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Whatever the hell the Tension Triangle is [Trenchant Edges
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 8 seconds. Contains 828 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, the Newsletter that is technically trending towards something resembling being on time.
I’ve been thinking a lot about activism & building capacity for communities so I wanted to write up a thing I think about all the time.
I wanna talk about an idea I’ve only ever encountered in a training at Occupy Wall Street on what to do if you’re arrested.
It’s one of those things I’ve talked about before but it really bears repeating.
The Tension Triangle
Getting arrested is, to put it lightly, a stressful moment. So back when I was a young and plucky liberal I camped with my local branch of Occupy Wall Street.
And as things moved near their end date, we planned for an expected confrontation with the police. Part of that was training to know what to expect the police would do, and how to respond to minimize physical risk and maximize odds of walking away without felonies or jail time.
The part that stuck with me was a little triangle diagram from the first few minutes of the presentation.
The relationship is simple but I’ve etched the diagram on my soul because it’s so important to keep in mind in stressful moments.
Stress, especially unprocessed stress, diminishes how much resourcefulness you can access in a moment.
This is widely known in the US military, where they train with the assumption that during a crisis individuals will default to their lowest level of training.
Tense situations are the ones you want the most resourcefulness to be able to navigate a way out of.
Since that training, I’ve seen considerable neuroscience suggest the truth of it and have often tested it with myself and others. I’m, uh, a believer.
You should definitely read up on the implications of these images as they’re a bit more complex than I’m making them out here.
But the overall point is really important: When your fight or flight response is engaged, your brain shifts gears to make sure you’re preserving your physical safety.
This is good evolutionarily if you’ve got a tiger chasing you, but less good if the tiger is metaphorical and actually a coworker who makes your life miserable but not really in any way you can change.
We should take a second here and unpack stress: Stress is psychological and physiological tension and strain. Kind of like the difference in effort between carrying a big rock vs not. It takes effort to deal with.
Stress or trauma responses come in a few major flavors:
Fight; directly engaging a threat, maybe with violence
Flight; get away however you can
Freeze; Just shut down and hope the cause of stress goes away
Fawn; people-pleasing/trying to make the threat like you
Each of these can be effective or ineffective depending on the circumstances and what skills you have drawing on each response.
The overall point is we respond to stress in lots of different ways and having more options makes it way easier to address the situation we find ourselves in.
So one option to improve your Tension Triangle situation is to reduce your level of stress if you can or to use a better coping strategy if you can’t.
The most basic of these is slowing down your breathing and choosing to pause when your mindbody pushes you toward reactivity. You’re usually better off choosing a proactive option to move conditions toward where you want to go rather than just responding to events as they happen.
Not that you always have that option, of course.
The other option, which can mainly be done outside of a crisis, is to expand your resourcefulness. Learning divergent thinking, learning new skills & training, listening to the experiences of others, and improving one’s management skills generally all open up new possibilities.
Some skills like researching, communication, and mathematics provide broad cross-domain options that improve lots of situations if you apply them well, these are the ones you want to focus on developing first because they have the most downstream benefits.
Anyway, all this is good knowledge to tuck in your back pocket for moments when shit matters.
You’ll notice this email is both short and oddly timed. That’s because I wrote the first part of this on Monday, an entirely different essay I won’t have time to finish tonight, and then got completely derailed onto a different topic yesterday night.
And today I did almost nothing but sleep.
So I wanted to actually finish a thing.
*waves hand towards this*
Anyway, I’ll see y’all again soon.
Welcome to the part of the newsletter where I hit you up for money because if you’ve read this far you’re probably interested in what I’m saying and might like there to be more of it. So would I. :-D