I admit to being a fanatic who looks to thinking as a solution to all problems. I look for a psychological cause for everything that happens to me. And I look for a thinking process to help me deal with everything that happens to me.
If I cut my finger, yes, I put on a Bandaid. But I also reflect on what I was doing, and consider whether I need to be more mindful of my actions. If so, I spend a moment considering how that can be accomplished.
Due to this predilection, I used to be puzzled that quite a few of my friends go for a long run when they are upset. But eventually I understood: they exercise because the intense physical activity reduces body tension. If you reduce body tension, you can more easily deal with the emotions.
Here’s why: the tension intensifies the experience of some emotions (such as anger) and masks and/or interferes with the experience of other emotions (such as joy). A process that reduces the tension–literally physically relaxes the body–provides a timeout, so that some emotions will pass, and creates a neutral physical baseline, so that emotions are experienced normally, and you can more easily identify them and sort out their meaning.
Let me elaborate on this important point.
First, tension masks many emotions with pain. When you are extremely tense, you experience pain in your neck, in your shoulders, maybe in your back, sometimes in other joints. If the pain takes your attention, it will mask the subtle experiences of many emotions.
Emotions have signature physical experiences associated with them. There is the frission of surprise that runs from your belly up your spine. There is the clutching of your stomach at a moment of intense fear. There is the choking feeling in your throat when you feel hurt and invisible. All of these are difficult to distinguish when there is an overriding experience of pain. The pain gets the primary attention.
And of course, sometimes people simply block out the pain, in which case, they block off awareness of all bodily feelings.
Second, some emotions–such as pure joy–simply can’t be experienced when you are tense all over, because the somatic experience involves a freedom in your breathing that is incompatible with a highly tense state. Moreover, if you’ve ever experienced a bout of chronic pain, you know how pain undermines your access to positive emotions. For those who haven’t, simply note that people in chronic pain are usually grouchy. Most positive emotions involve a feeling of physical freedom and well-being, tension and pain prevent you from having that experience.
The effect of these factors is to make it difficult to introspect your feelings, when you are extremely tense. When you ask yourself “what do I feel?” the answer is, “pain,” “tension,” “aching.”
Another effect is that it is hard to concentrate. You don’t feel good. You tire more easily. You want a break from this bad physical feeling, and moving or resting seems like a good idea. You don’t have free access to emotional signals. Basic tactics like “thinking on paper” and “introspection 101” aren’t as effective when you’re in this state.
I finally understood this deeply a few years ago when I was stiff from having driven 300 miles, twice in a few days. I didn’t pay much attention to the tenstion. Instead, I noticed I had difficulty concentrating and was in a bad mood. I tried my usual tactics, and they weren’t all that effective. Out of desperation, I decided to tackle the physical symptoms of tension directly.
Okay, I said to myself. Exercise. Stretching. Breathing exercises. Alexander self-lessons. Massages. There are many physical processes that reduce physical tension.
I swam, I stretched, I had an Alexander lesson. And suddenly I could concentrate again. Suddenly I was in touch with my feelings again–which were subtle feelings about projects I needed to help me think about work, not intense feelings about some personal issue.
Now I notice whenever there is tension in my neck. I have suddenly become enamored of all the little physical de-tensing techniques that I’ve learned over the years: Stretching at breaks, breathing exercises, etc. I’m raring to go.
Lesson learned. If you feel physical tension, reduce it with a physical mechanism. It’s easy. It makes thinking easier. It is silly not to.