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Health > Mental Health >Tension


As an insidious component of modern life, tension can occur during even the most mundane everyday activities. Prolonged tension can lead to stress, that all too potent cause of serious physical and mental illness.

Tension and strain, in the emotional or mental sense rather than in the mechanical or physical, are often spoken of as though they were indistinguishable from stress. In fact, not only are they quite distinct, the differences between them are very important. Tension and strain are things that happen to all of us, usually every day. They are the load, the pressure, the effect that is imposed on us by the inevitable confrontations that sometimes occur between us and our environment in terms of the things, the people and the circumstances around us. Stress, however, is a disease which occurs when the tension or strain becomes more than we can cope with and some sort of breakdown in health develops.


Tensions occur in our lives for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. The most basic and intense are the result of situations that inhibit expressions of our instincts.

The universal, primary instincts are concerned with self protection and preservation of life, obtaining food and drink, and reproduction. These are regarded as the primary instincts, since without them and the driving force that they supply, both we as individuals and mankind as a species would certainly perish. These, then, are the things which in most of us are inborn as driving forces that override all else.

The secondary instincts are not quite so demanding as the primary, and are not so vital to man’s survival. But for most people, they are vital to happiness. The first of them is the power instinct, which drives people to be competitive and ambitious and to try to gain positions of superiority over others in terms of achievement, wealth, position or title. The second is the herd instinct, which leads people to think and act in groups and communities. Finally, denied by some psychologists, is the spiritual instinct which urges people towards goals which are non-selfish, idealistic and, at least materially, unrewarding.

These primary and secondary instincts constitute the major basic driving forces in most people’s lives: satisfying them without conflict or restraint gives people a sense of security and emotional happiness and contentment.

If, on the other hand, the following of their demands is made impossible or difficult, mental tension, if it is severe enough, will lead to some form of mental or physical stress illness. The likelihood of this occurring depends on the extent to which the instinct concerned has been frustrated, the mental ‘strength’ and capacity for adapting to a heavy tension load of the person involved, and whether or to an alternative area of satisfaction is available.

Many feelings which appear as tension are related to particular instincts. Fear, for instance, is associated with concern about self-preservation and security: anger with the need to reproduce future generations. Thus, the satisfaction of instincts is associated with and results in pleasurable, happy feelings; while their frustrations results in tension and unpleasant, painful feelings.


But frustration of instincts and other desires leads not only to feelings of tension and unhappiness, but also to something which frequently accompanies tension – conflict. Tension and conflict, though born of frustration and dissatisfaction, are nevertheless the fundamental mainsprings of human endeavor and progress. They occur whenever what we want to do is not immediately possible. They can result from a wide variety of circumstances. What we want to do may involve us in a collision course with another person after the same goal. Or it may be incompatible with the interests of the herd or the rules of the community in which we live. Or it may represent a struggle with some limitation imposed by our own bodies such as illness or disability, or with some limitation imposed by our own bodies such as illness or disability, or with an obstacle in the world around us, such as drought or flood. Or the tension may be the result of the demands of rival instinct and emotions that are competing with each other for domination within ourselves.

There are four possible outcomes to a situation of tension conflict: we may be successful and victorious; we may decide to submit; we may try to escape; or the tension may continue and interfere with the stability of our lives – in the form of stress – indefinitely. Submission normally occurs when we realize that to continue the conflict is no longer in our interests. It may be total or partial, with an element of compromise. For instance, most members of the community submit easily to the rules of the herd and never get into trouble, but some are always at odds and in difficulties with it. Generally, however, it is those who do not submit easily who are responsible for new ideas and progress. These people are driven to experiment and explore new possibilities.


In all these reactions to tension there are three classes of response: those that we can accept as normal; those that seem excessive or exaggerated; and those that are definitely not normal and represent some form of mental illness. The difference between them, however, is really only one of degree. The response which occurs depends partly on the importance and intensity of the conflict and partly on the personality and mentality of the person concerned.

Thus it is not regarded as abnormal for us generally to submit to the conventions of our community with regard to acceptable behaviour. But we would regard persistent feelings of inferiority, unworthiness, grovelling or guilt over small matters as inappropriately excessive. However, manifestations of persistent depression, prolonged melancholy or feelings of persecution are viewed as being definitely abnormal. In the realm of escape as a response to tension we regard jokes, hobbies, holidays, and fantasy as in plays and films as acceptable: we find heavy drinking, drug taking and outbursts of temperamental behaviour excessive: and we consider alcoholism, permanent running away, and suicide attempts as definitely abnormal.

The kinds of situation that are most likely to give rise to tension in our lives today are quite different to the very much more basic and immediate threats of hunger, thirst, cold, lack of shelter, fighting over food and rivalry for partners to mate with that were sources of emotional and physical conflict in our distant ancestors time. But they operate and affect us in very much the same way – and we need to be able to cope with them no less effectively if we are going to survive.

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