I wish that I could give a quick definition of what anxiety is and how it impacts us but it truly is a complex piece of the mental health field. Anxiety is not just fear or worry, it’s our nervous system’s response to a perceived threat. Our emotions can’t distinguish an actual threat vs. a fictional one. According to the Bowen Family Systems Theory when that threat comes closer we have one of two choices. We can either react to it without much thought, or we can respond to it after we gather all of the data necessary to make sound, intellectual conclusions. The moment we react to threats without thought we’ve just entered into our Emotional Guidance System (EGS). When we think about the threat and then respond to it, we use our Intellectual Guidance System (IGS).
What does it look like to be in your EGS? An example: If you are overwhelmed by a particular issue, you may begin to avoid the issue altogether, which is actually likely to increase the intensity of that real or perceived threat. In your IGS you’re thinking about all of the factors concerning that issue and you’re reflecting on the facts, instead of the story that you can easily make up about a threatening circumstance.
I’d like to give an example of what this may look like. I want you to think about the person you’ve had a life-long relationship with. They’ve always been your soft place to land. You’ve trusted them your entire life and go to them without fail for validation, love, and nurturing.
One day you spend a typical evening with that person. You say your goodbyes, but because you were in a rush it didn’t cross your mind to give them your usual hug and kiss on the forehead. You instantly regret it, then remind yourself that there’s always tomorrow. The next day comes and you receive a phone call that your loved one is no longer here.
Instantly you go into your EGS because there’s no time to think, reflect or process. It’s pure reaction at this point. And remember reaction, or reactivity, can essentially be summed up as avoidance. So what do you do? You throw yourself into funeral arrangement planning. You call others who were affected to help them grieve while you remain confident in your ability to be the strong one. You may find yourself doing nothing at all, completely stuck and overwhelmed by not being able to pick up the phone and hear that voice anymore. You may even become conflictual and project your feelings of distress, grief, or intensity onto an unsuspecting party, perhaps that relative who tried to bring comedic relief too soon.
Using this specific example has pros and cons. This intense reaction is actually quite normal and even expected to operate within your EGS after the passing away of a dear loved one. How else would one be able to immediately function if they weren’t a bit avoidant of emotions that have the potential to completely disable their thinking. But the value of using this common application is now you may consider what may happen when the same person stays within their EGS for months or even years after the passing away of their loved one. In other words their nervous system was never given the notice that the “threat” is gone so they are constantly in a state of covert panic. What possible threat could exist within a situation as common as this? There could be many. Here are a list of a few that come to mind:
“I was too concerned with work in my last moments with him/her, there’s no way that they passed on knowing how much I cherished them,”
“No one else will be able to love, validate and nurture me the way that she/he did,” or
“If I give my heart to another, I’m bound to be left in this situation again because death is inescapable.”
These thoughts, or threats, are based in the narrow timeline of your loved one’s transition, instead of the broadened scope of their lifespan as well as yours. If the flooding emotions caused by the threats are not realized, processed, nurtured and validated it stalls your ability to transition into your IGS. What could conclusions curated from your IGS look like in a situation such as this?
“I spent an immeasurable amount of time with my loved one, filled with laughter, concern and care. Those moments carry more weight than a rushed exit ever could.”
“I will cherish and honor the love that I shared with him/her, and that love will remain an aspect of my life that is irreplaceable.”
“Giving my heart to another will always come with the risk of an untimely end, therefore I now have more motivation to make the best of every moment with any loved one.”
Once you’ve been able to make intellectual conclusions such as these, you’ll likely remain in your IGS until another threat comes along, giving you the choice again to either react or respond. The decision to respond does not ignore or void your emotions. Conversely, it harmoniously creates a safe place for those emotions, empowering you to stand more securely within your intellectual conclusions.
Tonea Smith, LPC