Make tension work for you

Make tension work for you

Physically, we feel tension more than any other emotion – we sweat as the adrenal glands keep our body cool and put our nervous system on high alert; our knees feel less stable as our center of gravity lowers, preparing the body to run; our face flushes from the heart hammering oxygen-rich blood around the body; and the butterflies? They're our second brain – our gut reaction – telling use it's time to deal with something.

That's a lot of physical activity for a brain that's used to running the show, so your brain tells your body it doesn't like it and to do anything to make it go away.

Our dislike of tension is also sold to us by a society that craves luxuries that are all about relaxing, taking time off, avoiding tension. Tension is bad say our brains; tension is bad say the marketeers who want our cash.

Tension has a pretty bad rep.

TIME FOR A RETHINK Those physical reactions used to be needed as the body prepared to protect and defend … to run if necessary. Our body took over, borrowing blood from the brain and pushing it to the parts of the body that traditionally needed it most.

These days, though, it's our brain that needs the blood, so we need to start rethinking our feelings about tension and taking control of it, start thinking of tension as a positive response that will improve our performance.

In her 2013 TEDtalk, Kelly McGonigal talks about how people who consider tension responses as helpful are "less stressed out, less anxious, more confident, but the most fascinating finding … was how their physical stress response changed."

Want to know how it changed?

"…blood vessels stayed relaxed... Their heart was still pounding, but [with] a much healthier cardiovascular profile. It actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage. Over a lifetime of stressful experiences, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90s. And this is really what the new science of stress reveals, that how you think about stress matters."

So if you welcome tension, your body believes it is happy and courageous. Aren't those the emotions that marketeers want us to spend all our hard-earned cash finding?

For business people – social people – there is even more good news about tension. The much-loved hormone, the 'cuddle hormone,' oxytocin, which strengthens social responses and enhances empathy, pushing you to find support and talk to others when you're having a hard time, is part of tension:

"Oxytocin [is] a stress hormone," says McGonigal. "Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out as part of the stress response. It's as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you."

So tension is a good thing, and by welcoming tension's physical responses, challenging your fear that it's negative, you will be better prepared to be effective in your negotiations and relationships.

Let the tension in.

How do you deal with tension? What do you find most challenging when you’re in a tense situation?

Last Updated: 23 March 2017

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