"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." (Kerr, Bowen 1988)
According to Family Systems Theory, there are two overarching types of anxiety: Acute and Chronic anxiety.
That uneasy feeling you get when a car whizzes by and narrowly avoids hitting you is an example of acute anxiety. It's the acute anxiety that prompted you to jump back out of harm's way. It's a good kind of anxiety; a naturally occurring alarm in your body that lets you know you're in danger. When the stressor ends (the car speeds off and you realize you're safe) so does the acute anxiety.
Unlike the causes of acute anxiety, chronic anxiety is primarily generated within relationships. According to Kerr and Bowen, "Acute anxiety is fed by fear of what is; chronic anxiety is fed by fear of what might be." Worry, which is almost always about what might be, can be one clue to how much chronic anxiety a person is dealing with.
Anxiety Rubs Off on People
Bowen Family Systems Theory, the theory of human behavior that influences all of my work, maintains that a stressor (acute stress) is inevitably less significant than a family's reaction to the disturbance (chronic stress). This is why different people react so differently under similar circumstances.
In short, Kerr and Bowen describe this phenomenon like this: "Anxiety 'rubs off' on people; it is transmitted and absorbed without thinking."
Look at it this way. You have a bad day at school because you received an F on your calculus test. You're ashamed because you know you didn't study enough and now you're in danger of failing the class. You come home and head straight up to your room. Your mom sees you're upset about something, but doesn't know what. Next thing you know, you hear her yelling at your little brother for leaving his stuff all over the floor. He proceeds to have a huge temper tantrum, like he always does when he's in trouble. Now you're even more upset. Your anxiety has spread from you to your mother to your little brother and back to you. Everyone in the family is feeling anxious, but no one knows why.
The Difference Between Treating the Individual and Treating the System
There are several important implications of a family systems view of anxiety that differ from an individual perspective:
- While the individual may exhibit the symptom related to elevated anxiety, any person in the emotional system has the power to modify that emotional system and perhaps influence the symptom—even when the symptom resides in another person. (When mom stops trying to get your brother to listen by yelling at him, he'll stop having temper tantrums.)
- Focusing on the symptom generated by chronic anxiety may alleviate the problem in the individual, but unless the chronic anxiety in the relationship system is decreased, the symptom may move to another part of the system. (Your brother might stop having temper tantrums, but your grades could get worse if your mom doesn't deal with her worries about her own ailing mother.)
- Symptoms of chronic anxiety can manifest as anxiety disorders, but they can also manifest as any other symptom, depending on the physiological, social, or emotional vulnerabilities in the family. Lowering chronic anxiety in a family system is likely to have a beneficial effect on the course of any symptom, illness, or condition. There are many factors present in any disease process. Family systems theory offers a way relating of to the aspects of an illness over which we have some control.
- Given enough chronic anxiety, 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 to the symptomatic member: ("Timmy has awful temper tantrums. 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, ("What are we going to do about Timmy?") When a motivated family member makes the decision to focus on his or her self, and what 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
In the realm of anxiety, causes aren't simple. Mental health illnesses are more complex than "take two aspirin and call me in the morning." I incorporate Bowen Family Systems Theory into therapy as a way of thinking about and addressing anxiety from many levels. When looking for a therapist, I suggest choosing one who will work with you looking at your whole family system. Someone who can see your family and your role in it as a potential resource for you.
Other articles in this series include:
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Kerr, Michael, and Murray Bowen. Family Evaluation: An Approach Based on Bowen Theory. New York, NY: Norton, 1988. Print.
Date of original publication: August 15, 2014
Updated: January 13, 2020