Why Turning Tension Into a Problem To Be Solved Doesn’t Work (and What Does)

Often our immediate response to tension and other emotional complexes is to view them as problems that we need to solve…immediately! Critical thinking and problem solving are specialties of the rational mind. However, research indicates there are a number of reasons why approaching tension with critical thinking backfires on us, leaving us feeling more tense rather than less. In this post, I look at why our usual problem solving strategies can’t resolve tension and what does.

Tension is composed of different elements which the mind fuses together.

Both tension and its close cousin exhaustion are really “bundles” of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and impulses which when fused together leave us feeling exhausted and tense. As Mark Williams and Danny Penman put in their book, Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World:

All these different elements that make up an emotion play off each other and can end up enhancing (or tempering) overall mood. It’s a phenomenally intricate dance full of subtle interactions that we’re only now beginning to understand.

Tension is often accompanied by constellations of strong feelings such as rage.

Anger, rage, irritability, jealousy, resentment and even hatred can all be bound up inside tension. Sometimes and often originally these feelings are directed toward others. Typically, though, people who experience tension-induced chronic pain or Tension Myositis Syndrome turn these emotions back on themselves.

Constellations of strong feelings trigger habitual patterns of thinking and behaving.

The feelings that often accompany tension act as triggers. We find ourselves thinking, behaving and acting out emotionally and predictably. We may even know that our habitual tendencies are counterproductive to ourselves and others, yet we can’t seem to stop. As Willams and Penman put it:

[All of these feelings together] create a very large net that will catch any slight emotional turbulence and whip it into a storm.

Over time, our habitual ways of acting and responding wear grooves into the mind – deep ruts that are easily triggered again and again. Our negative, self-critical thoughts and their accompanying tension get harder to shake. Ironically, science is proving that the old phrase being “stuck in a rut” is quite literal.

Various threats (both real and imagined) trigger our flight or fight responses and we can’t turn them off.

Perhaps the biggest challenge we face when constellations of strong feelings kick in is our inability to turn them off. We tend to see the emotional overlay as a problem and naturally think that this problem needs to be solved. We then engage our best problem-solving mechanism – rational critical thinking.

This habit of trying to solve the “problem” of tension with our thinking mind tends escalate quickly and is largely unconscious (until we make it conscious with mindfulness that is).

Here’s what happens:

  1. We evaluate how we’re feeling and imagine how we’d rather feel. I’m so tense. I just want to feel relaxed.
  2. We automatically create distance between how we are feeling and how we want to be feeling.
  3. The mind perceives this as a problem to be solved.
  4. In order to find a solution, we begin to search our mental database for other times we felt this way before. What worked in the past?
  5. We begin worrying about what might happen if we can’t solve this now. Last time I was this tense my neck got super tight and my back went into spasms. What if my heart starts racing too?
  6. As a result, a number of painful memories from the past and fears around what might happen in the future confound the current issue.
  7. We are now unable to turn off our “fight or flight” reactions.

Treating tension as a problem to be solved doesn’t resolve it.

As we see, the problem-solving approach to tension only results in increased tension. That’s because tension, like any other emotional state or mode, isn’t a problem to be solved. It’s a feeling accompanied by various bodily sensations that need to be acknowledged and felt.

Feeling our tension while letting go of trying to solve it does provide relief.

If we can both feel the tension and simultaneously let go of our tendency to try to solve it, something magical happens. Tension resolves itself. It might look something like this.

You’re sitting at your desk. The day is wearing on. There have been several interruptions already, and you still have five things you want to accomplish. You suddenly become aware that your neck is getting super tight.

STOP!!! Just stop. Stand up. Take a deep breath. Acknowledge the tension you’re feeling. Stretch. Breathe some more. Then, rather than try to solve the “problem” of tension, take a moment to re-evaluate your agenda for the day. What’s realistic? Maybe make a cup of tea or take a short walk as you reconsider. Guaranteed, by the time you return to your desk with a realistic plan, the tension will have dissipated. After all, it was only trying to tell you that your plan wasn’t going to work anyway.

Hopefully it’s clear in this example that the tension isn’t the problem. Trying to do too much in one afternoon is. That’s where critical thinking can be helpful in discerning what’s really necessary, allocating available resources and reconsidering the current schedule.

Trying to apply problem solving to the presence of tension, on the other hand, looks something like this. We begin to engage in critical self-reflection and try to push ourselves past what’s reasonable. Why can’t I keep up? Other people could get this done. I just need to push through, that’s all. See the difference?

Tension is actually a signal trying to get our attention. Generally, things work out a lot better when listen to it. However, if we treat it like a problem, things typically just escalate. Mindfulness is all about noticing what’s true in the moment and choosing to be kind to ourselves. When we can do that, life opens up in amazing ways. That’s what I wish for you.

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Kimberly Holman

Kimberly Holman is a certified Mindfulness Meditation Teacher (MMT) with a B.A. in psychology from the University of Maine and an M.A in religious studies from Naropa University.