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Shifting from Harm to Harmony

Coronavirus & Conflict: When Anxiety Leads to Outbursts

For the past few weeks, and increasingly over the past few days, Mary Ellen* hasn’t been able to get much work done. She’s been irritable, edgy, and has a growing sense of panic. She can’t seem to focus — her mind is racing in ways that are uncomfortable. And the more she thinks about her lack of focus, the more anxious she gets.

The last few days have been even worse. She’s been working from home, and her kids now have school closures. Her husband has been distant, not pitching in as much as she’d like — the house is feeling suffocating and in disarray. Her teenager is off in his room and only barks at her when she asks him about the school virtual learning program. And her younger child is bouncing off the walls, pestering everyone else to play with her.

She feels overwhelmed and ends up lashing out at her husband, her children, and even her administrative assistant. She keeps trying to gain composure, but it’s not working. She needs less conflict in her life right now, but it seems to be snowballing out of control, even when nobody in her family is actually sick. What’s going on??

Increasingly, our lives have been upended due to COVID-19. It pervades our news, it has affected our work and school schedules, and it has kept us home from activities that we enjoy. We find ourselves stuck and afraid.

The fear is supposed to be only about COVID-19, though. It shouldn’t affect the rest of our days, our interpersonal relationships, or how we perceive our work, right? The question really boils down to this: can our minds properly handle the threat?

The answer, as any social psychologist will know, is: absolutely not. The human brain acts differently, under different conditions. Specifically: when our minds are at peace, we can process information and make decisions using our “upper-brains”, which is where our advanced, moral decisions lay. When we feel an existential threat, as we do now, our brains process information in the mid- and lower-brain, which leads to fight/flight/freeze.

What this means is that in times of extraordinary stress and concern — like when we are physically pushed to stay home, when we see anyone else as a potential threat to our very existence — we are quick to attack. Our advanced decision-making processes and sensitivity to others is especially suppressed. We feel tension in our bodies, and cortisol — a vital but dangerous stress hormone — is on constant-drip into our bloodstream.

The problem is in our evolution. Our minds are specifically designed to act in certain ways by evolving through millennia of survival. When we face a threat, we instinctively know what to do: fight/flee/freeze. These instincts take over our entire being — so we can’t think or process anything else. But what is happening now is not the type of threat where these instincts are helpful. There is nowhere to flee, no one to fight. And the threat is constant, not a quick-fix, so our minds are now chronically on extra-stress-mode. We can’t focus, we can’t innovate, and we can’t be as supportive or loving of others, when we feel this level of uncertainty.

So what can Mary Ellen do about it? Here are are some suggestions:

  1. Practice Mindfulness There are many mindfulness practices — not just meditation — that can help shift awareness away from the news and beyond the four walls of your house. These practices push the brain to activate more front-based thinking and also alleviate the release of stress hormones.
  2. Address Feelings Consider what you are actually feeling about triggers and why. Do a body-scan to see where tension is lying. Mentally release those tensions, to get a better sense of body-mind equilibrium.
  3. Forgive Everyone The situation is stressful for everyone — adults and children alike. When your son is moody, you can choose to internally forgive him. When your husband is distant, consider a gentle touch on his shoulder, to remind him that you care. And most importantly: forgive yourself for your own scattered feelings and compromised productivity.
  4. Embrace “Doing My Best” The key to these difficult times is to do the best you can and withhold harsh judgment. The extra layer of judgment can lead to further anxiety and depression. That, in turn, compromises the very immune system that you need, in order to be physically strong, in case you contract the disease.
  5. Take on “Mindless” Physical Projects You may need a physical release for the anxious hormones racing in your body. Look around for physical projects that you can do around your house that don’t require much higher-thought. Cleaning, organizing, sifting through accumulation can all feel therapeutic and release the physical tension.
  6. Get Some Exercise There’s lots of data to support how exercise staves off anxiety and depression. And luckily, there’s plenty of exercise routines available on the internet — many completely free, easy to do, and uplifting both mind and spirit. Carve out time to find something you may enjoy. Even 5–10 minutes/day can have a massive impact on your overall well-being.
  7. Read and Engage in “Feel Good” Things Now may not be the right time to read that thriller novel or check the news hourly. Look for uplifting music to listen to, comic videos, or articles about well-being. When you fill your mind and spirit with positive energy, it will mitigate the stress that you are otherwise facing.

Mary Ellen may not be able to take on all of these steps every day. And that’s ok too. The key is to remind herself of the basic principles, understand that she can’t control if her mid- and lower-brain is being triggered, and allow for imperfection.

The path to getting past this heightened-alert situation may be long and jagged. Our minds and spirits don’t like that uncertainty, and we may unintentionally lash out at the wrong person — or in the wrong way — since our minds are simply in fight/flight/freeze mode. The more Mary Ellen (and the rest of us!) acknowledge that, the better off we all will be.

*fictive character

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Melody Wang

Melody Wang is a Conflict Consultant with the Harmony Strategies Group and CEO of Wang Mediation, which she founded upon graduation from the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law with an MA in Alternative Dispute Resolution. Melody is a panel mediator for the New York City Family Court and serves on the Board of Directors at the Association for Conflict Resolution, Greater New York (ACR-GNY). Prior to moving to New York, Melody was an experienced civil and community mediator in Los Angeles, California, working closely with non-profits, small claim courts and the California federal court. She also led selected trainings and workshops on dispute resolution within the Asian-American community in California.  Melody has lived in the U.S., Taiwan, China and Singapore, is fluent in English, Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese, and especially enjoys engaging in international relations and cross-cultural conflict systems.

Dara Rossi

Dara Rossi, Ph.D. is a Conflict & Strategy Consultant with the Harmony Strategies Group. She has more than 20 years of experience in the field of education and has worked with students from kindergarten through the university graduate level. Additionally, she has facilitated professional development for educators and administrators across all points on the education continuum. After10 years of service in the Department of Teaching and Learning Southern Methodist University, she launched her coaching and consulting business while continuing to serve as an adjunct professor. She holds a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, an MBA, an MA in Dispute Resolution, and an MAT in Education, and BS in Human Development.

Isar Mahanian

Isar Mahanian, M.Sc. is a Conflict & Strategy Consultant with the Harmony Strategies Group. She is an active mediator who coaches new mediators in the program in which she serves. Isar has worked at a fast-paced technology start-up as the Head of Human Resources, leading senior executives to mitigate and resolve workplace conflicts and creating system level improvements for employees within the company. She holds a Master’s of Science degree in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution from Columbia University. 

Kimberly Jackson Davidson

Kimberly Jackson Davidson is currently the University Ombudsperson at George Mason University and member of the Harmony Strategies Group. She spent two decades at Oberlin College in Ohio, holding positions in the Office of the Dean of Students and as Visiting Lecturer in African American Studies. During her final five and a half years there, she served all campus constituencies as Ombudsperson and Director of the Yeworkwha Belachew Center for Dialogue (YBCD). Davidson is active within the International Ombuds Association (IOA), the California Caucus of College and University Ombuds (CCCUO), and the Ombuds Section of the Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR). She earned a B.A. in English Literature from Spelman College in 1986 and an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in African Literature in 1991.

Hector Escalante

Hector Escalante is an experienced Ombuds and learning and development professional with over seven years of ombuds experience and over twenty years of experience developing and teaching course offerings which promote inclusion, healthy communication, and conflict resolution. He is the Director of the Ombuds Office at the University of California, Merced, having served many years as the organizational ombuds at the University of the Pacific. He is an ombuds partner with Harmony Strategies Group, and a consulting ombuds for Earthjustice and Union of Concerned Scientists.  Hector holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education. He is a United States Marine Corps veteran, a husband and father to four children. Hector’s passions include treating all with fairness, equity, dignity, and compassion and good food. 

Stuart Baker

Stuart Baker is a heart-centered strategic consultant with the Harmony Strategies Group. He makes use of all his experience in the construction industry, mediation and presenting, combined with years of spiritual pursuit, to offer a unique and broad sensitivity in his consulting work. He loves helping people deepen their harmony and connection with others, and with themselves. We are honored to have Mr. Stuart Baker on our team, pioneer of “Conscious Cooperation” – his book can be ordered here

Kira Nurieli

Kira Nurieli is the CEO of the Harmony Strategies Group and is an expert mediator, conflict coach, trainer/facilitator, consultant, and restorative practices facilitator. She has spent upwards of twenty years helping clients handle conflict and improve communication strategies and has presented at numerous conferences and symposia as a subject matter expert. She holds a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University and a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Performance from Barnard College. She especially enjoys helping individuals, teams, and lay-leaders become more impactful and empowered in their work and is honored to work alongside her esteemed colleagues with the Harmony Strategies Group.

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