A View of Bowen Theory from the 21st Century

Recent developments in research lend credence to Bowen theory’s linking of chronic anxiety and the development of symptoms. This thinking leads to ways to address chronic anxiety by understanding its generation in relationships and changing the behaviors it stimulates rather than just managing anxiety internally
  • After many decades of research, the pathways linking mind and body have been demonstrated to the point of overturning Descartes’ notion of mind-body dualism.
  • Conceptualizing mind and body as an interacting whole lends credibility to Bowen theory and its two main variables of degree of anxiety and degree of integration of self.
  • In theory, anxiety disturbs an individual organism’s homeostasis which triggers the stress response, in an effort to restore optimal balance.
  • An anxiety-driven chronic stress response increases the activity of a person’s physiological systems and activates a person’s particular vulnerabilities to clinical problems.
  • If a stress response is prolonged, it can result in organ and tissue damage that is associated with disease.
  • As the role of disturbances in human relationships gains acceptance as a major contributor to chronic anxiety, Bowen theory’s unique perspective on the specific details of how emotionally significant relationships generate chronic anxiety comes to the fore.
  • The theory explains how one family member can disproportionately absorb chronic anxiety generated in a family emotional system.
  • This response can restore family equilibrium but at the expense of impairing the emotional functioning of one member.
  • It can also drive a family system into an ever-deepening emotional regression with serious symptom consequences.

Bowen theory outlines approaches for reducing chronic anxiety

The impairments can manifest in physical illness, mental illness, or a behavioral disorder. Physical and mental symptoms in the impaired family member reflect the internalization of anxiety in contrast to behavioral symptoms that reflect externalization of the anxiety. The key variables involved are:

    1. basic level of differentiation
    2. chronic anxiety
    3. patterns of emotional functioning

Bowen theory outlines approaches for reducing chronic anxiety that go beyond conventional stress reduction techniques.  These approaches seek to modify the individuals thinking about and behaviors in the important relationship systems involved in increasing their stress rather than just managing the stress internally.

  • The concept of homeostasis, applying from the cellular to organism levels, has influenced medicine for more than a century.
  • Bowen theory has extended the concept of homeostasis to the family system.
  • Although a disturbance in bodily homeostasis in disease is gaining traction in medicine, acceptance is slowed by it being a radical shift away from the current cause-effect medical model, which views disturbances in the body as a response to a pathological process or cause somewhere in the body.
  • Bowen theory also incorporates factors in the larger culture and other social contexts that influence families and their responses.