Anxiety can be defined as the arousal of the organism upon experiencing a real or imagined threat. When so aroused the emotional system of the anxious individual tends to override the cognitive system and behavior becomes increasingly automatic. Subjective decisions based on internal feelings or affect predominate. It is vital to bear in mind that for Bowen the concept of the Emotional System is distinct from, and not limited to, feelings or affect.
The term ‘emotion’ or ‘emotional system’ refers to the automatic processes governing life on all levels, from the cellular to the societal. It includes the force that biology would define as instinct, reproduction, the automatic activity controlled by the autonomic nervous system, subjective emotional and feeling states, and the forces that govern relationship systems. The emotional system is counterbalanced by an intellectual system that enables clear thinking, focuses on objective facts and evaluates options for responding. Individuals vary in their ability to be guided by the intellectual system in the face of emotional intensity.
There are two types of anxiety existing in complex relationship with each other. The first is acute anxiety which generally occurs in response to real threats and is experienced as time limited. Adaptation to acute anxiety is usually fairly successful, partly because the focus for response or action is clearly defined. The second is chronic anxiety, which occurs in response to perceived threats, is not experienced as time limited and exists in all individuals to a greater or lesser degree.ChronicAnxiety Chronic anxiety is influenced by many things but not caused by any one thing. The principal generator of chronic anxiety is the degree of an individual’s sensitivity to real or perceived changes /disturbances in the balance of their relationship systems. Such sensitivities and subsequent anxiety reactions are generated and fuelled by the inherent relational instability set up by the dual human need for togetherness, belonging and acceptance on the one hand, and for personal autonomy and individuality on the other.
The higher the level of chronic anxiety within an individual or relationship system (that is, the greater the sensitivity to relational forces) the less adaptive individuals are to episodes of acute anxiety. Chronic anxiety can result in a sustained and generalized state of arousal within the individual and involves responses in both the autonomic and central nervous systems. Once triggered, chronic anxiety sets off a cascade of instinctual responses, actions and reactions that quickly gather momentum and become largely independent of the triggering stimuli. Chronic anxiety is subtle and pervasive and runs like a silent undercurrent guiding all human relationships. The physical manifestations of anxiety are possibly the most well known and can range from tightened muscles, shallow breathing, increased heart rate, and changes in skin temperature to churning nausea, dizziness, suffocation and gripping pain.
Chronic anxiety also affects the way we think and influences how we perceive the circumstances of our lives. It can determine our beliefs, organize our behavior, influence our personality and hijack our emotions. More often than not, we may not be aware that our thinking, feeling and behavior are anxiety driven. Thus, chronic anxiety is a much broader concept than, for example, an anxiety disorder or an episode of acute anxiety symptoms. Although it may never manifest as a disorder or an acute episode, it can certainly include these.
Chronicanxiety exists in all individuals and in all relationship systems. It is not the exclusive domain of the clinical population. However, what does vary between people is the degree of chronic anxiety which can range from high to low. The level appears to be based primarily on learned responses in one’s first family. This, Bowen proposes is a transgenerational phenomenon. That is, one has little or no control over the amount of chronic anxiety one is born into, however, one does have control over the way one plays the ‘hand of cards’ one is dealt. This forms the basis of Bowen’s focus on changing the self in order to experience oneself as more solid in relation to important family members. This is in contrast to changing one’s own behavior in the hope of a change in another’s response to you. Understanding that the effects of this type of anxiety are often very subtle, pervasive and more often than not out of conscious awareness, provides a way of making sense of the relational sensitivities underlying thinking patterns, as well as behavioral and physiological reactions. Understanding this aspect of functioning as a transgenerational ‘inheritance’ consciously or unconsciously by ancestors and not the ‘fault’ of any one family member, helps one to feel compassionate and respectful of one’s situation and efforts.
These imperfections are not a weakness or defect in character, but a feature of the human condition. This in turn is soothing, liberating and helps one continue to take action in their differentiation efforts no matter how small the progress. From a Bowen perspective, working to lower one’s level of chronic anxiety is, in essence, a self soothing project. Lowering chronic anxiety is a recursive process involving attention to both intrapsychic factors and the way one functions as part of the interactional dynamics of family and other key relationships. Understanding and modifying both the position of the self in the system and the way the system manifests inside the self.
The level of chronic anxiety within an individual is related to the degree to which that individual’s emotional position in their family of origin functions to regulate tension in the parental relationship. Thus his approach to sustained emotional growth is based on an individual carving out – or more accurately ‘chipping away’ at - a different emotional position in their family system. A position based more on one’s own needs, beliefs and principles, as opposed to the emotional demands of the system, that is, the push for harmony, approval, ‘oneness’ or relief from the tension of differences. This must be continued within an ongoing connected relationship despite the predicable disapproval, criticism - or worse! Such an effort, Bowen argues, if maintained consistently over time and throughout many interactions, will ultimately decrease the level of chronic anxiety within the individual and, conversely, increase their level