Tension. It is a state of being that requires almost no explanation to be understood. Most animals are capable of recognizing tension even across species. It can be a temporary state, or it can be one’s modus operandi. We feel it every day to variable degrees. Usually, a mammal will return to a state of non-tension (maybe even relaxation) after a stressing stimulus has passed, though not always. There are some who find the release of tension fleeting at best.
My tension is not apparent on my sleeve. I tend to appear calm, even laid back. Yet, my tension is easily tested. Touch my shoulder when I do not see it coming and my body will react with an immediate twitch (even if I am reclining on the couch with my partner). Sometimes the twitch is minor and only involves the limb touched. Other times, my entire body is caught up in the spasm. What does this extreme reaction accomplish? Nothing useful. I am aware of the twitch’s origins. I am aware of the tension’s origins. I know how to ground myself and release tension when anxiety is high. So what? The tension does not care. It returns faster than it leaves. And tension is a master of justifying its presence.
Why would we expect tension to dissipate? As American citizens, we have a higher chance of being the victims of a mass shooting than we would have in any other industrialized nation. We drive every day on roads in which people die at genocidal rates (3000+ every year in Texas alone). We work more and for less money. Our rates of drug abuse, mental illness, and suicide are well beyond the expected average when adjusting for population and geographic size. What about this experience would lend itself to a state of non-tension?
While I may be pointing out seismic concerns that we are largely able to ignore on a day to day basis, and while we have incredible potential for opportunity, it is important to note that I am referring to tension, not social commentary. If we look at the state of our daily, national, and global affairs (of which we are inundated), it is no wonder that the American populace feels tense. It is an unspoken tension that justifies itself at each obstacle.
To speak of my own tension, it permeates me due to my own experiences; and yet, it justifies its presence through experiences outside of my self. It’s like wearing waiters in an invisible river. If you have ever worn waiters and waded into a mountain stream, you know the feeling of having foreign plastic sucked around your body while the cold of the stream ignores the layers and thrusts ice through your veins. The water rushes across you while the cold drains the final vestiges of warmth you hoped to cling to. For a moment you might even swear at the apparent ineffectiveness of the waiters. But, as you consider the possibility, you quickly realize you would freeze and drown were the water to actually reach you. This is what my tension feels like. A suffocating, uncomfortable, useless suit that justifies its presence through threat (real or imagined). I would be desperate to remove it if not for the icy river.
Nonetheless, and despite this tension, I have found tranquility in the most unexpected sources. A deep breath when I feel my heart rate tick up. A gentle word to my self when I feel defensive. A word of encouragement shared with someone who also shares this tension. A comforting nuzzle from one of my animal friends. If you are reading this and you can relate to the tension, take a moment to honor that tension. It is begging to be heard, so hear it. Then know that you are okay. You have tolerated the tension, and you are still breathing. Find your healthy tolerance tactic and let that work for you.
By: Landon C. Dickeson, MS, QMHP, NCC, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Steve Tryling, MS, CSAT, LCDC, LPC-S
Crisis note: If the tension is beyond your ability to manage, and if you are having suicidal, self-harm, or homicidal thoughts, please contact your local crisis line or call 911. The crisis line for Denton County is 1-800-762-0157.