Tension types

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The Latin root of the word “Anxiety” – anxius – means to “Press tightly” or to strangle. The dictionary defines it as a state of chronic apprehension.

There are four different inhibition systems generally grouped together and called anxiety:


The definitions across these four systems are:

ATTACHED TENSION is a result of when we worry about something happening to someone specific – like worrying if someone mending the factory roof has followed the company’s tether line procedures correctly and has a firm enough foothold.

SIGNAL TENSION results from thinking about an unpleasant experience that you are about to undertake – terminating employment for a person, or asking your boss about an unscheduled extra work task which belongs on his desk but which landed on yours.

PHOBIC TENSION is tension about specific or general situations which we know are not threatening, but which terrifies us all the same.

FREE-FLOATING TENSION is a state of chronic agitation and dread without any specific reason to be agitated, eg generalised worry about the economic climate or the impacts of COVID 19 on the economy


We have added this given the widespread organisational impacts of Covid19.

Appropriate timing of change and effective communication in organisations can reduce every individual’s anxiety, to the least destructive levels ie attached and signal tension levels.

Given there will always be a degree of personal and structural tension in organisational change, the best approach is to use the energy created by the anxiety positively, not to try to reduce it.

Where an organisation has high levels of Phobic or Free-Floating tension there is a strong possibility that anyone acting as a Change Agent will have all that unattached energy focused on him/her and be “blamed” for “introducing change”.


Phobic and Free-floating tension must be reduced. The minimum acceptable is a level at which the managers can express the reasons for change and be heard. This requires coaching in stress release techniques; yawning, scratching, yelling, positive self-talk. Team use of tension management programs allows managers to define work situations more clearly. The knock-on benefit is prevention of phobic reactions to change in the future.

Reading: Ivey A E & Simek-Downing L Counselling and Psychotherapy. Prentice-Hall. 1980

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