High Anxiety: You Win!

What to do when Pandemic + Anxiety + Quarantine = Conflict.

Posted May 14, 2020

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Good question
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How’s it going at your place?

Today, I am heading into week nine of our shelter-in-place life with my wife and my 23-year old now-unemployed son in our apartment on the eerily quiet Upper West Side of New York City. Living under near-quarantine conditions in the epicenter of a global pandemic while the media screams “Catastrophe!” incessantly and the President’s daily word-salad comments on the virus completely confuse us is anxiety-provoking, to say the least. Add to that my own colorful version of an anxiety disorder and it results in the inevitable: Conflict! This is what research, and my personal experience, tell us.

In a nutshell, anxiety makes us more inclined to experience or instigate conflict, which then increases our angst, and in turn leads us to respond in more extreme and consequential ways to the dispute, which then messes with our relationships, self-esteem, and blood pressure, thus making us more anxious. A perfect vicious cycle. When your mayor and governor and neighbors are pleading with you daily to stay at home for the sake of our frontline workers and grandparents, our little homes become pinball machines of tension.

But don’t despair. Research tells us two things can help us better navigate these times: normalization of the problem and increasing our self-awareness.

One of the smartest Earthlings I ever met was my mentor in graduate school, Morton Deutsch. Mort was one of those annoying people who went to college at 14, was a war hero in WWII, became a celebrated intellectual and academic soon thereafter, and got trained as a psychoanalytic therapist and had a thriving practice in his spare time. Oh, and he was a wise and kind man. Irritating, right?

One of the gems that Mort picked up in his practice with couples was how they would tend to respond when conflicts would bubble up during their sessions (these insights might have also been spawned through his 70-year marriage to his most formidable partner, Lydia). What Mort observed was a pattern across the many couples he saw. A conflict would be triggered – usually by something trivial – but often resulting in a notable spike in the couple’s levels of tension and anxiety, and then they would each veer off into their own more extreme responses to the conflict. This is what we now call derailers – often in opposite directions. The patterns he witnessed with his clients were:

  • Chronically Avoiding Conflict – or – Obsessively Seeking Out Conflict
  • Becoming Hard and Unyielding – or – Becoming Mushy and Unassertive
  • Overintellectualizing and Rationalizing – or – Overwhelmingly Saturated in Emotion
  • Standing Rigid and Controlling – or – Falling into a State of Loose Disorganization
  • Skyrocketing into Escalation – or – Shrinking into Minimization of Problems
  • Compulsively Revealing Everything – or – Stonewalling and Concealing Everything

Look familiar? Most of us have our own particular favorites. And our research has found them to be quite common reactions to conflict anxiety.

What Mort observed in his practice and what we have found in our studies is that the more extreme we react on one of these dimensions, the more we:

  1. Feel negatively about ourselves and our relationships
  2. Experience lower levels of well-being in our lives
  3. Feel more anxious. Which, of course, just increases the odds of us doing more of the same.

The good news is twofold: You are not alone and you can keep these responses in check. These days, high anxiety is the rule, not the exception. Research on this is just beginning but is showing exactly what you would expect, most of us are feeling overly worried and concerned these days. However, doing just this, describing what is happening and explaining it is in fact normal and commonplace these days, is a standard method of treatment in counseling that has shown to be quite effective.

No, it is not just you that is crazy fretful and conflictual right now, we all are.

In addition, just knowing how you tend to respond in conflict can help. This is a basic premise of both cognitive-behavioral and mindfulness approaches to psychotherapy—labeling and understanding our response tendencies in our relationships increases the odds that we can keep them in check. Mort Deutsch found this in his practice. He would refer to the specific tendencies when his clients would evidence them in a session, often pointing out the opposing inclinations he witnessed in couples (evidence that opposites attract). Increasing awareness in this way allowed them to modify their reactions if they become problematic.

Over the past few years, my Columbia colleagues Becca Bass, Anthea Chan, and I have been developing a new scale we call CARS (the Conflict Anxiety Response Scale) and have been running studies to validate and standardize it. Recently, we launched an online version of the survey for the public through the website of our center at Columbia University. We are hoping to increase awareness and reduce troublesome conflict in these stressful times. Take 15 minutes and learn more about how you tend to react to conflict.

For, despite the fatalism of Mel Brook’s immortal lyrics, your anxiety does not need to win.


The book The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization will be released in 2021.