What is chronic anxiety

By Anxiety, Define self

Chronic Anxiety: something for everyone.

Chronic anxiety is the outcome of the emotional programming that occurs for everyone, mostly from their family of origin. Learning how to be and what to pay attention to early in life programs our type and level of vigilance. Like a shadow, it’s always there. For example, there is a large body of research that supports the finding that early childhood adversity affects the programming of the stress response system. To put it another way, our family programmed our level of sensitivity into our physiology. And they taught us what to be sensitive to.

What’s in your programming? 

Another aspect of programming results in learning how to feel, think, and act in relationships. We learn what achieves the highest level of comfort or the lowest level of discomfort. In addition, the more important the relationship is, and the more sensitive one is, the more this occurs. How to get attention and approval, how to stay out of trouble, and how to avoid punishment are examples of this vigilance. This occurs at a very young age and it “wires” the nervous system with habitual automatic ways of feeling, thinking, and acting. For example, at five, I remember feeling good because I “made” some older boys happy. I traded my smaller dimes for “bigger” nickels. Bigger is better, right?  

The result was my orientation to “please others” and “make peace” became habitual and normal. As I got older, I started working on myself. I came to recognize a level of vigilance towards others that was oriented to “what does other want.” Thus, I had a chronic level of low-level anxiousness. I think of it as vigilance towards pleasing others. It felt normal.

Covid programming and chronic anxiety.

I believe we can see an example of this process with one’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. What we have learned, combined with our level of sensitivity, has created a level of anxious vigilance about Covid-19? For example, our default behaviours change: maintaining the right distance from others, automatically putting on a mask, paying more attention to how we are feeling for example. Your “family” including peers has taught you how to be with Covid-19 and in relationships regarding Covid-19. The anxiousness in one family member can and had infected the other family members. Entire family members behave according to the most vulnerable member (for good reason in my opinion). Overall, there is a range of responses based on the average level of anxiousness in the group.

Dr. Kerr writes about this (see reference) as learning “ranging from the seemingly osmotic absorption of parental anxieties to the incorporation of subjectively determined attitudes that create anxiety” (p.115). Children do their very best to adapt and cope with the environment that they are raised in. As an adult, these coping mechanisms, the emotional programming, may not be as adaptive. The result is that the constant vigilance of how to be in a relationship creates its own chronic anxiety. 

Kerr also wrote: “So while moderately differentiated people can have a relationship in calm balance, their sensitivity to words and actions that appear to threaten that balance results, over time, in the relationship’s spawning an average level of chronic anxiety that is higher than that of a better differentiated relationship” (p. 76).

Defining Self to reduce chronic anxiety.

If not addressed, chronic anxiety can strain the relationship creating more tension. However, chronic anxiety originates from learned processes, which can be unlearned. Individuals are sensitive to the “state” of their relationships. This means we have a strong sense of knowing when there is a lack of agreement or approval, or some level of expectation or distress, especially in important relationships. It is our reactivity to the state of the relationship, because of our “learning”, level of vigilance, and level of resulting chronic anxiety, that is the challenge (p. 113). 

Learning to change our response.

The chronic nature of chronic anxiety makes it more of a process about how one responds to imagined threats to the relationship. The eldest child may have learned to be over-responsible for others. They learned that adhering to rules, “being good”, not asking for much, and getting others to do the same was the way to get positive attention and approval. This turns into over-functioning in relationships. Importantly, the constant vigilance towards others puts a strain on any relationship. But if the eldest child can begin to focus on how they want to be and let their partner be responsible for themselves, they can unlearn the orientation and behaviour that leads to chronic anxiety. 

Learning takes time and effort.

The processes involved with chronic anxiety are hard-wired habitual behaviours. And like other habitual behaviour changes, changing them takes time and effort. Significantly, the changes involve defining self, and this is the path to reducing chronic anxiety. Given the benefits of doing this makes me believe that the effort is worthwhile. What do you think?

Dave Galloway 


The phrase “chronic anxiety” only occurs four times in Dr. Bowen’s book. Dr. Kerr has a chapter on chronic anxiety in his book Family Evaluation.  His chapter 5 was the reference for this post.   Find out more here.

Watch a video with Dr. Kerr on Chronic Anxiety here.

Our emotional inflammatory system

By Uncategorized

Do we have an emotional inflammatory system?

Did evolution create emotional inflammation systems by leveraging our physical inflammation system? Evolution designed our inflammatory system to help the body defend our physical self and not lose this “self” to our environment. What might be parallels for our emotional or psychological self? A recent review in Science provides some interesting ideas. Is being reactive our emotional immune system’s response to defend self? Try not to get too inflamed by my line of thinking in this post; stay curious.

Like inflammation, emotional reactivity is both a process and a state. The process is one of activating defence mechanisms. The defence responses of the inflammation system go from imperceptible processes involved in maintaining homeostasis to the painful, swollen, red, inflamed areas around a wound. Most people understand inflammation and reactivity as this more visible acute level response. I find it interesting that we will use inflamed to describe an extreme emotional state. (The written English origin of this usage goes back to the 1400s in Europe).

Reactivity and homeostasis

Inflammation processes help keep the body in homeostasis. Think “maintaining the status quo” or our “resting state” as being in homeostasis. Anything that disturbs this homeostasis can induce an inflammatory response. Because of this, obesity, lack of sleep, illnesses, or getting old can promote inflammation because the homeostasis has been upset. Similarly, we have a “reaction” when our psychological homeostasis gets upset. Thus, a reaction signals that something has disturbed our psychological homeostasis (aka self). The reaction is part of the process of getting the self back to the status quo.

Reactivity can be adaptive

Reactivity is an adaptive process to help one maintain psychological homeostasis. But, like inflammation, which can become chronic, reactivity can become chronic. This happens when our psychological homeostasis gets perturbed often and doesn’t get back to “normal”. That someone is “always on edge” or is “walking on eggshells” indicates a chronic disruption to the normal relationship homeostasis.

Proactive reactivity

Our body’s inflammation response can be reactive or proactive. It’s reactive for things like a physical injury. But the body can recognize things that will cause damage (like bacteria) and respond to neutralize their impact. This requires a less intense response than the response to a full-blown bacterial infection or physical wound. The body holds on to self “prospectively by detecting characteristic activities associated with their damaging effects on the host” (See the reference below). This quote is not about your partner, but it sounds like it could be!

Preemptive defence processes, an outcome of evolution, work to maintain homeostasis and keep us healthy. These include behaviours (e.g., feeding) and physiological processes (e.g., blood sugar levels). A disturbance in these processes results in aspects of the inflammation response being used to correct the disturbance. For example, diabetes is a disturbance in a process that maintains blood sugar homeostasis and can lead to greater inflammation.

Self and the immune system

I summarize this as follows. When a disturbance in our homeostasis occurs, aspects of our inflammation response are used to restore our homeostasis. Too much disturbance of my homeostasis will cause a greater and longer-lasting inflammation response, which is unhealthy. This is how a short-term, adaptive, and useful response becomes unhealthy. In addition, a disturbance to the self’s homeostasis can promote reactivity. If this happens too often, for too long, it’s not healthy either. I believe that my threats perception and my reactive responses are from my emotional inflammatory system that has a corresponding inflammatory response as I work to get back to homeostasis. One more reason to learn how to regulate my reactivity!

Define Self, reduce inflammation

We are more biologically based (or influenced by feelings) than we understand. The Science article mentioned everything but the family as an influence on the inflammatory system. Yet from the perspective of evolution, the family was the single biggest influence on survival. It thinks our inflammatory system is one more piece of the puzzle to help us understand human functioning. Defining self is the emotional inflammatory system parallel to the inflammatory system defining what it will do and not do to keep your physical body healthy. In fact, the two support each other. So defining a self could help you maintain a lower level of inflammation and gain the corresponding benefits.


Dave Galloway

The inspiration for this post came from this Science article: The Spectrum of Inflammatory Responses.

You can find more information on Bowen Theory here.

For an excellent introduction to human social genomics, see this article: “Human Social Genomics“.

Better yet, check out this past conference: Chronic Illness in the Family.


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Emotions run deep

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Most people don’t appreciate how often emotions influence their thinking, decision-making, and behaviours. Two recent items have reinforced this idea for me. The first is research on social interactions among primates and bats (Science, 2021-10-24). A reviewer of the study asked, “What if embedding the brain in a group changed how it works?”

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