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Making sense out of being tense.

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When you stop seeing tension as a cause for worries and start seeing it as a resource that is at your disposal, a new world of opportunities opens up!

More than water

First, a little fun fact. Did you know our bodies are about 60% water? In fact, our brain, heart, and lungs are composed of as much as 80% water! Water by itself has no shape, so we need some tissue that gives all that water form – say hi to your muscles! However, our muscles provide much more than form: they maintain our posture and help us move. The trick is, they need tension to do that, and everything works much better when that tension is just right!

Base tension

The tension in our muscles in a resting state is called muscle tone. Muscle tone is caused by semi-constant partial contraction of muscle fibers. This, in turn, is caused by the ‘tone’ of our brain (sometimes called vagal tone, named after the vagus nerve). We like to keep it simple and prefer the term ‘base tension.’ Base tension refers to your mental and physical alertness and includes things such as your reflexes, posture, balance, and acuity. So, tension is actually not your enemy. In the right dose, it’s not only helpful, it is even a necessity for optimal performance.

When your mental or physical status quo is challenged (in other words, when you get drawn out of your comfort zone), the perceived discomfort increases your base tension. This can happen very quickly and is called an acute stress reaction. However, there is very little physiological difference between the acute stress reaction due to excitement and that caused by fear. Both cause an elevated heart rate, increased muscle tension, higher blood pressure, poorer judgment, heightened emotions, and more. The main difference is how our brain interprets the tension. This is an incredibly cool realization and let me tell you why: if the difference between feeling excited and feeling anxious is determined by how you approach the situation and your heightened tension, it means you not only have a choice in feeling excited or anxious, you have a lot of control!

Stress is your friend

So, if turning stress into excitement is within the realm of possibilities, how do we do that? How can we use stress (or really our brain) to optimize performance rather than reduce performance? Perhaps surprisingly, this particular objective does not involve mental toughness or grit. It simply involves the right perspectives and skills – and that is what we focus on at 2Mynds.

  • Perspective example: you learn to see your acute stress reaction and its triggers as an opportunity to learn. The discomfort is not your enemy, it’s a teacher. This will immediately reduce your worry about the tension and thus eliminate the vicious cycle of tension, worry, more tension, more worry.
  • Skill example: you develop the capacity to stay calm under pressure by mastering quiet mind techniques. Hence reality gets much less distorted in high-stress situations and this means it becomes even easier to see that tension is a tool at your disposal – something to use to your advantage – not an enemy to fight.

There are a few skills and perspectives that can help you make sense of being tense. We have selected the essential ones for our Flow 255™ approach, which stands for 2 states of mind, 5 skills, and 5 perspectives. The bottom line is: tension is not something to worry about but something to use to your advantage. Doing this when it matters requires more than just reading this post: it requires a certain level of mental fitness. If you’d like to get started with that, check out the 2Mynds GO and GROW content!

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