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Men Therapy Session

All "Systems" Go!

The Systemic Influence of the Anxiety Alarm on Our State of Mind

As a Family Therapist, I consider relationships to be key in the way we construct and are constructed by our experience in life. We all have relationships with our "selves" (we are the observer), with experience (our reality/world/environment), and with others (observers with whom we share our lives). Systems theory provides a wonderful method of viewing relationships between "parts and wholes". The centrality of relationships in systems theory can be extended to how we specifically handle anxiety with clients and within ourselves. 

Applied to psychotherapy, a complex system has three main characteristics: 

  1. Self-Organization
  2. Non-Linearity 
  3. Emergent and Recursive Properties

Self-organization can be thought of as being practically synonymous with "self-regulation" in the sense that both terms indicate a sense of control and direction from within. "Regulate" really means to control with a set of rules, and "organization" could be seen as the end toward which regulation is a means. Regulatory functions within a system could be seen (from a psychological perspective) to have the capacity to monitor and alter its own actions and trajectory. When an anxious state of mind is handled with skill, it might look something like: "I am noticing that my heart rate and breath are both really fast and short (monitoring). I am going to alter the way I see this situation to view it as merely a stressful moment rather than a catastrophic disaster in my life (alteration through reappraisal)."

The non-linear aspect of a complex system really point to the tendency of an interaction to result in a more far-reaching and cross-modal outcome than a simple cause-effect relationship. In other words, a small change necessarily creates many larger ripples of effect in relationships than expected. Speaking about the anxiety you are experiencing by saying, "Oh, I'm fine. I don't want to talk about it!" may be an easy way to handle the discomfort, but the impact of that anxiety may well exceed your notice. It is only after that anxious influence spills over into other (seemingly unrelated) parts of life that you might realize, "Wow, I am in rough shape! I feel like my life's falling apart..." And even then you may not recognize it. 

The impact of anxiety does not stop there, however. Because of a system's characteristic to have emergent and recursive properties, the state of an anxious mind can seem to come out of nowhere and repeat itself indefinitely with increasing severity. One's state of mind in any given moment is the result of both a conglomerated "snapshot" of all mental/physical occurrences and the self-promoting impact that those occurrences have on each other. In terms of anxiety, that means that the way the body and mind react against anxiety is sustained and perpetuated by the body and mind themselves. 

We experience anxiety, in part, because the complex system of the mind has a potential to becoming chaotic and it is open to outside influence. This means that we can go from feeling "put together" to "falling apart" at any time as a result of our interaction with ourselves, our environment, or our relationships. It seems implausible that anxiety always has one single source (remember non-linear causality!), so "fixing" the problem of anxiety might not mean simply stopping or getting away from whatever triggered it. In addition, the emergent and recursive properties of the mind ensure that when anxiety occurs, it "sticks". This elusiveness definitely contributes to the slippery and dominating role that anxiety can play in individuals' lives. 

Our bodies have developed quite a sophisticated set of methods to inform our minds about such times of increased anxiety, however. Reading and interpreting these methods may be difficult and may take training and practice, but applying what we know about psychological systems to the struggle against distressing anxiety can lead to greater success and habits of a healthy mind.  

In addition to becoming familiar with various biological layers of the "anxiety alarm system" such as the HPA axis, the influence of the vagal nerve, and other autonomic physical responses, therapists might do well to inform their clients (and themselves!) of some useful mental practices that can affect the body and brain. By taking advantage of the capacity of the mind to be a self-regulating complex system, individuals can engender some amazing changes in the body, brain, and relationships through the practice of some relatively simple mental alterations.

One such simple practice involves monitoring for the alarm. If we don't know it is happening, we can't do anything about it. Exploring the detailed ways that anxiety affects a person's body and mind is a great place to begin understanding the anxious response. Once it is studied, and even before any effort is made to change it, anxiety can become a familiar and less threatening part of life. Monitoring for anything takes a degree of focused attention, however, and attention can be seen as a skill to be strengthened through practice. Having been monitored through attention, anxiety has less power because it is more exposed: it can be seen coming.

Next come some methods of altering the response to fit the situation. If I feel anxiety entering into my experience when I suddenly realize I forgot about an appointment I have in 5 minutes, several things automatically happen to my body (heart rate and breathing changes, oxygenation level changes, muscle tension, increased skin conductance) that then affect my mental state (racing thoughts, negative rumination, catastrophizing, self-criticism, etc.). Recognizing that being late does not mean that I am a "bad person" or a "failure" can lead to a more skillful casting of the event in perspective. If I am discerning and notice this change as it happens, I can make a small mental change (cognitive reappraisal, simple exposure to the anxiety, relaxation breathing, challenging negative thoughts, etc.) that can have a non-linear and recursive effect on my mental-physical system.

Done once, and I may have a temporary success (first-order change). Done enough to constitute a systemic re-training (second-order change), I become a new person: I operate as a new system with newly-emergent rules for how I recursively self-regulate in the face of stress and anxiety. Changing the "rules" of how I respond to the anxiety alarm doesn't just bandage the injury, it heals the wound; and this new response pattern can self-proliferate throughout different life events as a habit of living skillfully.