Dealing With Tension

Bill Abbate
Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

What comes to mind when you hear the word "tension"? Does it make you think of stress, conflict, strain, disagreement, or something similar? While these are things we do not look forward to in life, there is another side of tension, a good side, without which we would not exist!

What is tension?

Are you aware there is more than one type of tension? At least three types of tension are commonly recognized: physical, physiological, and psychological. Each kind of tension possesses good and bad aspects and is vital to life.

But what exactly is tension? There are too many definitions of tension to list in this brief article. Instead, let's look at a few synonyms to give us a taste for the word. Some of these include:

  • Stress
  • Tautness
  • Strain
  • Pressure
  • Pull
  • Conflict
  • Hostility
  • Worry

Tension is a force, and its force in a human being can create stress, conflict, and more. Yet the force of tension also holds our world together. Without it, chaos would reign. Let's look at the three types of tension and their effect, both good and bad, in our world.

Physical tension

Physical tension is all around us in everyday things. Everyone is familiar with suspension and cable-stayed bridges. Cables in a state of tension support the roadway in these bridge types. Whenever you see a crane lifting something, its cables are in tension. The engineering of a building must account for the various tensions in its design.

There are resistance machines in the gym that allow you to vary their tension. Most scales are tension devices, and a simple rubber band is in tension when you stretch it.

There are many great uses of tension in the physical world and a few not-so-great uses. Surely you have seen a person stretched out on a "rack" torture device in a movie. The tension these machines create on the human body is not exactly good! But then that is a tension of another type. And what about the so-called "Chinese finger trap," also known as the "Chinese handcuff." While these are considered novelty items, they show the use of tension when you put your fingers in each side and attempt to pull them out.

For the most part, physical tension in everything from structures to spiderwebs is good (unless you are an insect!)

Physiological tension

Some physiological tensions created by the autonomic nervous system are vital to life. These include things like breathing, thirst, hunger, and sleep.

For example, to understand the tension in breathing, hold your breath as long as possible. You can only hold it for so long before tension makes you exhale. Now try holding the exhale. This tension creates the need for more oxygen in your lungs, and so it goes all day, every day we are alive.

Outside of our normal autonomic nervous system functions, many physiological tensions can cause harm. Tensions such as the fight-freeze-flight response can create health issues in our bodies. When we enter such a state, it triggers the release of a cascade of stress hormones that cause our heart to pound, our breath to quicken, our muscles to tense, and beads of sweat on our forehead. When these tensions happen too frequently, they harm our health.

In addition to potentially life-threatening tensions, we can experience many other tensions. Our bodies can overreact to work and family pressures, relationship issues, rushing around, traffic jams, long lines, etc. The fewer of these tensions encountered, the better our health.

Lastly, tensions can be self-induced or forced on a person. Tensions involved in building strength can be good. Physical sports such as wrestling, football, and weightlifting are examples. Yet it is possible to force tension on a person against their will. The previously mentioned medieval rack used for torture imposes great stress on the body in a not-so-good way!

Psychological tension

In addition to tensions in the world and our bodies, tensions exist in our minds. Like the tensions in the world, much good can come from some of these psychological tensions.

For example, it is good to have psychological tensions that help us stay productive and healthy. The tension between doing right and wrong with other people in our lives can work for our good when we are mature and of good character. Remaining mature creates good tensions, helping us not devolve into a state of childishness. And what about the tensions that exist when we are in love? When you find that special someone, the tensions created will make you feel so alive that it can be almost overwhelming. In a good way!

Then there are the psychological tensions that create stress, such as a strained relationship or difficulties at work. You fight the tension of staying or leaving, trying not to worry and worrying, taking care of yourself or letting your health go by doing things like binge eating. Many results come from these and other tensions in life. It's best to steer clear of most of these negative types of tensions.

Yet on the good side of life, look at this brief list of a few psychological tensions we can embrace for our good:

  • The tension of love holds us in a marriage
  • The tension to remain healthy helps us workout and eat right
  • The tension to provide for our family and ourselves keeps us working
  • The tension to create keeps us creating
  • The tension to learn keeps us in school when we are younger and sometimes when we are older
  • The tension to live a worthwhile life keeps us striving to do more and achieve more in life
  • The tension of knowing you will one day retire can help you save

Strengthening good tensions

Now that you are aware of the good and bad tensions in life, you can choose to lean into the good tensions, strengthening them for what they can create in your life. You can also work to reduce or eliminate the bad tensions and the many consequences they create.

You can use any of the above examples of good tensions as a starting point, and I am sure you will come up with others.

Let's look at two of them – saving for retirement and marriage.

Saving for retirement

You can allow your money to flow through your fingers like water, putting nothing aside to help you comfortably retire one day. If you have little self-control and no ability to delay gratification, look out! This tension between spending and saving can create all kinds of psychological and physiological problems in your future. Work to increase the tension to save and delay gratification. Just imagine how much better your future will be when you are not worrying about money! Your future self and your health will thank you!


Over time a married couple can drift apart and become distant if they never work on their marriage. This will continue until the tensions run high and it is too late. Instead of allowing your marriage to drift and suffer, become purposeful about working on your marriage. Seek outside help if you must, and begin appreciating one another. Strengthen your desire to have a great relationship and start creating a good tension that draws you together so tightly that nothing can come between you.

To counter many psychological and physiological tensions, why not take up the practice of mindfulness? Google or search on YouTube for mindfulness, and you will find plenty of help and ideas.

Final thoughts

"The greater the tension, the greater is the potential." Carl Jung (1875-1961)

Everywhere you look in life, you will find tension at work. Tensions in life are a funny thing. They can be used for good or evil, to pull things together or rip them apart. There are few limits on the power of tension when it is strong enough.

Why not give tension some serious thought and start learning how to leverage it to your advantage. There are countless ways you can use tension for good in your life. Use it to shore up your friendships and strengthen your love for living.

Only you can engage or ignore these tensions. What do you want to do about it? The choice is yours!

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA

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