Maintaining Mental Health and Well-Being: A Bowen Theory Perspective

By Thomas G. Beley, PhD, LCSW
September 2023

We hear a lot about the importance of mental health. However, what exactly is mental health? Often times, by default, mental health and well-being has been referred to as the absence of a mental illness. To complicate the situation further, the literature is inundated with how to treat various “mental disorders” as well as how to reduce the specific symptoms a person may be experiencing. Unfortunately, our society has become overly preoccupied with treatment focusing on the reduction of a person’s symptoms as an indicator of a “mentally healthy” person. Although treatment and symptom reduction are important facets of a person’s “mental health,” neither treatment nor symptom reduction guarantees a sense of well-being.

In examining the various disorders as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) and the plethora of research conducted on how to treat these disorders, there appears to be a common thread that exists between all of these disorders and conditions. The common thread is the systemic relationship exiting between the stress that may be presenting in a person’s life; the biological or neurochemical make-up of a person; and the actual coping skills that a person posses as a way of dealing with everyday life. From a systems perspective, it can be argued that all three of these processes have the ability to impact the other for the better or for the worse.

It is my contention that viewing these inter-related processes can shed more light on how a person functions in maintaining a sense of well-being. Particular emphasis will be placed on how Bowen theory, developed by Murray Bowen, plays an important role in better understanding the systemic relationship of these three processes.

Bowen theory contends that a person is part of an emotional system and this emotional system is rooted in nature. This emotional system is comprised of natural forces that exist within all relationship systems and it is the relationship system that influences the reactivity and functioning of a given organism. Bowen believed that a person’s behavior, functioning, and, ultimately, well-being was a product of how a person is influenced and negotiates the processes that exist within the emotional system. Given the assumption the emotional system is rooted in nature, it will be important to take into consideration the systemic relationship of stress, biology, and the adaptive (coping) response of a person.

Hans Selye, the father of the stress response, defined stress as “any change.” So the fact of the matter is stress is a constant in one’s life. All too often, people equate stress with having problems. Although problems can certainly increase stress in a person’s life, the recognition of stress as being a natural occurring phenomena that impacts all living organisms is not always taken into consideration or, for that matter, a part of a person’s conscious awareness. In most instances, our bodies are able to handle this stress much of which is attributed to a person’s “threshold” to stress. Selye attributed this “threshold” to the balanced biology occurring within a person’s mind and body as well as the adaptive coping mechanisms developed by that person. However, it should be noted a person’s “threshold” varies considerably from one person to the next. Once this “threshold” is exceeded the person is prone to biological shifts with in the body such as the “fight or flight response” as well as developing maladaptive coping mechanisms.

Although Murray Bowen didn’t directly address the concept of the stress response per se in the development of his theory, Bowen did recognize the natural occurrence of anxiety and stress within the relationship system of a person. Bowen contended that a two-person relationship was inherently unstable. Bowen saw stress and anxiety as natural occurring phenomena that existed within all relationships and was a part of nature. He further contended the forces of individuality and togetherness that were constantly in a state of flux, the need to be differentiated and distinct and the need for closeness and togetherness, influenced stress and anxiety with the relationship system.. The balance of these forces is what mitigates the stress and anxiety experienced by a person. Bowen identified these processes, as being a part of an emotional system that he believed was a part of nature. Bowen believed these were natural occurring processes that occurred within a person’s relationship system, particularly that of a person’s family system, that influenced the functioning of a person. Bowen also believed the existing emotional system within the relationship system was also influenced by the anxiety that existed in the emotional systems of community, culture, and society at large.

Neuroscience continues to shed more light on the relationship of stress and its impact on a person’s biological make-up. Research has clearly established the relationship between stress and the activation of certain biological responses such as the hypothalamic-pituatary-adrenal processes when a person is under stress. Under stress, the body releases a whole host of stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine to get the body prepared to with the stressors of everyday living.

Research has also demonstrated the impact of stress on the immune system and its ability to meet the challenges of regulating pathological processes. Stress raises your cortisol levels, which have been implicated in the weakening of one’s immune system if prolonged over significant periods of time. Stress can also damage your body's own cells and even trigger responses from your immune system, including elevating inflammation, which can make you more susceptible to further pathological processes.

Other studies have focused on certain neurotransmitters of “well being” such as serotonin, GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid), dopamine, oxytocin and others to suggest the necessity of these neurotransmitters for a person to function at an optimal level.

Bowen recognized the importance of a person’s biological make-up that he believed was, in part, a product of a multigenerational transmission process passed down from previous generations. Although he believed a person could be prone to certain disorders due to genetics, he also believed that it was the chronic anxiety existing within the emotional system and how that person was addressing that anxiety that made a difference whether a pathological process was triggered. Research in the field of epigenetics has demonstrated clearly the genetic make-up of a person doesn’t necessarily mean a disease process will be initiated.

Bowen also believed there was little difference between physical and emotional disorders. He believed an onset of symptomatic behavior or a “disorder” was an organism’s attempt for the existing emotional system to maintain stability from the stress and chronic anxiety being experienced within the emotional system. In other words, a person’s biological make-up, whether in the mind or the body, was in effect being impacted. The contention is on-going stress and chronic anxiety existing within the emotional system of a person’s relationship system is what triggers symptomatic behaviors.


Coping with everyday life situations is another area, which is an important process in a person’s ability to achieve a sense of well-being. A person needs to feel a sense of satisfaction about how they handle given situations that confront them whether if it is with themselves or with others. However, in order to do this effectively, a person needs to have a repertoire of coping mechanisms to choose from. All too often, a person doesn’t develop or change the necessary coping skills needed to deal with life situations.

Why is it difficult for a person to change? Bowen theory contends that a person’s behavior is a part of the emotional processes that exist within that person’s relationship systems both internally and externally. Attempts at change are often met with resistance due to the anxiety and stress that occurs in someone taking a differentiated stance. Bowen theory contends that emotional reactivity to certain processes is more the standard than the exception. Change can often be seen as a potential danger or a threat where a person’s instinctual processes take over. A person is reacting to a situation rather than thoughtfully acting in the situation. The differentiation of self is one of the cornerstone concepts of Bowen theory.

Differentiation of self refers to a person’s ability to adhere to an established belief system that is governed by thoughtful decisions and careful assessment of the existing facts without becoming overly influenced by the existing anxiety, stress, or emotionality that may be occurring within the person’s emotional system. A differentiated person recognizes their realistic dependence on others but is able to stay calm in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection. Differentiation can range from very low, where decisions are based on the emotionality and the strong need not to upset the status quo to very high where decisions are influenced by thoughtfulness and principled beliefs that recognizes the importance of both individuality and togetherness.

The important part of coping is that both coping mechanisms and skills need to be constantly reviewed and refined by a person. There is no guarantee that a particular coping skill or mechanism is going to work in all situations. As a person begins to adapt to the various complexities of life, the greater the need for a more complete range of coping skills to maintain that sense of well-being.

Bowen Theory and the Inter-relationship of Stress, Biology, and Coping

In considering the processes of stress, biology, and coping on a person’s mental health and well-being, it is imperative to reiterate the existing inter-relationship between these processes. All three of these processes are constantly impacting one’s functioning and a person cannot focus on one of these areas without taking into consideration the ramifications it will have on the other areas. There is a cyclical force that each area has on the other areas. For instance, if a person is experiencing an inordinate amount of stress, whether it is “good stress” or “bad stress,” the neurochemistry or biology of the brain and body is going to be impacted. If the neurochemistry of the brain and body is affected, there is a greater likelihood that this imbalance is going to affect neurotransmission that can result in symptomatic behaviors such as panic, anxiety, depression, or a weakened immune system. As a result of the symptomatic behavior the person may be experiencing, the person’s coping mechanisms and problem solving abilities are probably going to be compromised at least to some degree. If the person is unable to cope with a given situation in an effective manner, there is the potential of the stress level increasing again. As a result, there is a cyclical relationship that continues, not too different than what Bowen refers to as the emotional system.

It is safe to say that one’s mental health and sense of well-being is not a given in anyone’s life. Just because a person has a positive outlook on life, doesn’t mean that their biological make-up couldn’t play a factor in that person’s level of functioning. Or, the person who has savvy coping skills in dealing with incredible amounts of stress, doesn’t mean that the accumulative effects of those stressors will not take a biological toll on that person via heart disease, cancer, or an emotional disorder.

Maintaining mental health and well-being needs to be worked at on an on-going basis, not too different than an athlete needs to train to maintain peak performance. In the arena of mental health and well-being, a person needs to monitor and train how they are performing in the areas of stress reduction, biology, and the development of more effective and positive coping skills. A question that a person needs to ask him or herself is what is it they are doing to ensure the balance of these three key processes of their life.

The adage of “nothing changes if nothing changes” is a misnomer. We are either progressing as emotional beings or we are regressing as emotional beings. Bowen theory affords a person the opportunity to gain more clarity in understanding how one’s being and functioning is part of an ever-evolving emotional process that exists in nature. Understanding that a person exists within an emotional system which incorporates the processes of stress, biology, and coping allows a person to examine how they may want to function within that emotional system. It is a person’s awareness of self within these emotional processes that allows a person to establish a course of thoughtful action which ultimately leads to a sense of well-being.

This writing is an abbreviated version of an article previously written.