Understanding Anxiety From A Systems Perspective

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“Anxiety can be defined as the response of an organism to a threat, real or imagined. It is a process that, in some form, is present in all living things.”

— Murray Bowen

Anxiety is no joke. Some forms of it can feel unmanageable, and others more of just a pain in your side. Anxiety can convince you that there’s a threat when there isn’t one and, if you let it, can stop you from doing things you once enjoyed. There are many different theories on why some people experience clinical anxiety and others don’t. There are also a number of different ideas about how to treat it. I use an approach that includes many variables, taking a look at the entire picture versus just the individual experiencing the anxiety.

First, it’s important to understand that there are two types of anxiety: acute and chronic. That uneasy feeling you get when you drive in bad weather or prepare to give a big presentation is what’s known as acute anxiety. It’s the good kind of anxiety: a natural alarm in your body that lets you know you might be in danger. When the bad weather stops and the presentation is over, the acute anxiety subsides. Acute anxiety usually arises in response to specific causes, while chronic anxiety is primarily created within relationships. According to Michael Kerr and Murray Bowen, “Acute anxiety is fed by fear of what is; chronic anxiety is fed by fear of what might be.” Worrying is almost always about what might be, and depending on how deeply you think into the future, this type of anxiety can feel overwhelming.

Remember, Anxiety Rubs Off on People

A theory of human behavior known as Bowen Family Systems Theory asserts that life stressors are generally less significant than a family’s reaction to those stressors. People tend to have varied reactions to similar circumstances, depending on how they were raised and how people around them respond to those circumstances. Kerr and Bowen describe this idea like this: “Anxiety ‘rubs off’ on people; it is transmitted and absorbed without thinking.” For example, you have a bad day at work because your boss yelled at you. You’re upset because you know you didn’t prepare enough for your work presentation. You come home and head straight to your room, without saying hi to your family. Your husband sees that you’re upset about something but doesn’t know the details. Later, your husband is screaming at your son for coloring on the walls. Your son then begins to scream and cry uncontrollably, which is normal for him to do when he gets yelled at. Now you can feel yourself getting more upset and anxious. Without knowing it, your anxiety has spread from you, to your husband, to your son, and back to you again. Everyone in the family is now feeling anxious, but no one is exactly sure why.

Seeing Anxiety As a Family Problem

There are many implications of a family systems perspective on anxiety, and they differ considerably from an individual perspective:

1. While only one individual may exhibit severe symptoms of anxiety, any person in the family system has the power to influence the symptom—even when the symptom resides in another family member. For example, if your husband stops trying to get your son to listen by yelling at him, your son will stop crying.

2. Focusing on the symptoms of chronic anxiety may alleviate the problem in one person, but unless the chronic anxiety in the family is decreased, the symptom may move to another person. For example, your son might stop crying, but your work might suffer instead if your husband doesn’t deal with his worries about you being upset after work.

3. Symptoms of chronic anxiety can show up as anxiety disorders, but they can also show up as a variety of other symptoms, depending on the physiological, social, or emotional vulnerabilities in the family. Lowering chronic anxiety in a family system is likely to benefit the course of any symptom, illness, or condition. Disease processes consist of many aspects; the family systems perspective offers a way of relating to those aspects over which we have some control.

4. When enough chronic anxiety is present, any family can become symptomatic. In fact, symptoms in an individual may serve to lower the anxiety in the family as a whole, by offering a way of “binding” the anxiety within the symptomatic member: Your son cries way too much and way too loud. That’s the problem in this family. As long as other family members continue to “aim” their anxiety at the symptomatic member, the problem is likely to persist (i.e., “What are we going to do about our son’s inability to stop crying?”). When a motivated family member makes the decision to focus on his or her self, and how that self is contributing to the anxious system, things will improve. The symptomatic person may, of course, be the motivated self.

A Way of Thinking About Anxiety

When dealing with anxiety, causes are never as simple as they may seem. The experience of distress can be pretty complicated, as you can see from the examples I offered above. When viewing anxiety through the lens of Bowen Family Systems Theory, a systemic way of looking at a complex problem, it becomes clear that anxiety isn’t just some defect playing out in one person. From this perspective, it’s helpful to not only look at the individual, but at the whole family system when a problem arises. When you can see your family as a whole and understand your role in it, you’ll have a valuable resource that can help you manage your anxiety overtime.

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Dr. Ilene

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