Managing Stress: A Bowenian Perspective

Managing Stress: A Bowenian Perspective

In the last several months, the world has been touched by coronavirus.

It has quickly evolved into a global pandemic.

This unexpected force has relentlessly disrupted the flow of commerce, changed the shape of education, revealed the inadequacies of our healthcare system, exposed the limits of politics and legislation, and is even reshaping the concepts of church and worship.

The level of stress and anxiety that has descended upon individuals, systems, and institutions in this moment is unprecedented in our time.

We are being pushed to grapple with the limits of our ways of living and deal with ourselves more truthfully.

These social transitions have left most of us stressed, anxious, and uncertain about our lives and the future.

Things are indeed rapidly changing, but all is not lost.


I believe that Bowen Family Systems Theory points a way forward out of the stress and into a calmer and more controlled space, now and in the days ahead.

The theory is fundamentally about human behavior and the instinctual (emotional) forces that drive it within family systems, across generations, and throughout society.

The theory invites us to be more attentive to these emotional processes and manage ourselves with more differentiation of self (maturity).

This perspective helps us to retain more choice between being reactive or taking thoughtful action in moments of high stress and anxiety.

This task becomes extra challenging during times of increased individual and communal tension and uncertainty. Now represents such a time.

Below are a few ideas from Bowen Theory to help us manage our stress (anxiety) during these unusual times and beyond:


Get More Objective

Under stress, we tend to narrow our focus and get fixated on a limited perspective and lose sight of the bigger picture of our circumstances.

This posture often intensifies our stress.

Getting more objective is about moving away from cause-and-effect thinking and moving into systems thinking.

The first perspective seeks a sole explanation and cause for experiences of stress and behavior.

The second perspective seeks to account for the range of multiple and mutual influencing factors on a given situation.

This shift in perspective typically opens the way for us to see our stress and anxiety in a broader perspective.

It usually helps us to understand that everything that is happening to us is not about us.

Rather, it is occurring in a broader relational and systemic context.

When we act out of this understanding, it leads to less blaming, complaining, and projecting.

Getting more objective encourages us to see our lives and stresses in the wider context of the human family.


Thoughtfully Plan a Next Step(s)

In times of stress and uncertainty, we usually act more out of our emotions rather than our intellect.

This response frequently leaves us with the impression that we have limited options to respond to our circumstances.

And the experience of limitation often adds to our stress and frustration.

This is often a very uncomfortable situation.

However, we always retain the capacity to be thoughtful about our next best step(s) out of stressful situations.

Simply, we are never without choice because we possess an intellect that can formulate plans.

When thinking of our next step, it is better when our plans are executed from well-thought out beliefs and principles, rather than reactivity in moments of stress.

It boils down to this: how do I want to thoughtfully respond to my current circumstances?


Resist the Impulse to Over/Under Function

Stress and anxiety often make us uncomfortable.

The discomfort of anxiety usually pushes us to find ways to get comfortable in uncomfortable situations.

This impulse often leads to a good deal of reactivity.

This reactivity commonly leads us to over / under function in our lives and relationships.

In the first instance, we get highly reactive and often do things for others that they can do for themselves.

In the second instance, we often ask others to do things for us that we can do for ourselves.

Taking more responsibility for relieving our own stress, and allowing others to do the same, frequently leads to more peace, calm, and control.


Make of Yourself a Project

Finally, it is in peak moments of stress and anxiety that our maturity or immaturity is most revealed.

Undifferentiation (immaturity) often hinders the development of the individual, family and social systems.

Immaturity is simply defined as behavior more appropriate to someone younger.

Often under stress, and the demand to adjust to changed circumstances, our fundamental or base level of maturity (differentiation) is revealed.

It can no longer be contained. The pseudo self is revealed for the immaturity that it is.

In its rawest form, immaturity (undifferentiation) often stops us from asking for help and support.

However, understood in its proper context, stress provides an opportunity to “grow up” and be more responsible for our lives, both in thought and action.


Perhaps, maybe this is the moment when we all make a mature decision: reach out to someone and talk about and work through our stresses and anxieties in these unusual times.

As Bowen teaches, we are truly all in this together.

Michael Lee Cook is a licensed marriage and family therapist whose special interest is Bowen Family Systems Theory and its extensions and applications to individuals, families, and organizations. He is the proprietor of Micah Counseling Services offering counseling, coaching, and consulting. He is also a clinical fellow and approved supervisor of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy

(AAMFT). Dr. Cook has written an array of articles and conducts workshops that deal with applying Bowen Theory to individuals, organizations, and society at large.

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