Anxiety in the System and Regression– Murray Bowen

“Dr. Bowen, a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, established the Georgetown Family Center in 1975. He was a pioneer in family research who developed a new theory of human behavior and a new method of family therapy based on this new theory.” (From the website “Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.”)

Murray Bowen’s theory regarding anxiety in human systems helps to explain an array of unhealthy behaviors in families, ranging from addiction to chronic conflict to delinquency. (If you don’t know Murray Bowen’s work, google “Bowen Theory” for a menu of information.) Instead of taking the individual as the basic unit of analysis (a la Freud), Bowen starts with relationships. His theory accounts for the relative closeness and distance between people in relationships, and the level of anxiety that is inevitably a part of those relationships.

Some ways of dealing with anxiety are more adaptive and more helpful than others: both at the family level, and– very interestingly, for these times we live in– at the societal level. Bowen’s theory says that as anxiety in a system rises, we are more likely to regress to more primitive “fight or flight or freeze” responses– which explains why, when I am perceiving some kind of threat (real or imagined), I am more likely to yell at the children or kick the cat.

American society is a human system; much anxiety is in the system. Bowen’s theory predicts that the society will regress to acting out of that anxiety in unhelpful and shortsighted ways, in order to relieve the anxiety. (Example: yelling at the children temporarily relieves the parent’s anxiety, but it does not lower the anxiety in the long-run).

Here are the signs of regressive responses to anxiety in our American society:

1. hyper-partisanship, as people seek security in herding together and circling the wagons.

2. scapegoating, as people seek security by blaming others.

3. anti-foreigner sentiment, as people close off from the creative possibilities of engaging differences.

Here is Bowen in his own words:

 “There was growing evidence that the emotional problem in society was similar to the emotional problem in the family…. When a family is subjected to chronic, sustained anxiety, the family begins to lose contact with its intellectually determined principles and to resort more to emotionally determined decisions to allay the anxiety of the moment. The results of this process are symptoms and eventually regression to a lower level of functioning…. The same process is evolving in society.”


2 thoughts on “Anxiety in the System and Regression– Murray Bowen

  1. Thanks for this blog – it helps me to think again of Bowen’s theory of family and personal anxiety as a possible helpful way of looking at these anxious expressions of hyper-partisanship in our culture. I have thought about this as an explanation of the emotional cutoff I see when church leaders/members reject others along official party lines without considering the nuances of faith and the ramifications of excluding the person who might have a slightly differing understanding of a faith issue.

  2. Pingback: Commonplace Holiness Blog

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