• When we feel tense or anxious, our instinct might be to try and relax. When people we care about feel stressed, we might try to help them relax, too

  • Paradoxically, says therapist Dora Darvasi, this can make things worse and we miss out on the opportunity to learn about ourselves

  • If you are struggling to cope with difficult feelings alone, find a therapist here 

Suddenly, I became aware of my clinched jaws, my shoulders tensing up and my hands forming into fists. I remember being shocked when my therapist told me to try not to relax. Instead of giving into my urge to relax, she invited me to pay attention. I could then actually get a sense of my tension and there was space for it to develop into a sensation that I could register as a feeling. In other words, I became available to the information my tension was holding, which paradoxically led me to feel relaxed.


When we respond to our tension by trying to relax:

  • We are not available to potential information our tensions hold. There can be a myriad of emotional undertones – be it anger, anxiety or loss – embedded in our stiffness. Thinking of our tension as information is not easy, especially when we are in the middle of feeling it. Yet, if we are not able to recognise and give space to our tension, we are left to orientate ourselves based on other people. By gradually becoming desensitised to our own truths, we end up behaving based on pressures – real or imagined - we feel from others. 

  • There is no space to unpick who the tension actually belongs to. By rushing to relaxation, we individualise our tension, making it our problem, whilst we are interconnected. Meaning, whether we like it or not, we do have a part to play in each other’s tension. When we tense up, we do it in response to something, which often makes complete sense when understood in its context. When we view and treat tension in isolation, it becomes much easier to pathologise it, to make it something we need to cure or get rid of.

  • The implicit message our tense part gets is that it should not exist. By responding to our tension not with attention, but a technique, we continue to divide ourselves into parts that are acceptable and parts that are not.

When we respond to others’ tension by telling them to relax:

  • It communicates that we have no interest in giving space to their tension. Although often well-intentioned, we can end up shutting down a meaningful conversation that could have only emerged out of the reality of our friend’s or loved one’s tension.

  • We can become (intentional or unintentional) oppressors. When someone shares their tension with us they give some of their power up in the act of doing it. By not attending to how we use our power in response to their sharing, we can end up restraining who they can be with us.

  • We can end up playing into our society’s agenda to relax us. Men have been given far more permission to be in touch with their tension and develop it into anger, whilst women are consistently given less leverage when it comes to giving space to their charge to be developed into anger. Likewise, it suits a white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative social structure to not let racial, gender and sexuality diverse people develop their tensions into expression.


What can we do with tension?

  • Aim to contain, not to relax. Learning to tolerate the inherent tensions of living is crucial in getting to a place where we can orientate ourselves based on information we hold in our bodies. Once we give space to our tension safely, there is the possibility for it to serve us in some way. It is not our tension that works against us but the phobic attitude we have developed as a society against it, which ultimately results in charges within us that are trapped.

  • Aim to be with, not to make better. It is a most human of responses to want to help, to want to ease another’s pain. This seems to happen though when we meet each other in that tension. To meet is to connect, not from a place of ‘let me make this better for you’ but from a place of ‘let me be with you’. My experience with the people I’m working with has consistently shown me that a sense of calm tends to take care of itself once I have been available with as much of myself as I can to the tension that is being articulated. 


  • Correct our ideas around movement. When we intentionally calm and relax our loved one or a friend, we are working from the idea of trying to move them on from their stuck tense positions. This is, though, precisely how we contribute to their sense of feeling stuck as the embedded information of their tension stays embedded. When we are interested, when we aim to hear out without giving into the urge to make better, there is space for the emotional undertones to emerge. Emotion (e-motion), as the word suggests, is meant to move us. Actively experiencing emotion, as opposed to trying to prematurely relax, is the agent of movement we have overlooked, the instrument that can support us to mobilise action.

The idea that relaxation is good for us is not something that needs protesting against. We now know that being relaxed can soothe us when we are overwhelmed, that it can regulate our emotional responses, that it can support our breathing. What seems to get missed is that relaxation – a bit like joy – works more as a side effect rather than something we need to aim for by direct means. 

Responding to our own or other’s emotional expression or tension by trying to relax ourselves or them can fuel alienation. Moments of connection, which we so desperately need, can be undermined by our attempts to relax one another. We would achieve just that, only if we stopped trying.

Dora Darvasi is a verified welldoing.org therapist in E1, London

Further reading

5 ways to manage overwhelming emotions

The neuroscience of emotions

Can painful feelings be helpful?

What's the tension in your body trying to tell you?