation,' We can't direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails' —Thomas S. Monson. Believe in yourself. Remember all the challenges you have overcome in the past and use the positive past reinforcement to show you that you are again capable to do the same. Embrace the challenge mindset and remind yourself that this is not a threat, that it is only temporary and you will be better, wiser, and stronger for going through it.

I am truly grateful for all that I am learning in this lifetime and all of my teachers along the way. Often time, it is in the difficulty and the moments of discomfort that we learn the most. I am becoming more aware of the importance of a bit of tension and pressure now and again for the building of a truer sense of peace and ease. Can you relate to any of this too? I would love to keep the conversation going. Write a comment below or share in the Facebook Group.

Thank you for reading. 🙏

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Hi Amy, I love this post, well, all of your posts, but this one really resonates with me at the moment! I like the balloon metaphor. I believe that life is a rollercoaster ride and how we roll with the ups and downs teaches us a great deal about ourselves. If we want to learn from it, is our choice. Communication is so important. In my current job, I am the conduit for communication, so it is essential that I make it happen, regardless of the format. If communication doesn't happen then reality/perceptions can become distorted and suddenly because we have let things 'fester', the balloon becomes enormous and then 'POP'. The tension/stress caused on this journey can be positive…

Amy Fitta
Amy Fitta
Feb 25, 2021
Replying to

Yes, yes, yes! Communication is the key isn't it, and not being afraid to communicate how we feel, no matter the tension it causes, for not being able to communicate well will no doubt cause the most tension. Great perspective Susan 🙏

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