Comforting a tension increaser

My friend Caroline read my piece about tension increasers and recognized her oldest daughter (who is now a tween) in the profile. I told her that I myself am a tension increaser and what doesn't make me feel better, and she said that sounded familiar. Then she asked:

"So my question is how do you comfort yourself as a grown up tension increaser? I think my one challenge is to help my kid feel better by being there for her in the way she needs. Then again, I also need to help her find a healthy way to comfort herself because I won't always be there even if I wanted to…"

As a side note, one of the best things about being a parent is becoming friends with other thoughtful, great parents, don't you think?

Anyway, I thought this would be a good question for all of us to answer. I know what's helpful for me and for my older son, but we're only two data points. But I'm going to talk through what I've figured out about myself just in case it's helpful for anyone else.

I tend to be very internal, which is weird, because I'm so extroverted, and I put a lot of myself out there both IRL and online. But my feelings are very deep and when I'm truly upset about something I rarely share it. I never thought about that before I started thinking about being a tension increaser, but now I think it's because letting my feelings out to the surface can get very out of control and very painful very easily.

I look at my younger son, who is a tension releaser, and see that if he's upset he flares up hot and wild and freaks out and screams about things and then he's done and it's gone and he's happy again. That level of external processing would take me over and I wouldn't be able to get out of the loop. (You can ask my mother about some of the crying jags I got into as a young teen–they were frightening and intense and painful physically and emotionally.) I see the same thing in my older son–once he lets his feelings get out of their tight corral it starts to hurt way too much, so he keeps them stuffed in.

The really super-obvious answer is to help talk through and analyze the situation and the feelings, and dig deep with "What happens then?" questions to get to the root of the fear or worst-case scenario in a way that keeps everything neutral and not emotional enough to hurt. That's been my own comfort and how I help my son. But I'm beginning to think there's way more we can do.

Those of you who read my Moxieville blog on Babble know that I started running last summer and have kept it up, and now can't stop, even though I'm not fast and can't go very far. It has helped me release my emotions and keep myself on an even keel even though I do not work through situations when I run except incidentally. (My thought process while running mostly centers on my physical condition, random stuff I see while I'm running, etc.) The other day as I was struggling in the middle of a run, I realized that the physical discomfort I feel when I run is the rawest I ever allow my emotions to be in a negative way. That that physical struggle and true discomfort is touching me for real and allowing me to connect and process physically whatever bad is happening, even when I don't connect them consciously.

This makes me think about the times I've been comforted by someone hugging me even when I didn't want to need to be hugged. And it makes me think about the times that my older son would be restless while I was holding him still, but when I started boucing he could be still, as if the motion needed to come from somewhere but if I was generating it then he could relax.

It's as if physical sensation generating from the emotion itself hurts, but physical sensation coming from something else lets the emotion loose in a non-painful way.

So I'm going to propose the wacky theory that if a tension increaser can learn to create physical stress (by seeking out a hug or other physical touch, or by doing some physical activity that stresses the body), that can tap off the emotion in a way that doesn't overwhelm us.

Um, thoughts? From parents of tension increasers or adult tension increasers?

50 thoughts on “Comforting a tension increaser”

  1. Interesting theory! I will try on my own 5 yo tension increaser. I have seen that physical activity (even mild/low-key activity) helps him calm down. Also – being able to go alone into ‘his’ space to process and deal with what he is feeling allows him to calm down and then be ready to rejoin the family group. He calls it “alone-time” and we give it whenever he asks for it.

  2. I don’t know about in older kids but rocking/bouncing, and tight/close contact (like swaddles) were the only things that kept my now year old tension increaser from screaming through his newborn ‘developmental colic’. And now that he’s bigger being worn in a carrier still helps when he’s getting worked up. He loves high intensity play, lots of movement and is very happy now that he’s more mobile and can stimulate himself better.I’m reminded of Temple Grandin’s hug machine.
    It’s apparently great therapy for children and people with autism spectrum disorder and I think it’s a similar mechanism Moxie is describing on a larger scale perhaps. It reminds me of how kids often run away to a cramped, private place to hide when they’re upset.

  3. My tension increaser is starting to run with me. I know she needs physical activity to get stress out.My younger is a tension releaser and she screams her heart out. Sigh….
    I personally am an increaser and I need to control it. It’s hard. I will start running again soon, so maybe I can help test your theory.

  4. As an adult tension increaser, I have found that I either need to read or exercise. For different reasons, both get my mind on a completely different track until I can get some distance, and then I can talk through and deal with it. The alternative is to curl up in a ball and cry or scream (or both) and work myself into an anxiety attack with all the non-related junk I seem to drag into my thoughts. So I prefer the reading and am working on making the exercise more accessible (hard to do unplanned with small kids, you know).When I was a kid, I remember running — just running and running through the woods or along the beach or whatever, or going for a bike ride. Those are the things that calmed me down and gave me space to work through it.
    It wasn’t until I was an adult with my own kids that I realized what I was doing or why. It was just instinctive as a kid.

  5. The challenge is comforting without stuffing, right? For both of my tension-increaser kids (6 and 8), I find that the “How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen” stuff really helps. Lots of mirroring and affirmation and all that stuff. I think that listening to me rephrase their emotions distracts them from getting all crazy (and thereby escalating), AND gives them the validation that their emotions are okay and they don’t need to stuff them. I use what they’re saying or how they’re acting to gauge how dramatic to be with my rephrasing. I tend toward silliness, so it can be hard to do this and show genuine empathy if I don’t really feel their pain.(Sometimes I go over the top–“You’re so mad at your brother that you’d slam his head in a car door if you could”–and they pause and say, “Uh…no, I’m not THAT mad.”)

  6. You’ve just explained so much about my tension-increaser husband! I knew we handled stress differently (I’m a decreaser/releaser), but hadn’t thought about it in these developmental terms. I do know that for him, playing video games and killing virtual aliens or zombies works for him where exercise doesn’t. Exercise makes me feel great when it’s over, but it has the opposite effect on him. He just feels crappier after exercising, and has had that problem his whole life. He doesn’t seem to get the endorphin rush that way. Video games work, instead. Similar mental release, different trigger.

  7. My husband must be a tension increaser. He isn’t secretive, but he doesn’t often process stuff aloud. He plays a LOT of video games and he relies on exercise to help him off-gas his emotional stress. He does NOT want to be touched for comfort, either!I, on the other hand, am a word person and also need to be touched when I’m upset. I process WHILE I’m talking about what’s bothering me. My husband processes and THEN talks about what is bothering him.
    Our 5.5 year old is a unique mix of the both of us. She needs her space and alone time when she gets overwhelmed by the world (which can happen multiple times a day on rough days). But she also really thrives under physical contact and talking things out, after that initial break from reality.
    If I try to talk things through too soon with her, though, it just compounds the issue!
    Our 2.5 year old is a mellow little girl. She definitely didn’t increase tension with her crying as a baby. And right now, if she gets in a huff about something like sharing or whatnot, you can tell her in a playful voice, “Oh, no big deal!” and she totally accepts your word for it. As the parent of a first born Increaser (among other interesting quirks), this is probably one of the most shocking things EVER to encounter: a kid who doesn’t freak out about every little thing? lol
    I think as a parent of a very mellow child, it is easy to just take for granted that they are working through their emotions because they are not making a big stink about anything. I am already putting myself on notice to watch out for my little one, to make sure that she is learning good processing skills. Whether or not you Increase or Decrease, you need to be a Processor. No stuffing allowed!

  8. Thank you for your thoughtful response to my question, Magda. It is an interesting theory you have there…My girl doesn’t necessarily stuff her emotions but often goes there just in a second. I think it is the combination of the preteen hormone and tension increasing personality.
    Now that I think about it, I realize that she reads to distract herself and is usually calmer after a bit. She also seems helped by taking walks or running, but sometimes when she is already emotional, that is the last thing she wants to do. She just wants to keep engaging me in the escalating interaction and expects me to somehow make her feel better. Hugs definitely help though in those spaces they don’t come naturally to me. sigh..
    What I am taking away from this is that when she is experiencing tension, it is better to give her time to distance herself emotionally from it before I attempt to talk sense into her. I am not being helpful when I do that (though it is sometimes really hard not to…) When she has that distance from her emotional pain, she is able to have more perspective. I will let you know how this goes…

  9. @Elizabeth-You just described my husband to a tee! I never thought of him as a tension increaser necessarily, but he is! My kids and I are tension decreasers though. It definitely helps me deal with them, I get how their brain is working.

  10. Hmmmm…maybe this explains why my tension increaser pinches, bites, and bangs his head when he’s upset. I guess, now that I think about it, physical “stress” does help me work through emotions. I think it helps release the adrenaline and built up muscle tension, but I’d be willing to bet it has something to do with exercise (no matter how minor) releasing endorphins.

  11. I’m definitely still trying to help my 8-year-old increaser find things, so thank you for all of this! For me (I’m an increaser, but it tends to be anxiety driven) exercise and meditative practices – vinyasa yoga combines both, it’s a superdrug! For Mouse, laughter seems to really really help – but it has to be something really good and genuine, or she won’t laugh and will get angry with us for trying it. But once she does, we’re on the road to OK again.But the practice of noticing that I’m cranked and realizing that I can choose to turn the crank or not – that took many years, I was over 30 before I had any kind of adeptness with it. I’d really like to help Mouse find her way there sooner. So far, I haven’t been able to get her interested in meditation or anything of that sort, but she loves a solid workout and will go take a 2-hour circus coaching session on Saturdays when she can. It also helps maintain moods. I’d love to get her doing something with breathing, but so far she thinks it’s ridiculous. We’ll see…

  12. Thank you SO much for this. My tension increaser almost 7 y.o. son is SO stressed out, and he stuffs every frustration & hurt feeling/trauma of being picked on & dealing with acting out classmates all day long, and he comes at us during bedtime with this angry, violent energy. It has seemed to me that he is working to discharge stuff so he can settle, or that the stuff he’s been pushing away all day is finally too close & he’s too tired to handle it.But we’re so burnt out from dealing with the stress of daily nighttime attacks, and his inability to talk about hard feelings. This kid feels BIG and INTENSE, and he cries when he’s needing help and has been called a cry baby (so sorry kid, that’s all from me.) He just WON’T talk about anything difficult. And he’s also reading constantly to try to cope. It’s driving me nuts, but I’m trying to just let it go as he obviously needs it. And I’m so stressed I’ve been reading loads too, cause that’s my escape/release.
    He’s also a poop holder, goes a couple of days between poops even when it’s obvious he’s passing gas & needs to go. We’ve figured that it’s a control thing, after prunes, and giving up dairy & whatnot did nothing. Anyhow, I recently discovered that straining to hold a poop can stimulate the vagus nerve, which is key for relaxing.
    We tried this CD:
    but he thinks the deep breathing stuff is ridiculous too, Charisse.
    Since he refuses to talk about the feelings, I’m at my wits end, but we keep on trying. Maybe we should swaddle him again! Glad tomorrow’s the last day of school and we can decompress a little. I’ll be watching the comments for ideas

  13. We use a lot of “heavy work” in special education– exercise, chewing, pushing laundry baskets full of books, etc. It has a calming response on the sensory system, which is part of the reason exercise feels good. One of my kids is a tension increaser and I use a lot of bear hugs and firm back rubs to help her calm down. You can also play games with kids by making a sandwich with them squeezed between two couch cushions or rolling them up in a blanket like a burrito.Honestly, on a bad day, I tell my tension increaser to STOP CRYING. If I catch it early, we can usually talk it out, but not the most sensitive parenting approach!

  14. Huh, this is so brilliant that I just have to let it marinate for a little while. But I will say this now, holy crap why did it never occur to me to think about adults as either increasers or releasers!? Man I am an increaser to the Nth degree and this little insight is going to really help me with my increaser oldest daughter. Thanks!!!!

  15. I’m definitely a tension increaser, and my husband reminds me to remove myself from the situation and STOP TALKING. I will talk myself into a really hysterical place where things snowball and feel totally overwhelming to me. I have learned to take a walk, take a shower, and just let myself get some space before I talk, because when I’m really pent up I can’t sort through my feelings in a way that’s productive or positive.

  16. Like others, I’m finding this post clarifies a lot for me about how various people in my family process tension, and what some of my ticks are about. I think I’m mostly an increaser, but not entirely so. So I’m not sure how helpful this will be, but I’ll chip it in anyway.For me, there’s a split between using language to process or processing through the body/imagination/dreams — anything not-language. There are a couple of ways to think of language here: there’s talking to or with someone else, which can often (though not always) just amplify the irritation, and there’s thinking (endlessly) about the problem, which is usually counter-productive. Writing, however, is a special case, especially if it’s longhand. It slows the thought down to the speed of my handwriting, and it forces it to be linear — essentially, it takes the wild energy of fear run amok and tames it. For younger children, maybe drawing would do the same thing — channel thought through through the body, essentially. Similarly, various written exercises (pro and con lists, for instance) can help. But there are times when even writing becomes another means for obsession, and then I’ve got to get out of my mind and into my body.
    Body scan meditation seems to work best for that, especially if I can pay attention to things that don’t feel good (physically or emotionally) and let them unfold. Along similar lines, even just sleeping a lot can be productive, if I’m dreaming (and thus processing) and not just avoiding.
    When I was a teen, listen to loud, angry music helped — and it only now occurs to me that it helped partly because it drowned out what I was feeling and allowed it to recede — like a big heavy metal swaddle.
    @Lisa F., I find that when I read to cope, I’m usually avoiding by going into language and avoiding feeling. I can tell when I’ve got something to work through when I start collecting open books. YMMV, of course. But thanks for that information about the vagus nerve and withholding . . . my tension-increasing son (we swaddled his colicky self until he was 10 months and just too big) has starting holding his poop recently. There’s been stress around learning to read, and power struggles, but apparently it’s also a soothing activity. Who knew?

  17. @Bee, I totally agree. My son (6y.o) is an increaser, and being able to walk to his school in the morning (with his fairly heavy backpack on his back) really helps. Any kind of motion helps…if I can get him outside and kicking a ball, his mood improves by 50%. Any kind of water play helps, whether it’s the bathtub, pool, or sprinkler. Immersion is best, and I’ve found for both of my kids that a bath (or even better, a weekend at the beach) improves almost anything.@Lisa F., you could try a weighted blanket…we bought one for my son when he was a very colicky infant. I also “sandwich” my son in a playful way. He loves it if we pretend not to notice that he’s on the couch and loudly exclaim how comfy these pillows are (as we lay across him).
    My DH and I are both tension increasers, and running helps us both immensely. My DD (3) is a decreaser and as others have said, will blow up with so much fury and then be smiling 5 minutes later. It’s a mystery to me!

  18. Writing, drawing … Any way to get what is in out, but in a contained, controllable way. Not that easy if the tension increased is also a perfectionist. Getting started becomes difficult. That might be where I’d spend some time, practicing expressing yourself in writing or art without feeling constrained by perfect or linear vision. Just getting it out Ina stream of consciousness. And the end product can be tossed. Not something to create and share, but just a vehicle to getting it out.

  19. I really appreciate the way you’ve framed this! It makes a ton of sense to me. For me, I am definitely a tension increaser and always have been. My son (2.5) is also. So is my husband! So when one of us gets going, it’s sort of a dangerous tipping point, and one of us has to have the wisdom to bring in some distraction and not increase the tension even further.Fortunately (though it didn’t feel like it at the time!) in the months around 2 and a quarter, my son really helped me work on my response to him when he gets in this state. And what finally clicked for me was realizing what does or doesn’t work for me when I start getting frustrated/freaking out/increasing tension. If I get some feedback, anything really, to latch on to, I can go for hours and spin myself up into a real frenzy. I realized he is exactly the same way. I tried what I felt like was everything – responding to him and trying to get him to calm down, getting stern with him and telling him to calm down, trying to go with him into what was upsetting him so much and ‘solve’ it. Of course, the problem was, all of these approaches were just adding more tension and energy to a situation that already had too much of both. There was never going to be a solution to the problem that I didn’t know how to cut his oranges the way they do at preschool.
    When I was able to channel my dad (the person who was best at helping me through my freak outs as a kid) and just be there for him – which generally meant sitting physically next to him but not touching him, and occasionally saying “I’m here with you” when he would say my name, he was able to spin himself out, get rid of the tension, and then when he was calm enough I could throw out a little funny distraction and we could move on.
    Amazingly, once I started responding like this, he stopped having freak outs.
    My husband has learned over the years to do the same thing with me – when I’m in a tension increasing state, do not engage!
    Thank you for the opportunity to reflect – I love this part of parenting where we can figure out how to try to be better people, and better in all our relationships with all the people in our lives, including the small ones.

  20. Huh – interesting. This reminds me of what yoga does for me – it gives me a physical release for emotional as well as physical tension, whether I “process” the stuff emotionally or not. Yoga is great for this and it feels better than running (at least to me)! It seems like yoga and running would be a great combo. Now if I could only. . .

  21. @Liz yes! We’ve had a couple major problems when teachers have tried to help Mouse process by going in there with her. It just gets worse. She had a crushing disappointment last fall, where a classmate and close friend who had been taking dance classes for 2 months was chosen for a part in a professional production while Mouse, who had been taking dance classes for 3 years, was passed over. Her very kind and loving teacher tried to listen to everything and really wanted to help, but the misery just got worse and worse the more she did.We talked it out with her and decided to just try as hard as we all could to engage Mouse in other things until she could talk about it calmly. After quite a rough week, it worked in the end. But of course, she’s a perfectionist as well, with a painfully strong sense of justice. All these things can serve her well if she learns to manage them, but it’s very hard. Like I said, I’m aiming for before 30. 😉

  22. You know, I’m wondering now if I’ve had it all wrong – that my son is a tension increaser instead of decreaser. I thought he was a decreaser, because sometimes he’d get himself into such a state, it wouldn’t end until he started crying – like he’d have to hit some kind of threshhold, and then he could calm himself down. He will occasionally permit me to hold him, but mostly he does not like that – he is extremely sensitive to sensory input, and I have noticed how much he *hates* having his feeling mirrored back to him. It’s been a source of great confusion and frustration – all the parenting books that I like talk endlessly about validation, but my DS freaks out when I try to validate how he feels. Reading @Liz’s post made me realize that maybe that’s what’s going on for him (he’s 4 now). It adds energy that he can’t handle. I’ll have to work on being more quiet and still. I find this all quite challenging – I wasn’t ever taught how to comfort myself (or the flip side, to be comforted), so I used to spiral all the time, until I realized that I didn’t have to. I like a good cry, but in the end I think I’m more of an increaser because I spiral. Is tension increaser another way of describing someone who finds it hard to comfort herself (because of emotional intensity?)?

  23. I have to confess to being confused about the whole increaser/decreaser issue beyond a sleep/CIO context. But maybe that’s because I myself am a decreaser and assume that any and all bursts of emotion on my daughter’s part are tension releasing in and of themselves – with the exception of CIO, which we haven’t tried, and won’t try, because my daughter gets seriously worked up if we don’t come when she needs us. Frustrations over things she can’t/isn’t allowed to do, injuries, or other stressful situations seem to alleviate after a certain amount of tears and cuddles, though, so … I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that she IS an increaser but I’m providing enough distraction/physical stimulation for her to get out of the loop at this point. Or maybe she’s just a mix of my very definite decreaser personality (the more I think, talk, and cry about my emotions, the better I feel) and my husband’s very clear increaser (sometimes he’ll actually absorb my worries and bad feelings while I’m processing them and then need to go do something alone and manly for a while).I did just realize that I hate running for almost the exact same reasons Moxie describes it working for her. While it can be helpful to me in releasing actual physical tension in my body, more often I am unable to let my mind wander because I’m so focused on either how I feel physically (usually terrible) or what’s around me (as in, just how far away the stupid finish line is), and I come back from a run feeling no better emotionally than I did when I started, discounting the relief from being done. Which explains why the few times I’ve gone running after dark, everything was so. much. better. No outside stimulation distracting me from my thoughts, no ability to see further than a few feet in front of me, nothing to do but work through what’s in my head, which distracts me from the pain in my body and actually lets me enjoy the exercise. I’d still rather do almost any other physical activity, though 🙂
    I do think it’s probably easier to help an increaser if you yourself are an increaser and vice versa. I find it very difficult to manage fights/discussions with my husband when I can’t understand for the life of me why he wants to walk away before we’re “done,” or go do something else. If you walk away from me in the middle of a fight, you are ensuring that I will continue to fret and stew over it for hours because you’ve taken away my outlet (the verbal venting/processing/crying) that helps me get over it. And if you come back from your alone time all “Well, I feel better, now!” don’t expect me to be in the same mindset. On the flip side, as mentioned, too much venting and crying and I’ll drag my husband right down with me, and then I’m the happy, de-tensed one and he’s suddenly depressed or mad. Wow. Maybe I understand this all a bit better than I thought 🙂

  24. This is such an interesting discussion. If I apply this framework to my husband, it…well, it helps. He’s got an explosive temper, but it’s always kindof anxiety based. Sometimes it gets so intense, he throws himself headfirst into a wall. I think he never did learn how to cope with and processes his feelings. I will have to see if this framework helps me when he’s spiraling up into a tantrum, or when he says he needs to walk away while we’re still fighting.Oh, Rbelle, I know what you mean! I think & process feelings through talk (and sometimes writing), and all too often I work myself to a relaxed state at the expense of my husband’s state of mind. It’s so confusing sometimes.
    Finally, my husband and I have both been at wit’s end regarding my 14yo stepson who cries when he’s hurt or upset and then just…won’t stop. It goes on and on. As a tension decreaser, I’m utterly mystified. And I think I’ve established that my husband doesn’t have insight into his own processes. I’m looking forward to taking these new insights into the next crying jag.
    I just wish I could figure out which my daughter is. Maybe tension decreaser with an amazing ability to hold a grudge? We tried the sleep lady shuffly, and by about the third time picking her up & putting her down, she was so pissed and freaked out that over the next few days she wouldn’t let me put her down (at all) without a huge meltdown. I’ve never seen her resolve her own state via crying — I hang out nearby and occasionally ask whether she wants a hug, and eventually she does, and the crying subsides. Alternatively, sometimes I can distract her before it becomes full-fledged crying. And when she’s just generally fussy, a huge bear hug and lots of jiggling helps calm her. So…tension increaser? decreaser? Maybe we’ll get a better idea as her vocabulary increases; I’ll keep an on whether she likes to talk things out.

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  26. I think sport in general is a good outlet for most individuals, not only tension increasers. I think the 4 of us are tension releasers actually (although 7.5 yo DS is a mystery but tends towards releasing rather than increasing) and we all benefit enormously from physical exertion.

  27. What a great question. My 2.5 year old daughter seems, like me, to be a tension increaser. With her, I’m trying to work on breathing, which I find to be crucial in dealing with tension/upsetness for myself. If I can stay in touch with my body when I feel like things are spiraling out of control, I can stay with difficult emotions in a much more grounded, helpful way. And yes, exercise is utterly utterly crucial. Also playing the piano. But in the long term, it’s been meditation, breath, and martial arts that have helped the most in terms of giving me skills to handle difficult emotions (not that I don’t still struggle all the time with them!). Thanks for this question and this thread!!

  28. I’d really like to help Mouse find her way there sooner. So far, I haven’t been able to get her interested in meditation or anything of that sort, but she loves a solid workout and will go take a 2-hour circus coaching session on Saturdays when she can. It also helps maintain moods.

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