Can anxiety be bound

By Anxiety, chronic anxiety, differentiation

Can anxiety be “bound”?

YES. And anxiety binding has positive and negative aspects to it.

Dr. Kerr wrote a lot about anxiety binding behaviour. He is the author of Family Evaluation, one of the original “source materials” on Bowen Family Systems. The system’s idea that a behaviour can bind anxiety is important when trying to improve one’s functioning.

The concept of binding anxiety supports the premise that dealing with anxiety is a major driver of behaviour in animals. For example, rats exhibit many behaviours in response to being stressed and or anxious. There are physical behaviours like chewing on sticks or over / under grooming. Social behaviors include distancing from other rats. If the a rat is anxious enough, all of these might occur. Humans, with our bigger brains human can be more inventive.

Anxiety binding can lead to symptoms

The importance of this concept lies in the symptoms it can create in individuals and in their family system. Anxiety binding can manifest in many forms of behaviour. Some are positive, like exercising, or getting good grades, or being very productive at work. Other forms are not healthy like drinking, over or under eating, excessive fantasying or focus on a topic. Worrying about something I can’t do anything about would be another example. Even positive behaviours can lead to negative outcomes when they are driven by anxiety and not thoughtful goal setting.  Obsessing about fitness or ignoring friendships to get perfect grades are examples of this.

Binding anxiety doesn’t address the source of anxiety

Anxiety binding behaviours are the outward signs of an underlying emotional process. Anxiety binding is like taking a painkiller to relieve pain while not fixing the underlying cause of the pain. At best, anxiety binding is a soothing, distracting behaviour. But it can be far more insidious than this because individuals are often not aware of what is driving the anxiety binding behaviour. For example, the need to prove oneself to others could lead to excessive time at work. Or it could show up as focusing on competing in a sport, to the detriment of other areas of life. Dr Kerr posits that even psychosis can be an extreme form of anxiety binding. More on this later.

“To fully understand the concept of anxiety binding, one needs to maintain a systems perspective.”

Relationships as a source of anxiety

The emotional process of a relationship can generate various levels of tension or discomfort. This is because individuals are very sensitive to the level of agreement in a relationship. Most individuals can sense the level of agreement just from a facial expression, a tone of voice, the cadence of speech, a look, or a gesture. Individuals avoid conflicts or disagreements in relationships. They want approval and acceptance, and depending on their level of differentiation will do pretty much anything to get it. This is where anxiety comes in and the binding starts.

Emotional process leads to anxiety binding

We have come by this anxiety binding process honestly. In eons past, if a member of your group of started displaying signs of stress or anxiety, it would have been important for you to notice. Whatever was bothering them could have been coming at you next. It’s adaptive to respond to another’s distress or we wouldn’t have developed to be so sensitive to others.

Let’s say you grew up in a family that had a lot of conflict. You might be extra sensitive to “keeping the peace” in your current family, having vowed to not have it be like it was in your family of origin. The result is a base level of anxiousness about any type of disagreement in your family. It’s like you are extra vigilant, but you aren’t even aware of it. This chronic anxiety could manifest in automatic, non-conscious behaviour to please others. You are over helpful and over attentive to the needs of others. This behaviour binds the anxiety related to “watch out for conflict” that you picked up in your family of origin.

A second level of anxiety binding

But this orientation to always be helpful and pleasing to others can create its own stress as well. And this also needs to be “soothed” or bound. For example, you may have found over the years that a drink or two helps take the edge off in social situations. Or maybe you feel better getting to work extra early to get ahead of the day. Or perhaps it shows up as always being helpful to your children. Whether or not they need or want it. A sense of comfort from the vigilance and effort related to your orientation to please others drives these behaviours. The challenge is that this is automatic, non-conscious behaviour unless we really start to pay attention to what is going on.

Changes disrupt the binding

The anxiety of unresolved issues in a relationship can be bound with a focus on one’s children or career. This could also stem from the need to be successful at work or as a parent to win the approval of others, especially one’s partner. The result is an over-weighted mental / emotional investment in that area. So where does this anxiety go when that binder isn’t available? Children leaving home can leave anxiety “unbound”. So can retirement – all the investment in work now has to go some place, but where does it go? An overhelpfulness with grandkids can just be a replacement anxiety binder. If work ended up creating a level of distance in a relationship, retirement can be a problem.

Dr Kerr put it like this: “While several factors contributed to the increase in anxiety, a very important factor was that the mechanism of binding anxiety through emotional distance (reinforced by physical distance) was less available to the couple following retirement.”

Beliefs can be binding

Dr. Kerr also wrote that “beliefs are an especially important anxiety binder”. If one belief is easier or more comfortable to live with than an alternate belief, it could be an anxiety binder. We all do this. For example, I want to believe we will figure out a way to deal with climate change issues. Not believing is just something I do not want to deal with. It’s too hard. BUT, to the degree I refuse to entertain factual information about climate change, because it’s too uncomfortable, this will distort my thinking and behaviour. I’ll be adapting to avoid discomfort. I could go so far as to believing conspiracies about climate issues. As Kerr wrote, “Psychotic level thought processes are an exaggeration of this lack of discrimination between fact and fantasy that exists in all of us. Psychotic level thought processes can be powerful anxiety binders.”

Defining self gets to the root

The alternate approach to binding anxiety is to work at defining self more. This is the path to reducing the anxiety that needs to be bound. Using the climate change issue, for example, I work to stay informed about trends in technology and the effects of climate change. I take the approach of: this is what is, what do I want to do about it? This involves thinking about what am I willing to do, and what am I not willing to do. This is a big issue that involves a lot of thinking about what is a responsible way to live regarding climate change.

This process of defining self is not about denial or giving up. It’s about thoughtfully engaging the issue and deciding what I think a mature, responsible way to act would be. It helps with any issue, since how I think and respond to an issue is critical to the outcome.

It’s difficult. But living in denial or as a helpless victim around any issue isn’t easy either. Especially in the longer term. And if you are using relationships to bind the resulting anxiety, well, something is likely to suffer. The anxiety binder of over involvement with one’s child can negatively affect the child’s development.

It’s worth the effort

Another belief for me is that the more I work on my level of differentiation, the better I’ll be for myself, others, and the planet. This means I try not to avoid what makes me anxious. I try to understand what, when, where, how, how much is affecting my level of discomfort or tension. I work to see my part and I work to change that.

This has been slow work for me. So don’t get stressed 0ut looking for anxiety binding or you might end with more to bind!


Thank you for your interest in systems.

Dave Galloway

Email questions to

Dr. Kerr’s book, co-authored with Dr. Bowen, Family Evaluation, was the source of the ideas for this post.

You can read more about Dr. Kerr’s work here

To read more about Bowen theory, click here.

I wrote this blog. Dall-E created the image from my prompts.

Attachment Theory Alternative

Attachment theory revisited

By attachment, differentiation

Origins of attachment theory

John Bowlby created attachment theory in the 1950s and published articles on it for twenty years. He drew on concepts from several areas in psychology. For example, Freud’s ideas of the mother/child relationship and its impact on the unconscious. Lorenz’s ideas on imprinting in birds contributed to Bowlby’s thinking on the role of instincts in the “bonding” relationship. Darwin’s theory of evolution supported his idea that an infant’s innate propensity to form an attachment is more adaptive. Piaget and Robertson, with their work on development stages, contributed as well.

Bowlby also incorporated concepts from control systems theory, viewing attachment quality as a regulator of a child’s behavior. From cognitive psychology, he developed the idea of an “internal working model” that the child develops about self and others. In his clinical work, he noticed the effects of foster care and institutionalization on children and sought a theoretical framework to explain his observations. As the chart in the image above shows, his was very much of a top down, cognitive approach. 

Mary Ainsworth’s “strange situation”

Empirical support for Bowlby’s theory comes from Mary Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” studies. She proposed four categories of attachment styles. These broad categories have be used for years and are still popular labels.

  • Secure. With this style, toddlers are more comfortable exploring their surroundings. Mothers can quickly comfort these children.
  • Anxious-ambivalent. Separation from their month will upset these children. Comforting them can take longer. They can cling, but not calm down.
  • Anxious-avoidant. These children can ignore or avoid the caregiver and show little emotion when separated. They appear both distant and self reliant.
  • Disorganized attachment. Ainsworth added this category because the behavior just didn’t fit into the other categories.

Systems viewpoint on attachment

From a systems viewpoint, attachment theory does not address several issues. First, it is an individual model, with a focus on the primary caregiver’s behaviour. (My mother didn’t love me enough, so my relationships are messed up). It doesn’t address the effects of the caregivers’ “system”. It also doesn’t address the role of anxiety in the system. Anxiety can manifest as not enough attention, but it can also manifest as an anxious focus with too much attention on the child. Anxious driven attention can distort the quality of the relationship. A child can notice anxiety in their parents and in the system and be reactive to that. A more anxious child might easily display a non-secure style. (I’m condensing a two-day conference into a paragraph!)

Emotionally autonomous, not emotionally attached

According to Bowen Theory, development is about becoming more emotionally autonomous or differentiated. More differentiated individuals can develop their own goals based on their own thinking and values. They have more ability to hold on to their principles, even if it means being criticized. Being more differentiated, they aren’t (as) threatened by what others might think or feel. Thus, they can form very meaningful relationships. The level of parental affection does not limit the relationship quality of these individuals.

An alternative to attachment theory

Welch and Ludwig have a new way to think about attachment. They propose that attachment is based on the development of the adaptive Autonomic Socio Emotional Reflex (ASR). This is a bottom up, physiologically based approach to the concept of attachment. They posit that during a healthy gestation and birth, conditional learning for the mother and infant takes place. They both learn to orient and approach to each other, automatically. It is relationship based. It is also adaptive since the mother and infant both need to orient to and approach the other to minimize distress for both. Welch named this regulating influence in her “calming cycle theory”. She also developed an intervention call Family Nurture Intervention that can create an adaptive ASR using emotional connection.

Observer first, theory second

The ASR and Calming Cycle Theory are based on over ten years of clinical work and studies. Researchers observed that creating an adaptive ASR is possible even with a premature birth. Welch developed the Family Nurture Intervention in order to improve the quality of the mother infant emotional connection. Later, she developed the Welch Emotional Connection Scale (WECS) in to objectively assess the quality of the emotional connection. The measures include: eye contact or gaze aversion, physical attraction or avoidance, vocal cooing or distress, and reciprocal responsiveness. With this model, Welch developed her theory in order to explain her observations. This is the same approach Dr. Bowen used in his work. If the theory didn’t fit the observations, the theory was wrong and needed to be adjusted.

The emotion connection emotional contact continuum

Welch’s concept of emotional connection exists along a continuum of maladaptive to adaptive. An observer can quickly “score” how adaptive or not the connection is using the measure in the WECS. The quality of this connection sets a foundation for the quality of emotional regulation and social interactions of the child. Being on a continuum, there are no categories that are artificially created and labeled. The mother and child aren’t broken or “normal”, they are just at a point on a continuum as an outcome of natural processes.

There is more research being done using the Family Nurture Intervention with very positive results. Biology appears to be telling us that Welch’s “emotional connection” is the first stage of being in a relationship. It is an immature relationship and highly fused. I also believe that biology is tells us what an adaptive, mature relationship looks like. In fact, I think it would look like a mature version of WECS!

It appears that our relationship self develops along a continuum of emotional connection (fusion) to good emotional contact (differentiated). And I’m still working to move along the continuum towards being more differentiated. At least I know I’m moving in the adaptive direction.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Comments are welcome:

This post was inspired by this article:  6 week intervention.

Read more about Bowen Theory here

This is brief overview of Bowen Theory in Psychology Today: Bowen Theory.

Mother and infant

Emotional Connection Theory

By emotional contact, fusion, togetherness

Emotional Connection Theory – what is it?

Emotional Connection theory is an attempt to explain the mother infant bonding process. The authors believe that the mother infant bonding is a learned or conditional response. This learning occurs during the natural process of mother and infant interactions. The mother and newborn develop a connection by touching, looking at each other, using familiar sounds, and speaking. It is an adaptive process to have the mother and infant automatically orient and approach to each other. Based on their findings, the authors suggest that the mother and fetus develop this adaptive orientation during a full-term pregnancy. If fact, it was Dr. Welch’s work related to premature infants that let to the development of this theory.

Natural experiment of emotional connection

Dr. Welch, who has worked with infants for years, wondered why some mothers and infants did well after a premature birth while others did not. She observed some mothers did not develop a “bond” with the infant. This tended to manifest in mothers as anxiety because of having a “difficult” infant. The infants would display a non-orienting, avoidant type behavior. The infants would later have less emotional regulation and more difficulty socializing. Dr. Welch developed the Family Nurture Intervention process that can substantially restore the adaptive orienting – approach behavior (the bond). This intervention involves one-hour sessions where the mother and infant interact through smell, touch, and eye contact. Importantly, the mother talks to the infant and expresses her emotions. (Welch, et al. 2019).

Key aspects of emotional connection

This is what Dr. Welch wrote about the mother’s talking to the infant.

  • “The mothers were led by the Nurture Specialist to speak directly to their infants in an emotional manner, including expression of their upset feelings about the early birth, their infant’s fragile condition, and about the hardships posed to the pair by NICU care. They were asked to speak in their native language, the emotional language spoken to them by their own mothers and family, while establishing eye contact.”

In another paper, Dr Welch expressed as follows:

  • Crying is one of the deepest, most powerful, and most therapeutic emotions a mother can express to her baby in the NICU…the mother typically feels an emotional connection to her baby, most often for the first time.

Special emphasis on relationships

Another interesting aspect of the author’s work is the special emphasis on reciprocity and relationship. Both the mother and infant become conditioned to each other. They are co-regulating each other at the autonomic nervous system level and at a behavioral level. They both orient to each other and they both approach each other. It becomes so automatic that it appears to be instinctual. But that it can be disrupted and then “repaired” supports the idea that both the mother and infant learn this behavior. They learn via a Pavlovian level conditioning and not via a cognitive process, which isn’t possible for the infant.

The first stage of emotional contact

So what does this have to do with Bowen Family Systems Theory? I think it’s interesting in several ways. First, the concept of Emotional Connection is like Bowen’s concept of emotional contact. The mother is making good emotional contact with the infant. She can express anything that is meaningful and important to her child. The expression of any meaningful and important idea to is a key point in the concept of emotional contact. It would be fascinating to track reactivity in two adults over a period of six weeks of having meaningful conversations with each other. (Note – There is no trying to change the other’s thinking. Each is working to be as emotionally non-reactive as possible, while simply sharing their thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams about whatever is meaningful to them.)

Second, there is a special emphasis on the reciprocity of the relationship interactions. This is not about either the mother or the child. It’s about the relationship process.

Third, this is taking place at the level of physiology. Dr. Bowen would refer to this as the emotional system level.

An adaptive level of fusion

The term fusion often has a negative connotation when one talks about differentiation. Fusion implies that person “A” is automatically reactive to person “B”. This automatic reactivity leads to automatic behaviors that may not be thoughtful or effective. But with emotional connection, this automatic response is effective. I believe that Dr. Bowen was referring to fusion as something that represents my lack of differentiation. For example, my reduced ability to think and act for myself, while not impinging on others. Or, my ability to not change my thinking, or my principles, in order to avoid tension or conflict, or in order to gain approval.

Differentiation is a developmental process, a process of maturation, from being more fused to being far less fused and more differentiated. Thus fusion, or automatic responsiveness, isn’t all bad. Some aspects of it are adaptive.

The authors also propose an alternative to attachment theory. I’ll explore that in the next post.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Comments are welcome:

The following articles inspired this post.

Impacts of Family Nurture Intervention

How babies learn: The autonomic socioemotional reflex

Read more about Bowen Theory here

This is a brief overview of Bowen Theory in Psychology Today: Bowen Theory.

Infant benefits

Change a preterm brain

By emotional contact, fusion

The Power of Emotional Connection

(Please note: This post could create powerful feelings in some individuals. The research references are listed below and will provide a more complete description of the material. They quite easy to read and understand.)

The Family Nurture Intervention had a positive impact on the development of infants in a control group study. The FNI process, which lasted for six weeks with 36 hours of treatment, resulted in improved brain function, overall health, and development. These improvements persisted through the five years of the research.

The researches report findings in 18 papers but reported that the brain changes were the most significant. Notably, prefrontal brain functioning improves over the six weeks to be comparable to that of a full-term infant. These changes persist and predict function at 18 months. But what is it that facilitates the changes?

Family Nurture Intervention

The intervention includes one-hour sessions where the mother holds and talks to the preterm infant. Skin contact, smells, and tone of voice are an important part of these sessions. This leads to co-regulating each other’s autonomic nervous system. The researchers propose a concept called Calming Cycle Theory to explain this. I’ll review this in the next blog post.

Emotional connection is key

An important aspect of the FNI is the mother fully expressing her emotions to the child. Even those thought to be negative, such as her worries and fears about the premature birth process. This facilitates a cycle of calming that literally programs the nervous systems of both the mother and infant. The researchers reported that the “Crying is one of the deepest, most powerful, and most therapeutic emotions a mother can express to her baby in the NICU. It is common for the mother to hold back crying.” This openness allows the mother to feel more connected to her infant.

In order to measure the quality of the emotional connection, Dr. Welch developed the Welch Emotional Connection Scale (WECS). This instrument measures behaviour (e.g., approach orientation) and physiology (e.g. vagal tone). This allows the tracking of changes over the period of the intervention.

It is the author’s belief, supported by studies, that our biology is designed to have the infant learn the foundation of socio-emotional interactions, such as orienting and co regulation, in the womb. Because the brain is plastic enough, programming the brain of a preterm infant and mother is possible with the right intervention.

What about Bowen theory?

There are several aspects that make this body of work relevant to Bowen Family Systems Theory. First, this is a relationship process. The researchers stress the relationship aspects of the intervention. Second, it shows how sensitive human nervous systems, especially developing ones, are to each other. The sensitive starts in the womb. Third is how repeated interactions with an individual can program automatic responses. Finally, the work shows the importance of openly expressing feelings to another individual.

When do you feel the most connected?

I would propose that one feels the most connected to another person when they are sharing important and meaning experiences. Hopes, dreams, fears, worries. Being about to share them with someone that doesn’t judge or react in a way that impedes the sharing. I think this would be calming. This is what Dr. Bowen described as good emotional contact. The researchers not only found it was calming, but it literally rewired the infant brain.

Dr. Bowen proposed that a measure of being more differentiated is the ability to have good emotional contact with family members. It appears that this process actually starts in the womb, but is something that we need to keep working on to fully mature as individuals.

Regular emotion contact appears to be what the doctor ordered.


Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Comments are welcome:

This post was inspired by this article:  6 week intervention.

Read more about Bowen Theory here

This is brief overview of Bowen Theory in Psychology Today: Bowen Theory.



What is good emotional contact

By Anxiety, differentiation, emotional system, togetherness

Dr. Bowen and Dr. Kerr have written about the value of having good emotional contact with family members. But what is “good emotional contact”? How is this different from an emotional connection? How does it relate to one’s level of differentiation? Is this something a person can intentionally work at increasing the quality or amount of emotional contact with others? And importantly, what would the benefit be to oneself and others of having good emotional contact?

What is emotional contact?

Neither Bowen nor Kerr clearly defines the phrase “emotional contact.” Bowen used the term thirty-three times, and Kerr more than that. Dr. Bowen also used “viable” and “meaningful” as part of the term. I will do my best to reverse engineer what I think the meaning is.

Put on your systems hat, as we must think of systems to find meaning. I believe Dr. Bowen intentionally chose the term because it is descriptive and accurate for the idea he wanted to convey.

Emotional connection is different.

Emotional Contact is not an emotional connection. Connection means “connected,” as A and B are connected. This implies that when A moves, B moves. Contact means they are touching, so A and B can move independently of each other.

Bowen was very specific in his definition of emotion, which stems from biology. Emotion relates to our physiological and biological functioning. Having low blood sugar is an emotional level state. Feeling hungry, consciously, is what Bowen called “feeling.” Strictly speaking, an emotional connection is when my emotional state changes in response to your emotional state. I’m automatically getting reactive. The “connection” is strong enough that the reactive behaviour actually gets in the way. I’m not autonomous in my feelings and thinking. This is fusion. You get anxious, and this leads to me getting more anxious. (I’m simplifying things as always.)

Emotional contact – I’m next to you, not stuck to you.

So, with good emotional contact, I’m in contact with you but not “stuck” or reactive to you. I’m at least not so reactive that it impedes my functioning. The topic of discussion is “emotional” in that one could physiologically measure changes that occur. We experience these topics as important and meaningful. They might be very impactful or scary. They could be very positive or negative. But, because I’m only in contact and not connected, I’m better able to manage my level of reactivity. I’m able to listen closely because I am genuinely interested. I don’t have an urge to fix anything or change your mind. I’m thoughtful about what I share, but not so worried about you I do not share my thinking. We have a meaningful exchange of our opinions. We learn about what is important to each other and how we think on that topic.

Emotions are sticky.

It’s easy to get “connected” and lose “contact.” Poor emotional contact can show up in several ways. There is distancing or avoiding on one end of a continuum and being too active and preoccupied on the other end. Avoiding contact or having shallow conversations without any significance falls under the distant side. This distancing is a form of reactivity, actually. But then getting reactive while in contact can show up as avoiding a topic, changing the topic, giving advice, being bored, frustrated or impatient. Trying to fix the other person’s problem trying to get them to change their mind or opinion is also reactivity. All of these mechanisms about trying to manage the anxiety or tension that comes up. All of these things get in the way of managing the tension and just listening with a curious, non judgemental attitude. This doesn’t mean you don’t have your own opinions or that you agree with everything.

Thinking systems can help

One thing I try to do is maintain a systems point of view. This gets me more curious about the *process* of how things came to be the way they are. It helps me avoid the blaming of cause and effect thinking and the urge to get I’m not sure that anyone wants to only talk about important and meaningful things all the time. Just getting know a person, staying informed about their life is also part of a good emotional contact. So don’t go overboard or you’ll stop getting invited to parties! Talk about the weather, sports, food, hobbies. Be open to where it might go. If weather leads to very meaningful and important discussion let it happen.

As with other aspects of working on self, I do this for my growth. I work on this because it’s important and meaningful to me. I also know that having good emotional contact is good for my emotional and physical health. Good emotional contact is an antidote to loneliness. Who will you work to have good emotional contact with? Like any fitness program, too much too soon is not recommended. Consistency is more important than intensity. Slow and steady wins the race.

What’s missing in best relationship advice?

By Uncategorized

Relationship advice – Ideas from a systems viewpoint

We are learning more about how good relationships are important to optimal functioning and health. The research on loneliness is making this clear, for example. A recent NY Times article offering the “best” relationship advice (the link is below) is the inspiration for this post. I believe systems thinking has some important ideas to offer.

The article points out that arguments and fights about trivial issues are actually about something else. The article offers questions one could ask their partner. Which is fine, but I believe there are important questions to ask oneself. Finally, the article brings up the topic of sex. This points to a very important issue that I’ll get to.

Idea #0 – It’s not about the “thing”

Arguments or fights are about being reactive. The topic of the disagreement is often about something relatively unimportant. For example, what’s for dinner, where are we going for dinner, who’s making dinner? Or what time is dinner or who’s coming to dinner? You get the point. They are not about a serious issue like a terminal disease, bankruptcy, or a family member being in danger. They are a signal that something related to the “thing”, is being perceived as a threat of some kind.

Idea #1 – Look at Primary Social Cues

Dr. Kerr writes about the four primary social cues. They are attention, approval, expectations, and distress. These are things that we all want and are sensitive to. When we don’t get attention or approval, we can make up stories why that might be. When we think our partner is expecting something, or we expect something from them, this can activate reactivity. Likewise, if we are in distress or think our partner is in distress, we can certainly be more reactive.

Idea #2 – What do I want?

I can get reactive when MY wants around the primary social cues aren’t being met. So it’s important for me to observe myself, to check myself on this item. Am I being argumentative because I wanted something (expectation) and you are critical of me for that (approval)? Am I afraid to ask for what I want and thus getting frustrated? Actions speak louder than words. For example, my frustration coming out as being grumpy or sarcastic has a more negative impact than just stating what I would like. So is he argument really about some underlying frustration that you don’t want to discuss?

Idea #3 – Observe and look deeper

Dr. Bowen wrote a lot about the concept of emotional process. To simplify, my automatic reactivity to sometime my partner did or said (or a look or a tone) is “emotional process”. Usually this is outside of awareness unless we look for a feeling, often some kind of discomfort. The brain is very good at jumping ahead and offering predictions. One prediction is: “If I ask for what I want, there will be a conflict and that’s bad.” Another would be: “My partner isn’t as interested in me anymore. Our relationship is in trouble.” These kinds of predictions, often based on very little information, are treated as threats. Threats trigger reactivity.

Idea #4 – Follow the reactivity

What happens when one feels threatened? They can get defensive or offensive. Both are reactivity, and this reactivity can lead to arguments. So if you notice you are getting reactivity, work backwards. What appears to be threatening to you? What story am you telling yourself that is contributing to the negative feelings? How true is that story? Where did it come from? It often relates to an emotional want that wasn’t completely resolved in one’s family of origin. It’s your work to manage that and not let it run the show. (If you think that this stuff is going to take some effort and time, you are 100% right! But, it is worth it.)

Idea #5 – Your Relationship is reciprocal

Remember that this same process is going on in your partner. What’s worse is that it is reciprocal, such that you can feed into each other’s negative stories. An important point is that I can only manage myself. I can’t manage my partner. My job is to be my most mature self. And that’s a big enough job!

Here’s an example. I have a presentation to complete and give in two days. My immaturity means that I’m getting anxious about it. I’m very focused on this. My partner is picking up on this and it’s making them more tense. They don’t like the tension when I get into “presentation mode”. They don’t want to upset me so they get busy with something themselves. It was their turn to cook, but they were busy and now dinner is going to be late. I’m hungry, because I wasn’t eating properly during the day. So I complain with “why can you just make dinner on time for once?” Boom, the fight starts.

It’s NOT about dinner. It’s all about both of us NOT managing anxiety well enough. I really need to talk about the space I need to get the presentation done AND work on not emoting my tension. My partner needs to be better at letting me be focused while not being run by it. Asking me when and what I would like for dinner, for example, but NOT reacting to a curt comment like “whatever!” My partner needs to be firm that my “stuff” around presentations is mine to work on. Sure, they will be supportive, but not a doormat.

Idea #6. It’s not really about sex

The secret about sex is that it’s not about sex. It’s about any topic that is “difficult” to talk about. The difficulty isn’t about the topic. Unless it is literally something you don’t actually know about. It’s the stories about the topic and the imagined threats or consequences they bring up. Such as, we aren’t having sex like we used to. Is our relationship over? Even if it is about sex as in what kind or how often, it’s the worry about differences that usually drives the perceived threats and consequences. So sex, money, kids, parents, health – they are all the same process even though they are different topics.

Idea #7. Talk about MY stuff – listen to their stuff

I can only talk about what is going on for me. I can’t talk about “us” or “we”. I can talk about what I would like or not like. I can talk about what gets me anxious and what I’m trying to do about it. I can talk about my experience and how I’m working to manage my reactivity. And I can listen. Really listen. This gets into what Dr. Bowen called good emotional contact. That will be the topic of my next post.

I started this post with “Advice” and then changed to “Idea”. These are ideas from my understanding of systems thinking in relationships. They have been useful to others and myself. But you’ll need to think about their usefulness to you.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Send comments to

You can read more about Bowen Theory here.

You can read the original New York Times article here

You can read about the importance of relationships here





Be a better observer

By Uncategorized

Observe, Evaluate, Interrupt: Being More Thoughtful in Real-Time

Being a better observer is essential for becoming more differentiated, a fundamental concept of Bowen family systems theory. Differentiation of self has two parts. The first is distinguishing thoughtful thinking from automatic emotions, feelings, and reactions. The second is having a level of autonomy in relationships, holding onto something you value even when people pressure you otherwise.

“Everything Isn’t Terrible” by Dr. Kathleen Smith is a clear and relatable book on how to work on differentiation of self. The book examines how to manage oneself in different areas of life and relationships, even when others don’t change. She gives a basic guide for differentiation: observe, evaluate, and interrupt.

  1. Observe: What do I do to manage anxiety?
  2. Evaluate: Is it helpful? Is it how I want to live?
  3. Interrupt: Interrupt the automatic and manage the discomfort of doing things differently.

Zoom Made Me Numb

Here is my example of using this process. I am in my third year of Living Systems’ clinical internship program. As part of the training, there are monthly clinical Zoom conferences with instructors, clinicians, and trainees. People present papers, cases, and ideas, followed by discussion and questions from the group.

In my first year, I noticed my hands would go numb when I pressed the “raise hand” button to speak up in a meeting. (I was that nervous about speaking up!) The fact that my hands went numb only increased my nervousness about putting in my thoughts and questions. One quick, simple way to relieve my discomfort was to take my hand down and never press that button again. Not pressing the raise hand button would have been a fast track to less anxiety. But it was a slow track to learning, being engaged, and possibly working on my differentiation.

Here’s how I implemented Dr. Smith’s O-E-I framework.

First Observe

I started by observing myself. “Hey! My hands are numb. That means I am feeling stressed about something! This feels gross and uncomfortable. I don’t like it.” Then, I observed my surroundings. “I just clicked on the “raise hand” button. I guess I’m nervous about speaking up. What if I mess up, or I go blank? What if I say something stupid, and everyone finds out how little I know?”

Observing is about stopping long enough to notice all of those automatic reactions we have little control over. It also includes noticing the feelings and stories I’m telling myself.

Second Evaluate

Do my physical, feeling, and mental responses match what is happening right now? And if not, what is the mismatch about, and what can I do about that? My numb hands are a physical response to my anxiety. The numbness does not feel good, and because it is uncomfortable, I could quickly get more anxious. This is called “having anxiety about one’s anxiety.” When I got anxious about my anxiety in this context, my brain got a lot less thoughtful. For example, I would think, “Everyone is going to think I’m an idiot for what I’m about to share.” If I let my automatic anxiety run the show, I would feel incompetent and never raise my hand.

Evaluating is putting a pause button on those anxious thoughts and seeing if they are valid. We may not have control over our first thoughts, but we can work on our ability to have choice and control over our second thoughts. We do that by assessing whether the first thought is factual. The physical and feeling responses are automatic. The mental reactions – the stories I make up – can be a good place to start.

Third Interrupt

I may not immediately stop my hands from going numb in a Zoom call, but I have options about what I do about the numb hands. A bit of evaluation helped me remember: 1) I have meaningful things to share too. 2) I share what is valuable for me and it’s okay if that differs from what others find valuable. 3) If I sound foolish, I likely won’t be ridiculed. I can change the stories and my perception of what things mean, especially if they are not based on fact but are false assumptions.

Interrupting often has two steps. The first step is to correct and shift the automatic thoughts, the stories I’m telling myself. The second step is to do something about it in the presence of others. (Remember the definition of differentiation? This is the microscopic work of differentiation: me and my numb hands one Tuesday evening per month.) The anxiety is coming from what I think others will think and do. So, acting in the presence of others is vital. Differentiation of self is all about holding onto self in relationships.

And I did something about it in the presence of others. I did not run away from the “raise hand button.” I kept it up and dared to speak. Sometimes, I would write out my question in case I got so nervous that my mind went blank when it was my turn. The biggest thing, though, was thinking about what I value. I value learning and engaging in dialogue. And if I didn’t put my hand up, I wouldn’t be living out of that value.

This does work

I am in my third year and rarely get numb hands in Zoom calls. Sometimes, I get a little heart fluttery when I say something, but I still have the courage to speak. I have even said some unclear and likely “stupid” things in those calls. And I’ve survived!

I observed, evaluated, and interrupted an anxious, uncomfortable experience. And I’ve learned through practice that I can do things even when my hands are numb! One small step at a time is how climbers get up Mount Everest. One slight change at a time gets one more differentiated.

Autonomic Awareness

Another area that has been helpful for me in the observe, evaluate, interrupt model? Understanding the autonomic nervous system and how the body responds to real or perceived threats. You can read more in this post 

Knowing the specifics of my autonomic states helps me manage my immediate panic and judgment of automatic reactions. I can better remember that even uncomfortable stress responses are adaptive and there to help me respond to challenges. I also know that my body sometimes misinterprets situations! So when I can observe, evaluate, and interrupt, I have more space to manage the automatic. I am still human and prone to reacting. But this practice helps me be a bit more thoughtful in managing myself.

Thank you for your interest in systems.

Dixie Vandersluys

Living Systems is offering a conference this April about reactivity in relationships. Find out more here.

For more information from Kathleen Smith, including a link to her book, “Everything Isn’t Terrible,” see her blog.

Dixie Vandersluys, M.A., C.C.C., is a counsellor based in Manitoba. She is a third-year trainee with Living Systems. She recently completed the Polyvagal Institute’s first-ever certificate course.

Polyvagal Theory – An Introduction

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When the Anxiety Increases: An Introduction to Polyvagal Theory


I was never very athletic growing up. Often I came in last or second to last in school races. I was usually picked last for teams unless I made persuasive, pleading eyes at a team captain. People knew I was smart and so they sometimes assumed that translated to sports. It did not. Except for dodgeball. I was very good at dodgeball. The one time I was glad to be last.

Have you ever stopped to think about what is going on in the body in dodgeball or other sports? The brain becomes alert to the rules of the game, to the ball(s) in play, and the body automatically moves. For my level of athleticism, dodgeball was the sweet spot because I didn’t have to outrun the ball, just avoid it.

Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal theory describes how the autonomic nervous system functions using the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Dr. Stephen Porges changed the understanding of the parasympathetic nervous system when he discovered two different functions of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve runs from our brain down to all of our internal organs and is part of the body’s threat detection system. It constantly tracks and orients to dangers in the environment and changes human physiology to respond in the most effective way to real or perceived threats. It is called our “autonomic nervous system” because it is automatic and operates outside of conscious awareness. We wouldn’t have much luck crossing a busy street (or playing dodgeball) if our autonomic nervous system did not operate without us having to think about it.

The Traffic Light Analogy

There are three states that the autonomic nervous system shifts between to allow humans to adapt to the environment. The simplest explanation for these three states is a traffic light analogy.

Green Light

When we are in a safe environment, meaning there is no real or perceived threat, we enter into the “ventral vagal” state. In this state, the body shifts to a slower heart rate, the middle ears attune to the human voice, facial features, and voice changes to more expression and prosody. One is more positively socially engaged and can feel calm.

Imagine sitting down with your favourite hot drink at the end of the day. You see the sun setting out the window and you take a deep breath with a long exhale because work for the day is done. This is a green light moment. Now imagine your pet jumps up and joins you. The tone of voice you use with your pet is the expressive, prosodic tone of someone in the green zone.

Yellow Light

When we perceive a threat, our bodies become mobilized and activated to manage the threat through our sympathetic nervous system. The “fight or flight” response is what most of us are familiar with here. Our body shifts to support defence through increased heart rate and blood flow to extremities for limb movement. Even hearing focuses on “danger” sounds of high and low frequencies. It is important to note that the body shifts into defence whether a threat is real or perceived. Sometimes the nervous system makes mistakes about what is going on.

Several years ago our family moved to a new house and in the middle of the first night, my husband and I sat up in panic. We were convinced that someone was breaking into the house. After 20 seconds of investigation, we realized that the threat was a refrigerator with an ice machine, something we had never lived with before. Our bodies sensed a threat and responded. Even after we knew we were safe, the cortisol and adrenalin were already rushing through our bodies. It took some time to get back to sleep and for our bodies to catch up to the knowledge that the ice machine posed no threat.

Red Light

When a danger is seen as inescapable, the autonomic nervous system has one other response: to shutdown, immobilize, disconnect, or “play dead”. This red light or dorsal vagal response is the oldest evolutionary response to threat and is easily observed in other species, especially reptiles. Here the body conserves energy through low heart rate and muscle tension, raising pain thresholds as less oxygen flows to the brain.

Understanding that this immobilized state is automatic and instinctual is important. For those who have experienced particular types of trauma, blame and shame may be felt for not “fighting back”.

Polyvagal Theory in Everyday Life

Throughout our day, all three autonomic states show up in varying levels of intensity, whether crossing a busy street, preparing to speak in public, or hearing the irritated tone of voice of a partner. Beyond these stressful moments, the autonomic nervous system is also active in shifting our body in mundane moments like getting out of bed in the morning to more pleasurable moments like play, meditation, and curiosity. Hybrid states where two autonomic states are active at the same time also exist, as shown in this infographic.

Flexibility is Key

Flexibility between states is more important than always being calm or in the green zone. This is self-evident when we stop and think about just how helpful it is to have a heart rate that increases when we are wanting to engage in movement. Yet, because stress and threat can be quite uncomfortable, the yellow and red states often get a bad rap. All three autonomic states are evolutionarily adaptive and help us survive, thrive, and respond to challenges in our world.

In Relationship

Dr. Stephen Porges said, “physiological state [is] an intervening variable influencing behavior and our ability to interact with others.” As we go about our lives we experience our own green, yellow, and red states, but we also engage with others’ green, yellow, and red states. One doesn’t have to go very far in a day to have another person’s yellow state ruin a lovely green moment! It is in those moments when knowledge of human physiology and Bowen family systems theory can be so helpful!

This April, Living Systems will have a conversation with Dr. Porges on his understanding of how these three autonomic states impact how people live in relationships. We will also hear from Victoria Harrison who has spent decades researching physiology in relationships from a Bowen theory perspective. The day will end with a project I have been working on that allows people to track the specifics of their own green, yellow, and red states in daily life and relationships.


Dixie Vandersluys, M.A., C.C.C., is a counsellor based in Manitoba. She is a third-year trainee with Living Systems and recently completed the Polyvagal Institute’s first-ever certificate course.

Thank you for your interest in Bowen Family Systems Theory.

You can read more about Bowen Theory here

Read more about Polyvagal theory here


Stress and the Shower Curtain

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A Story of Stress and a Shower Curtain

A few years ago I got very sick after an incredibly stressful series of weeks in my life (a common response to stress for me). After being sick for an entire weekend, my teenage daughter commented to me, “I knew you were really sick because the shower curtain was open all weekend!” I asked, “What do you mean?!” She replied, “Mom, my room is next to the bathroom. I hear everything. You close the shower curtain every time you go into the bathroom! Even if it’s already closed, you adjust it a little more.”

I laughed and realized she was right. Every time I am in the bathroom, I do notice the shower curtain. In fact, I almost didn’t believe her when she suggested I had not touched it for three whole days. But, as she says, she hears it all. And I really was very sick that weekend. I guess I hadn’t had the capacity to notice much of anything.

All in the Family

I come from a family of “noticers”. The family I grew up in has an amazing eye for detail and an ability to notice and fix things others may not even be aware of. If you go to a thesaurus, what I am talking about could be described as: thorough, meticulous, nit-picky, fastidious, precise, careful, fussy, particular, perfectionist, etc. Each of those words have different connotations and highlight the spectrum of helpful to less helpful that any behaviour can have. In my life, noticing has been useful in lots of ways. I am a great proof-reader and can catch the smallest of errors. However, the less useful side shows up when I do 30 drafts of a paper before handing it in and still don’t think it is good enough. The line from attentive awareness to fussing and being overly critical can become quite narrow in my world.

Observing Myself

Because of my daughter’s comment that weekend, I started thinking about what my “noticing” of the shower curtain can look like. Most days I go into the bathroom and close the curtain calmly if someone has left it open. Some days I go into the bathroom and grumble under my breath, “Why doesn’t anyone else ever shut the curtain?! I’m the only person in this house who does a damn thing!” And now I had new information: there were times, like that weekend, when I was so sick I didn’t even notice the shower curtain at all.

When Stress Picks Up

Dr. Papero wrote, “Rising and falling levels of anxiety and tension in individuals and in their relationships significantly influence the particular manifestations of family emotional process displayed by a given family. Said another way, the family unit behaves much differently psychologically and behaviourally when it is calm than when it is tense and anxious.”

My shower curtain is an inanimate object. It does not do anything. It is open or closed. But the way I interact with it and the story I tell myself about it (and the people who use it), can clearly be very different. The shower curtain is just the shower curtain. But I engage with it in different ways depending on what levels of stress are going on in my life outside of the bathroom.

Can you think of your own examples? Such as where your stress levels impact how you behave? Or the story you tell yourself about an otherwise benign area of life?

Stress – Widening the Lens

In April, Living Systems is hosting a day-long conference called, “Reactivity and Relationships: Widening the Lens with Bowen Theory and Polyvagal Theory”. In anticipation of the conference, there will be a series of blog posts introducing the science of Polyvagal theory. Polyvagal theory describes the physiology of the body and brain when humans feel safe or in danger.

Dr. Stephen Porges, the originator of Polyvagal theory and one of our conference presenters, wrote that our physiological state is an “intervening variable influencing behaviour and our ability to interact with others.” His research on the vagus nerve led to a new understanding of the parasympathetic nervous system. He also believes how humans have three basic physiological responses to the world. We will dig into those three states in a March blog post. For now, the spoiler is that they are related to the three ways I interact with my shower curtain: calm, worked up, and overwhelmed.

Thank you for your interest in systems.

Dixie Vandersluys

For more information on the April conference, head to: April Conference

If you’d like to do a little digging into Polyvagal Theory, go to the Polyvagal Institute:  What is polyvagal theory?

Here is a useful talk by Dr. Porges’ son, Seth Porges. who c0-authored “Our Polyvagal World”:  Seth Porges Talk

Dixie Vandersluys, M.A., C.C.C., is a counsellor based in Manitoba. She is a third year trainee with Living Systems and recently completed the Polyvagal Institute’s first-ever certificate course.

Functioning up thinking

Functioning UP in 2024

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Get serious, sensible and self-ish

You’ve had time to get going on your resolutions. Resolutions are about what I call “functioning up”. For one to function up, you need to get serious, sensible, and self-ish.

What do I mean by function up? Dr. Bowen believed individuals weren’t actually broken, but that they functioned “as is” they were broken. After all, individuals don’t start out as dysfunctional. What Dr. Bowen observed was over time, some individuals would lower their functioning and or develop symptoms. This resulted from the emotional forces of the family and the multigenerational process amount other things. This could eventually lead to a serious impairment like schizophrenia. The entire family system could become “functionally” helpless, thinking that only doctors and experts could help them. Bowen observed that families could help themselves, given the proper support, and begin to function up.

Individuals function along a continuum

We all function better or worse in many areas of life. The overall goal is to work on functioning better. Especially in relationships, since that affects so many areas of life. A resolution is really a declaration that I want to function better, or “function up” in a particular area. I believe the systems concept of functioning is a useful way to think about resolutions.

How I function implies that I have a range of functioning from worse to better. So I have should have room to improve! I’m not stuck where I am. This is where being sensible comes in. Am I being objective about my current level of functioning? How realistic am I about where I want my functioning to be? Is this an important area of my overall functioning? Do understand how I can improve my functioning?

(It’s beyond this post, but I encourage you to read about SMART goals and leading indicators. These concepts are very useful when setting goals.)

Self-ish functioning is the only functioning

A direct idea from systems thinking is that I can only change the part I play in my systems. I can only work on my functioning. If I change my functioning the system can change, but that is NOT the point. It is very important to remember to NOT work my functioning so somebody else changes. People don’t change unless they want to or decide, for themselves, to change. I can’t fool the system by pretending to change myself while trying to manipulate the system.

So the focus is on SELF. My resolution is to change MY functioning because I want to be different for ME. It’s self-ish. A good kind, an effective kind, of self-ish. When I work on myself, because I want to be a different me, I’m much more likely to stick with the effort it’s going to take to follow through on my resolution.

This is serious work

When I say serious, I really mean that one needs conviction. This is also an idea from systems thinking. If one is really working to be different, then the system will notice. Often the system will push back. One has to make choices about where to spend their time and efforts in order to affect change in themself. The system may challenge this. If I don’t have conviction, if I’m not serious, about what how I want to change, then I’ll give up. With resolutions, less is more, but it has to be a “determined” less. One resolution that you really have conviction for gives you the best chance for success. You can always add more later!

Resolutions are a way of defining self in an area that one wants to improve in. Defining self is something to do all the time, but January is better than never! 🙂

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Watch this video on Bowen Theory in Everyday Life