perception of social threats activate social genonmic networks

Perceptions Matter

By Anxiety, emotional system

Perceptions matter – just ask your genes!

A newer field of study in biology is called social genomics. It is the study of how and when different genes are activated based on social interactions. On one level, it is very obvious that relationships affect our physiology. We can get anxious if someone is angry with us, which would show up as an increase in cortisol in our blood. But the study of social genomics goes much, much further and looks at all the genes that get activated. This provides clear evidence for a physiological mechanism of how lower levels of differentiation can negatively impact health. The same mechanism provides for how higher levels of differentiation can promote health and mitigate the effects of stress.

How does Social Genomics work?

Our DNA, our genes, are used for making proteins. We use proteins in chemical processes throughout the body. The process starts with the body making a copy of or transcribing a piece of DNA, and this copy is called RNA. When a gene is “expressed,” the body produces RNA molecules that are a copy of the section of DNA. Each bit of RNA is specific to the DNA or gene it is “expressed” from. Biologists can do analysis to determine which of these RNA molecules are around, and that tells them what genes are being transcribed. (The collection of RNA molecules is called the transcriptome).

So you take a group of individuals and expose them to a social threat, and then you measure all the bits of RNA that get produced. This tells you all the genes that just got activated, or more activated, by the social threat. The results are both amazing and important.

What has Social Genomics found?

This area of research has found two important and broad findings. They are how our inflammation and antiviral systems get turned up and down in response to social interactions, i.e. in relationships. These two systems are evolutionarily important. They are part of our natural defence against a) wounds and bacterial infections and b) viral inflections. Our inflammation system gets activated to promote healing and anti-bacterial defence. For example, when our ancestors were out hunting or fighting and got wounded. Our antiviral system, our immune system, is used to protect us from viruses, which often get transmitted from human to human. For example, in the winter, while in close quarters with our group (and not out hunting as much).

Fast forward to today, and your partner is angry with you. Your body believes this to be a physical threat – you could be wounded (not infected). So it cranks UP the inflammation response system and cranks DOWN the immune response. It turns one up and the other down to conserve bodily resources.

What’s wrong with a bit of inflammation if it helps us?

Inflammation responses and immune responses are “point in time” defence mechanisms. Like fire departments and hospitals, they are very useful when you need them, but you better not need them a lot. You definitely don’t want a fire truck parked outside your house all year! Yet repeated exposure to social threats activates the inflammation system, weakens the immune response, and keeps them chronically like this. This is not good. A house that has repeated fires is not a healthy house.

What is a social threat? It is what you think it is.

Social threats are things like conflicts (arguments), social rejection, social isolation, and loneliness. But it also includes one’s physical environment overall and not just family. For example, if one lives in a dangerous area and is always more vigilant when going out, these systems activate. In fact, just thinking that one is threatened can activate these processes. Analyzing one’s “transcriptome” would tell you if you were “walking on eggshells.” In fact, one doesn’t even have to have the subjective feeling of walking on eggshells, yet the body will react as if it was. The body knows.

Good emotional connections matter

What these social genomic studies have found is that we can do things to minimize the effects of social threats. First, all the things that help combat stress, like sleep, mindfulness, yoga, and exercise, are helpful. But healthy relationships are critical, as these can be the original source of the impact. Any relationship that *regularly* creates tension is not a healthy relationship. No relationships are not healthy, either. Studies have shown that isolation during COVID-19 had negative effects on immune system functioning, for example.

Thus, working on having even a few good emotional connections can counteract the negative effects of social threats. So the ideal goal is to minimize difficult relationships and maximize positive relationships. A measure of a healthy relationship is how much you can discuss meaningful topics with little worry about what the other person might think.

Defining self also matters

There is another very useful antidote to the negative effects of relationships that tie directly to defining self. Researchers have shown that individuals who derive happiness and satisfaction from meaningful, purposeful activities have much healthier systems than those who just pursue fun and pleasure. The effects of eudiamonic happiness (purpose) versus hedonic happiness (pleasure) are profound. So getting clear – defining self more – about what one believes in and has a conviction for and being able to lead a purposeful, meaningful life is very important. This is also the foundation for defining self more in relationships.

We evolved to be in relationships. We evolved to have positive and meaningful social connections, as it was key to our survival. This is why even perceived threats to our social world activate these systems. These systems provide a linkage between healthy relationship systems and healthy individuals. And vice versa. How you think about your relationships makes a difference.

Maybe, in the future, your counsellor will ask about your family diagram and your transcriptome.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Watch this thirty-minute video on social genomics here.

This article summarizes this excellent review of social genomics and is here.

Great decisions

3 Steps to Great Decisions

By Anxiety

Great decision-making always involves emotional processes and some level of value judgement.

After all, decision-making is about choosing, and what we choose is based on subjective values of what’s better or worse for the situation. Decisions are binary (A or B) because our brains basically have circuits firing for either choice, and the circuit that fires more wins. So you ask, what impacts the firing of these circuits so I can make a good decision? It involves the three steps in making great decisions.

Step 1 – Choose your inputs. Get all the facts.

A decision can only be as good as the information it’s based on. Seem obvious, right? Let’s say you are trying to decide where to go for dinner. What kinds of inputs are there? First, do you want to go out at all? Then there are things like what time, what type of food, what places are available, how much to spend, and how to get there. Most individuals do not have a full set of factual information when deciding. Our brains give priority to recent and common ‘facts,’ and we aren’t aware that this is happening. But we think we have enough facts. This is like your common set of favourite places to eat, instead of every place within thirty minutes. This fact-limiting approach is often because of the second rule.

Step 2 – Watch your assumptions.

Even with our simple example, we make assumptions. Our emotional state influences the assumptions we make. For example, how hungry is everyone? Are you or others working to please someone or impress someone? Our emotions influence the assumptions we make about availability, service, quality of food, cost, and getting there and back. What complicates this is that each person is sensing and making assumptions about the emotions of others in real time. How much one person prefers a type of food, is worried about cost, or “imagines” how nice it would be at a certain place. Nobody wants to seem pushy, so everyone defers to everyone else, and the group can’t decide! Emotions influence the significance of different facts such that some facts override other facts. The cost will often override quality. Avoiding disagreement and wanting to please will override one’s preferred choice. Each person involved makes assumptions about their facts and what others think. The key is to be aware of the assumptions being made. Ideally, one reviews and validates any assumptions. This is part of getting the facts.

Step 3 – Trust people you trust.

Let’s say a friend told you to avoid Sloppy Pete’s Pizza. But you LOVE pizza, and it’s close by and not expensive. And you are hungry!  What might happen? You “discount” the advice of your friend. And you might not even bother to check out what other pizza places are available. Your friend is actually very reliable. They have given you good advice before. But you decide not to “trust” their advice and go with your gut feeling. The “let’s get pizza now” circuit was firing stronger than the “find another place” circuit, so you ordered the pizza. 

After waiting over an hour, paying extra for the delivery, and eating cold pizza with cheap crust and skippy toppings, you feel pretty unsatisfied. How did this happen? Simple, your emotional, subjective thinking circuits fired stronger than your objective, rational thinking circuits. You did not make a great decision!

Subjectivity is part of decision-making.

While decision-making is a complex biological process, it is not a purely cognitive one. Deciding the answer for two plus two or if one cookie is bigger than another are cognitive decisions. Is the bigger cookie better is a subjective choice and depends on an individual’s values and objectives. The stories or opinions you have about cookies, which are subjective, will influence your decision. Deciding which cookie to eat is subjective. Deciding to eat it now or later is subjective. The subjectivity is valid. When deciding, the challenge is to be aware of one’s subjective, feeling-based thinking.

Level of differentiation and great decisions.

One aspect of differentiation is the ability to recognize subjective feeling-based thinking versus objective, rational thinking. Feelings are useful information. Feeling hungry is useful, but that shouldn’t be the sole factor in deciding when, what, and how much to eat. Feeling anxious about food that has made you sick in the past is valid but shouldn’t automatically drive your decision-making. The point is to recognize the feeling but be objective about it. For example, it might be a fact that some food upset you in the past, but it’s an assumption that this will happen again. The goal is to recognize the fact and the assumption so one can validate the assumption. Don’t just assume and don’t just discount feelings.

Comfort is not the basis of a great decision.

Our anxiety (I’m nervous about this) can often interfere with decision-making. We can want to choose the “comfortable” option versus the “better” option. Putting off medical tests or deciding what to eat or when to exercise can be like this. Even trying something new versus what’s familiar. Making choices for your children can REALLY be like this. A child asks – “can I stay out until 11 pm? I’ll take the bus home?” The parent (anxiety rising) replies: “I don’t think that’s a good idea, no.” Now the parent feels better. But they have conveyed a lack of confidence and level of “the world is scary” to their child. The parent isn’t really aware of the assumptions they are making, it’s just the discomfort they are reacting to. The parent could have gotten more facts: where will you be, who will you be with, what’s the bus situation like, how about 10:30 instead. They could have also said, “Well, this gets me nervous, so let’s talk about it so aren’t making any assumptions.” This example could have also been, “Yes, go ahead” because the parent didn’t want to experience the discomfort of a big argument.

Better decision-making is possible.

Differentiated thinking would recognize that not getting facts, not recognizing assumptions, wishful thinking, not trusting advice, and not recognizing anxiety can all lead to poor decisions with poor outcomes. Differentiated thinking understands that feelings aren’t bad but that subjective thinking is not fact-based rational thinking. Decisions based on feeling comfortable aren’t wrong but should be very conscious choices. That comfortable “feeling” will be based on assumptions that could be inaccurate. The key is being thoughtful and aware of subjective versus object thinking and how it’s influencing your decision-making process.

Years ago decided to work on differentiation and being more thoughtful. I gathered facts about the concept, I discussed and thought about my assumptions. I listened to others that I considered advisors. Maybe that’s why it’s been a great decision!

Now it’s your turn to think about how you can be more thoughtful in making great decisions.

Dave Galloway

This post was inspired by the following article:

Listen to Dr. Papero on Anxiety and Decision Making: Anxiety and Decisions.

Can defining self overcome languishing?

By Anxiety, Define self

Can defining self help with languishing?

What is languishing and how could defining self help overcome it? A 2021 New York Times article discussed the concept of languishing and suggested that it could be the dominant emotion of 2021. If Bowen Theory is accurate and if languishing is real, then understanding how systems thinking and defining self apply to languishing should be useful.

What is languishing?

Languishing differs from burnout or depression. It can be a feeling of being stuck and unmotivated. A kind of “there’s no point right now” versus “there’s no point at all, ever”. One has goals but can’t seem to get enough motivation to work on them. Languishing comes from having to deal with chronic stressors versus acute stressors. Early in the pandemic, there was heightened anxiety. But there were specific things to watch for and actions one could take to increase one’s safety. As we learned more about COVID-19, the understanding of what to monitor changed. And this has continued for two years. So there has been a changing and ongoing anxious vigilance without a logical end in sight. The drain of responding to this chronic stressor can lead to languishing. Energy is down, motivation is down, focus is down, and a sense of delight is down.

Languishing: low-grade discomfort seeks low-grade comfort.

Low levels of discomfort and motivation can lead to low-grade soothing behaviour. “Doom scrolling”, binge-watching TV, more drinking, and eating more comfort food are soothing behaviours. One important soother of anxiety is social interaction, but during the pandemic that’s been reduced, increasing the need for other soothing behaviours. In addition, the inability to get out has put more pressure on couples and families. Overall, there is a greater pressure to go along in order to prevent conflict and tension at home. There’s the pressure to behave in specific ways to combat the risk of getting and spreading the virus. All this can result in a lot of “giving up of self” in order to avoid the discomfort of the anxiety about getting sick or disapproval from others.

Defining self can help against languishing.

Defining self is getting clear about what one is willing to do and not willing to do in order to be a responsible individual. It shifts one’s focus and energy to self-directed goals and behaviours. It is the thinking that asks “how does this relationship work for me” versus “I need this relationship, what must I give to it”. During the pandemic, there have been more other focus and other-directed goals. Individuals have adapted whether or not they wanted to. This is because of anxiety from real and perceived threats. Individuals tried short-term, anxiety-reducing goals, like soda bread baking, but these don’t work after a while. This is because these were actually other-directed and or soothing type goals versus meaningful self-directed goals. Lowering anxiety is good, but it is not defining self. Systems thinking and defining self provides an individual with a different way to think about stressors.

Defining self understands this is what is.

It asks what do you want to do?

We have a bit of joke phrase in our house that is: “Whhaaat… do yyoooouuu want to do”. Meaning, that just decide and ask for what you want already!

Systems thinking suggests that languishing results from not managing chronic anxiousness and not being self-directed. Languishing is one outcome of a loss of self to others, combined with a chronic level of anxiety. So the antidote to this is to a) not lose self and b) work on managing anxiety. Losing self and defining self occurs in relationships. Managing anxiety is an individual effort, but is often related to relationships and stressors.

Manage Anxiety, Work on Goals, Connect with family

Anxiety affects how objectively one thinks about any situation. Thus, managing one’s anxiety is a great first step. Sleep, exercise and a balanced diet are the base to build on. Junk food and staying up late binge-watching are not! Setting goals for yourself that are important to you, no matter how small, is important. Do something that you want to do. This includes your goals for managing anxiety, which could include sleep hygiene, more exercise, meditation, and changes in diet.

Family members can be a great resource. Social interaction can be a great antidote to anxiety. More brains can help one think more clearly about an issue. How are other family members, parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, and cousins doing? What are they doing to not let the pandemic sidetrack their whole life? An open conversation about this can be very helpful. Any person who you can have meaningful conversations with is an important resource – use them.

Languishing doesn’t happen overnight. Defining self takes time.

Start with smaller, very achievable goals and some level of increased contact with family and friends. Something that you have some level of motivation to achieve. At the same time, work to say no to the things you feel pressured to go along with, but that you really don’t want to. Talk to friends and family about what might work for them. For example, there may be pressure to “get back to normal” and you might not be ready yet because of considerations for your health. Work to stick to what you believe is best for you. Goals for well-being are always good to have, but they should work for you and your situation. These shifts can take time. Consistency is very important – small achievements, consistently over time, really add up.

Thinking systems and defining self to overcome languishing

A systems understanding of languishing provides a way to think about both avoiding it and overcoming it. A systems perspective would say that a chronic state of anxiety, loss of self, and blocking of goal-directed behaviour will lead to languishing in any area. Personal relationships and work can be a source of languishing anytime. It doesn’t need a pandemic. A systems perspective would also say that managing anxiety, defining self better and having the conviction to pursue self-directed goals are how to mitigate languishing. It’s not always easy, but these kinds of shifts change the trajectory from negative to positive and over time, that makes all the difference.

(Please seek professional help if you feel you are suffering from languishing or depression. It is not the intention to provide medical advice with this post.)

Dave Galloway

You can find the New York Times article here:

A search on the term languishing will provide other resources.

You can find a video on defining self here:

Read more about differentiation here:

Don’t miss any posts. 

What 3 + 8

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.