The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Anxiety Bound

Authored by Kelly Matthews-Pluta, L.C.S.W.

Anxiety appears in our lives in many forms.  Humans have been creative in using anxiety to get things done.  Nervous energy can motivate us to act and accomplish much.  There can be relief in the doing.  There is little to worry about if we are a bit anxious about hosting a family holiday and cleaning the house or apartment makes us feel better.  However, sometimes the things we do when we are anxious create more challenges for us.

Bowen Theory is unique in providing a way to think about how we sooth ourselves.  In fact, just thinking about our anxiety in factual ways is one cornerstone of the theory.  This is a major point of difference between Bowen Theory and other ideas of human behavior.  It is true that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has a similar premise about the connection between thoughts and feelings.  While CBT sees the thought/feeling link as important, Bowen theory encourages the ongoing research of natural systems to continue to provide a deeper understanding of the link. In time, this has provided richer, more textured grasps of ways thought and feeling impact us.  Humans can think about their thoughts AND their emotions.  We can use both thinking and feeling combined to guide us.  So, what gets in the way of this seemingly perfect balance?  Anxiety run amuck.  Simply put, too much feeling, not enough thinking.  In their book, Family Evaluation, Drs. Kerr and Bowen used the term “binders” to describe the habits and behaviors we participate in when anxiety is high.  Binders can help us calm down and relax.  They are attempts on the mind’s part to resolve the internal imbalance anxiety can cause.  The many forms of anxiety need many types of binders.

“There are numerous manifestations of anxiety within an individual, each manifestation reflecting a specific way that anxiety has been ‘bound’.  Relationships are by far the most effective anxiety binder” (FE,119).  We find ourselves “unloading” our upset about a person in our lives with another person in our lives.  We are using a triangle to bind the anxiety in the first relationship.  There are many anxiety binders we use to ease our need for others and our reaction to them.

Some binders seem obvious, like exercise, a day off work or shopping online. We feel unease within self and effortlessly float into something that we know makes us feel better.   Many binders are sneaky, becoming default habits we do without any thought at all.  Exercise might be one of those, but so might drinking alcohol.  These two examples might seem distinctly separate and opposed to one another.  One is healthy and seen as a mainstay of wellness and longevity.  The other, while also common and popular, is often seen as a slippery slope that can easily develop into health and mental health problems.

If we remember that binders bind, hold or hem-in our racing anxiety, it is easier to see the root cause of binders as anxiety.  Therefore, drinking when you are anxious and going for a walk when you are anxious both result in less immediate anxiety.  Both work.  We can be confused by the seeming health benefits of one (exercise) and possible negative health outcomes of the other (alcohol).  However, when contemplated from a source standpoint, it is the anxiety that pushes the binder.  If the anxiety can be managed better, the binder has a looser grip on the individual.  This often results in free use of the binder.  One can choose to exercise or drink without forming a habit.

The ability to become aware of one’s binders requires one to look at anxiety within self.  The observation of anxiety is the key to beginning work on a binder that is causing distress or difficulty in one’s life.  Binders can be the canary in the mineshaft alerting us to the power and force of anxiety in our lives.

A client once told me his excessive nighttime drinking was “just for fun, I like being drunk”.  Whenever I mentioned possible anxiety in his life, he would state he wasn’t anxious.  Well, no I thought, the alcohol is taking care of the daily anxiety.  The difficulties were the effects the drinking was having on his relationships, long term.  The problems were:  his wife’s upset and over functioning at night, his injuries from falls while drunk, his elevated liver enzymes and loss of contact with his children, who would avoid him after 5 PM.  When I suggested alcohol was not the problem, I was met with blank stares from him and his wife.  They both saw alcohol as the only problem.

Slowly, with careful questions and curiosity we discussed the past and present stresses in their lives.  Ultimately, with lower stress and a deeper understanding of anxiety’s role and impact on their lives, the drinking lessened.  And the wife was able to see beyond the alcohol to the stress in her life.  The binder of drinking may always be there for him, as it is for millions of humans.  But, the way we see drinking can change: from THE problem to a symptom of a complex response system.

Anxiety will always be part of human life.  It may be wise to keep in mind the usefulness of anxiety and its ability to motivate us.  Becoming aware of our binders is one helpful way to track our anxiety.  How we see anxiety and respond to it can make all the difference.  Can we be aware enough the next time we are compelled to “do our thing” that we might be responding to anxiety?


Kerr, M.E. and Bowen, M.: Family Evaluation. W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 1988

Kelly Matthews-Pluta




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