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 the Emotional System is
distinct from, and not limited to, feelings or affect.
‘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.
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 fueled 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.
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.
Chronic anxiety 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 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 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
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.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
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, 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, 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 of functioning.