• COVID-19 is exacerbating America's mental health crisis and the skyrocketing rate of chronic diseases.
  • Unprecedented fear and anxiety about the future is leading to an increase in dangerous behaviors, including the use of alcohol and recreational drugs.
  • Mental resilience is now more important than ever as physical and social distancing efforts continue.
  • Don't negatively fantasize about the future. Taking steps to acknowlege any fears and establish new routines may help preserve mental health.

Video Transcript

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JOHN WHYTE: You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. We all know coronavirus has caused a public health crisis, but it's also causing a mental health crisis.

To talk about this today is my friend, Arianna Huffington. She is a successful author, syndicated columnist, business woman, co-founder of Huffington Post, founder of Thrive, and overall bon vivant. Arianna, thank you for joining me.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Thank you so much, John. It's great to be with you. And thank you for the amazing work you're doing to keep people informed.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, thank you. And you as well. Now you've been writing about this mental health crisis that COVID-19 is exacerbating. You've even talked about, we might be doubling down on some of our bad habits. Why do you think that is?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Well, that is what is so interesting, John, that as you know, even before COVID-19, we were dealing with a mental health crisis, and a skyrocketing rate of chronic diseases, like diabetes, like heart disease, that 75% are behavior based. So we were already in the middle of a perfect storm, which has been, of course, dramatically exacerbated by coronavirus. And we're seeing that in the middle of such unprecedented uncertainty, with fear about the future, all the mental health problems -- depression, anxiety -- that we're already dealing with, are being exacerbated.

JOHN WHYTE: Right.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: And people are doubling down in addictive behaviors. Alcohol is scare -- sales -- are skyrocketing. And people are smoking, including smoking weed and vaping, which have been connected to the severity of the disease if somebody is infected.

And again, as you know, there is a lag perhaps between having all the scientific data that proves that. But every epidemiologist I'm talking to, including from your old school -- JOHN WHYTE: Mm hmm.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: -- Harvard, says that there is a connection. Because the coronavirus, it basically attacks the lungs.

JOHN WHYTE: Absolutely. And but there is this fear of the uncertainty. And here we are at home with social distancing. And we probably should use the word physical distancing, because people are becoming disconnected, despite what we're trying to do.

And I love the word you talk about, resilience. And mental resilience is now more important than ever. But what -- what do you tell people to get there?

You know, it's -- they're concerned about their paycheck. They're concerned about making the rent. So, you know, so what if they're going to eat, you know, cookies and, you know, have those comfort foods? But it's also impacting their mental health.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Absolutely. So at Thrive, we have a whole mental health offering, which is based on what we call micro-steps, tiny, daily, incremental steps that add up to healthy behaviors. So the first step is always acknowledging people's reality, acknowledging the fact that people are going through real financial struggles. They may have been laid off. So financial anxiety is real.

JOHN WHYTE: Sure.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: On top of it, there is the fact that we are all very prone to fantasize in a negative way about the future.

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah, that's a great point. Yeah.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: There is what we know. And then there is what we imagine. And as you know, our brains process the information in the same way. If I imagine something negative about the future, the cortisol hormone, the stress hormone, floods my body in the same way as if I were chased by a lion.

JOHN WHYTE: Right.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: I'm frightened.

JOHN WHYTE: What --

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: You're not --

JOHN WHYTE: But what steps can people take? What are some of these micro-steps?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: So let me give you -- we have over 1,000.

JOHN WHYTE: OK.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Let me give you my favorites when it comes to mental health.

JOHN WHYTE: Sure.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: The first one is establish a cutoff every day when you stop consuming coronavirus news.

JOHN WHYTE: (CHUCKLING) That's true. Yeah.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: I probably get it that we want to be informed. But consuming coronavirus news, some of which is tragic and heartbreaking, just before you go to bed is going to make it harder for you to sleep, harder for you to go back to sleep if you wake up in the middle of the night. And sleep is foundational to our immunity and to our mental health.

In fact, early next week we are launching a big sleep initiative with Audible to help people sleep.

JOHN WHYTE: You've been one of the biggest proponents of sleep going back several years. And we know that restorative sleep is important for our immunity. But Arianna, people would say, I'm stressed. And there was just an article recently about COVID-related insomnia.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Absolutely.

JOHN WHYTE: Easier said than done.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: [INAUDIBLE]

JOHN WHYTE: You're right. I think --

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: I go back to, always first step, number one, acknowledge always. Acknowledge your fears. Ack -- acknowledge the legitimate anxiety.

JOHN WHYTE: Yep.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: And then take steps. I'm telling anybody, oh, you know, I'm pooh poohing what you are feeling.

JOHN WHYTE: Yep.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: I'm just saying the first step is acceptance and acknowledgment. And then come the small micro-steps of behavior change. And let me give you another small one.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm hmm.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Before you go to sleep, before you turn off the lights, take your phone and charging outside your bedroom.

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah. ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Sleeping with our phones is really putting us at risk of waking up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, or for whatever reason, and if we can't go right back to sleep, going to out phone.

JOHN WHYTE: Where do you keep your phone?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: My phone is outside my bedroom in the hallway.

JOHN WHYTE: All right. Good.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: And then in the morning, makes it easier when you first wake up -- again, over 70% of the world wakes up, and before they're fully awake, goes to their phone.

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: And you don't know what's there. It can be something really stressful. So wha -- another micro-step is take, take one minute, 60 seconds, to focus consciously on your breath, to set your intention for the day, to remember what you are grateful for. Whatever you want --

JOHN WHYTE: Sure.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: But you have one minute to almost like put your armor on, prepare yourself for what the day brings. Because we don't know what the day is going to bring.

JOHN WHYTE: That's right.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: And can I mention one other?

JOHN WHYTE: Sure.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Anytime you're washing your hands --

JOHN WHYTE: Mm hmm.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Remember three things you are grateful for.

JOHN WHYTE: Oh.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Gratitude is [INAUDIBLE] here. Gratitude changes the neural pathways of the brain.

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah. Tell us also, you mentioned about Thrive. Tell us how Thrive has changed over the last four years, even in terms of how people are searching out this information on gratitude and resilience. We didn't talk really that much about it four years ago.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: No, absolutely. When I left the Huffington Post in 2016 to launch Thrive Global, these were all the issues that we were writing about, that we're working with companies to bring into their lives of their employees. But now, what we're finding, John, is that these are now imperatives. They are no longer nice to haves.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm hmm.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: And we always, from the beginning, made sure everything we propose is science based. We wanted to redefine the wellness category to be about science, to be about -- to be rigorous, and to be data-based, not to be warm and fuzzy.

JOHN WHYTE: OK.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: And that's why, you know, I've worked to launch a product, to have a behavior change product which is only available to companies. It's not a B2C.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm hmm.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: But the goal is to actually scale these offerings and be able to help people get regular nudges every day --

JOHN WHYTE: OK.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: -- to take these micro-steps and to bring these healthy new habits in their lives.

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah. And you also mentioned in a recent blog post that coronavirus may have caused an awakening of something spiritual. And you used a Greek word. And I apologize if I butcher it, but you used -- let me see if I can say it right -- apoco -- apoco -- tell me how it goes.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Well, the basic --

JOHN WHYTE: Apocalipsis. Apocalipsis, or apocalypse, which is really a revelation, an unveiling. So what has COVID-19 revealed for you? And let me know if I said that right. How would you say that?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: You said it perfectly. And yes, the revealing for me, and I think for many, many other people, is around what is essential in our lives and what is not.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm hmm.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: And of course, as you know, every spiritual tradition, every philosophy, helps us put things in perspective in our lives.

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: And yet, we spend so much of our life worrying about insignificant things, obsessing over how many likes we got on Instagram, or comparing ourselves to others. And when something like that happens, the revelation is kind of unavoidable.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm hmm.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: That there are very few things that really matter in life. And normally, we -- we face these on a personal level when somebody we love dies or when --

JOHN WHYTE: Yes.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: -- we are diagnosed with a disease. But right now, kind of, death is in the air. And I don't mean this in a morbid way.

JOHN WHYTE: Sure.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: And suddenly, the fear of death for ourselves and for our loved ones, even if we are not in the front lines, and like our frontline health care workers or grocery workers, is real.

JOHN WHYTE: Yes.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: And we don't know when it's going to end. JOHN WHYTE: That's true.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: We're definitely not having about a vaccine this year, as I sure --

JOHN WHYTE: No. No. We've talked about that. You know, that's a long way off. So we need a new normal. What -- and that's hard for people to adjust to. So what is the new normal? And what advice do you have for people to adjust?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Well, the new normal is really taking steps every day to help us connect with what we all have by virtue of our birthright, which is a place of wisdom, peace, and strengthiness.

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: There are no certainties. But this is a certainty. And we all have it. We all have tapped into it when we fall in love, in moments of flow, when suddenly our life really makes sense and we are captured by that spirit of wonder and -- and gratitude, grace, which is a spiritual [INAUDIBLE].

JOHN WHYTE: Yes.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: And that the root of great and gratitude is the same -- grace and gratitude is the same. So we are now given an opportunity because of this pause that is imposed on us to actually connect to that place instead of being perpetually and breathlessly living a busy life distracted --

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: -- by our phones and social media and preoccupations and endless to-do do lists.

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: So this is the moment to take advantage of that. And it's really, ultimately essential for our mental health. And again, let me repeat, this is not to minimize the real struggles --

JOHN WHYTE: Yes.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: -- people are going through, especially financial struggles, and grieving people they're losing.

JOHN WHYTE: And what do you say, Arianna, to people who say, you know what? I don't -- I can't thrive right now. I'm trying to survive. How do we refocus them on what you just said? It's an opportunity to think about what's essential. It's an opportunity to have some unveiling.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Well, I don't think it's either-or. Obviously, the first step is surviving.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm hmm.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: And that's why we are social distancing. That's why we wear masks when we go out. That's why we wash our hands many times a day. That is like table stakes.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm hmm. And I'm going to do three things I'm grateful for today when I wash my hands.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Exactly. The question is what do we do over and above that? It's not either-or.

JOHN WHYTE: That's a good point. Well, I want to thank you, Arianna Huffington, for all you're doing for raising awareness of this mental health crisis that we have before us, and really teaching us how to thrive and have resilience.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Thank you so much. And I want to invite everybody watching us to come to thriveglobal.com. Subscribe to our newsletters. Go to my Instagram, @ariannahuff, with two f's, which is only about the coronavirus. And my only goal is to inspire you to begin to take some of these small steps. And thank you, John. And thank you everyone. And please stay healthy and safe.

JOHN WHYTE: And thank you for watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte.