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.