• Published on Apr 21, 2020
  • The loss of jobs, social connections, and everyday routines has led to a sense of grief in the COVID-19 society.
  • Stress and anxiety cause the body to release chemicals that trigger inflammation and compromise one’s ability to fight infection.
  • Data suggests that stress may play a role in cytokine storm, a dangerous immune system response that is linked to organ inflammation and COVID-19 deaths.
  • Following a method called STOP – which stands for stop, take some breaths, observe, and progress – can be a helpful way to ease stress. 

Video Transcript

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JOHN WHYTE: You're watching "Coronavirus in Context." I'm Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. The coronavirus epidemic is causing a lot of uncertainty, and uncertainty causes a lot of stress. And we know that stress impacts our physical, emotional, and mental health.

So to help us manage stress during this epidemic, I've asked Dr. Deepak Chopra to join us today. Dr. Chopra is the founder of the Chopra Foundation, focusing on well-being and humanitarianism, as well as Chopra Global, which focuses on the intersection of science and spirituality. He is a clinical professor of family medicine and public health at UC San Diego, and he is the author of over 90-- 90-- best-selling books, including his most recent, Meta Human-- Unleashing Your Infinite Potential. And Time Magazine has described Dr. Chopra as one of the top 100 heroes of our century.

We're honored to have you with us today, Dr. Chopra.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Thank you, John. Thank you. Great to be with you.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, you've been talking about that COVID-19 is making us experience a loss. We're losing our routines. Some people are losing their jobs. Others are losing their social connections. And that's causing grief. So how do we manage our grief during this pandemic?

DEEPAK CHOPRA: So John, there are three pandemics going on at the moment. The first is the COVID-19 infection, and we know what we can do to mitigate against the risk of infection, and we are doing it, hopefully, with social isolation, physical distancing, hygiene, washing hands. Everybody knows now what to do, whether they are following it or not.

JOHN WHYTE: That's right. That's right.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: OK, so that's the first pandemic. The second pandemic is the global financial crisis as a result of that, which is also causing extreme degree of suffering. The financial, uh, crisis is causing biological distress because of stress.

JOHN WHYTE: Sure.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: So that's the third pandemic, the pandemic of stress. And not only chronic stress, but now, on top of that, acute stress.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: What people don't realize is that-- or they do, but they're not doing too much about it-- is that stress by itself is compromising our capacity to deal with the infection.

JOHN WHYTE: Sure.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: And the stress causes the release of cortisol and adrenaline.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Cortisol counteracts insulin, on and on, you can see the cascade.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: But stress causes compromisation of the immune system, also inflammation. Now, one thing that we've discovered at our foundation through our librarians and through our modeling, and we've just submitted a paper, actually, to a peer-reviewed journal, is that those who are getting sick, who are getting acutely sick--

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --with morbidity and even mortality, they're having a much higher incidence of what is called a cytokine storm.

JOHN WHYTE: Hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: The cytokine storm-- cytokines, as you know, are inflammatory--

JOHN WHYTE: Yes.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --markers, proteins in our body-- but a cytokine storm actually creates havoc in the body--

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --through inflammation, cardiac inflammation, pulmonary inflammation, now we're seeing even neural inflammation.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: The data suggests that it is stress that is causing the cytokine storms. Now, there may be other factors, lack of--

JOHN WHYTE: Sure.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --sleep, lack of exercise, movement, possibly deep breathing--

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --emotional distress, of course--

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --fractured relationships, financial worries. But bottom line is, you can't separate--

JOHN WHYTE: Right.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --physiological stress, biological chaos, financial crisis, and COVID--

JOHN WHYTE: Absolutely.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --and-- and in fact, they're all entangled. So what do we do? Well--

JOHN WHYTE: I know. I don't know. What do we do?

DEEPAK CHOPRA: What do we do? If we can't manage our stress, we're going to make irrational decisions.

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: You know, it's one thing, fear is one thing, and we need to embrace it, because it's a fact that this is a very contagious infection, spreading fast, and in some people, devastating. Not in all people, but in some people, it kills, and it is killing.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: So we can't avoid the fact that this is something to be feared, for sure.

JOHN WHYTE: Sure.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: But we can manage our stress.

JOHN WHYTE: OK.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: And we can do that through many ways. You know, right now because people say I don't have time to meditate, I don't have time to think about it--

JOHN WHYTE: [INAUDIBLE]. Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --and I'll have to just cope. But here's something you can do on the run, any time.

JOHN WHYTE: OK.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: I call it S-T-O-P-- STOP. So as soon as you feel biological distress-- because, remember, there's no event emotionally that doesn't have a biological component. So every time you feel stress, there's a--

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --biological response in the form of tightening, or sensations, or discomfort, or whatever-- so as soon as you feel that, as soon as you sense that, STOP. S-T-O-P. S stands for Stop.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: T stands for Take-- take three deep breaths and smile. When you take a very deep breath, it stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts the sympathetic overdrive which is leading to inflammation--

JOHN WHYTE: OK.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --cortisol, et cetera. So take three deep breaths and smile, because smiling changes your biology as well. O, Observe your breath or any sensation, and just keep observing it without analyzing it. Why? Because distressful em-- emotions have two components. One is the mental component.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: The second is the biological component. You need both to experience stress. So when you put your attention on your breath or to sensations without analyzing them--

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --you're actually taking away the atten-- attention away from the thoughts. OK? You're disrupting the link between the thought and the biological--

JOHN WHYTE: OK.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --response to [INAUDIBLE]. So you observe your breath or sensations to the body non-judgmentally--

JOHN WHYTE: All right. That's important.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --for a few seconds.

JOHN WHYTE: OK.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: And then you proceed with awareness and compassion. S-T-O-P.

JOHN WHYTE: T-O-P. OK.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: STOP. Take three deep breaths, smile, observe sensation--

JOHN WHYTE: All right.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --proceed with awareness. Don't make irrational financial decisions--

JOHN WHYTE: That's--

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --right now. And focus on relationship right now--

JOHN WHYTE: OK.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --making other people happier so you'll feel happy.

JOHN WHYTE: All right.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: And make choices that are determined by only four intentions. I start my day with four intentions.

JOHN WHYTE: OK. What are they?

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Joyful, energetic body.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Loving, compassionate heart.

JOHN WHYTE: OK.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Reflective, quiet, alert mind. Not positive mind. Positive mind can be a turbulent mind and cause stress if you're forcing yourself to be positive.

JOHN WHYTE: OK.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: So joyful, energetic body. Reflective, alert mind. Loving, compassionate heart. Lightness of being.

JOHN WHYTE: All right.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: That's the intention.

JOHN WHYTE: Good.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Now, during the day, because I remember to stop, my choices are influenced by those four intentions.

JOHN WHYTE: All right. I want to ask you, because you've been writing about the virus can give us more meaning in our lives. And what about the folks who will say, Dr. Chopra, I'm just trying to survive. I don't have time to think about my purpose or, you know, come up with a new purpose. What do you say to those folks who really are saying, you know what, I just have to get through the day?

DEEPAK CHOPRA: So it's very important to realize that we have a hierarchy of needs, and survival is number one.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: OK? Then there is ambition and success. And there is love and belonging. And there's creative expression. There's insight. There's inspiration. There's intuition. And there's meaning. So you-- you-- they're right. Survival comes first. And meaning is, you know, for those who have gone through the hierarchy of needs.

JOHN WHYTE: Sure.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: But unless you have meaning, you won't even make the right choices for survival. That's what I mean. Right now we're going through grief.

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Grief means we are losing something we took for granted-- existence. We take existence for granted. Why? I don't understand. You know? The only time people don't take existence for granted is when they're facing extreme old age, infirmity and death, or somebody in the family has cancer or is dying, or they get diagnosed. Then they question the meaning of existence--

JOHN WHYTE: Sure.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --and they stop taking for granted. I'm saying now, this pandemic is telling us don't take your existence for granted. Now is the time. You are going through grief, which means you're going through the stages of grief-- victimization, anger, frustration, resignation, helplessness, and then acceptance. Acceptance gives you peace.

JOHN WHYTE: Yes.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: And then peace allows you to figure out the meaning. The meaning right now is we need to not take existence for granted. We need to maximize--

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --our experience of existence, which is through our relationships and finding meaning and purpose on every day's basis, right?

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: I mentioned joyful, energetic body. Loving, compassionate heart. Reflective, alert mind. Lightness of being. If I practice that, then I can address deeper questions--

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --who am I? What do I want? What's my purpose? What am I grateful for?

JOHN WHYTE: OK.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: In fact, if we just ask ourselves, what am I grateful for, inflammation will come down because you can't feel hostility, anger, frustration, anxiety, and gratitude at the same time.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, we have this epidemic with the virus. I often say we have an infodemic, that we have all this information out there, much of it is incorrect. But you've been talking about this epidemic of soul sickness, that there is a-- you know, we have to rehabilitate our soul. So what-- what do you mean by that?

DEEPAK CHOPRA: There's a difference between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. So data is just, you know, statistics, OK? Information is what do we do with those statistics. It's the resolution of uncertainty. This is what we are getting. But as you said, the information is confusing.

JOHN WHYTE: Yes.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: One day, get the antibodies. Second day, antibodies may not still say that you're--

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --free of infection. Third day, you know, you may have the viral load, but you're not infectious anymore because these are fragments of DNA that are not actually infectious. On and on, right? So the information--

JOHN WHYTE: Right.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --is very confusing right now. Therefore, there's no exact knowledge other than the computer models we are creating--

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --which are very good, in some ways, in that they predict certain outcomes, but they ignore a lot of other stuff too, the computer models. So data is not enough. Information is not enough. Knowledge is confusing.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm. We spoke--

DEEPAK CHOPRA: What's left is wisdom, and wisdom--

JOHN WHYTE: That's true.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --comes from a deeper level of soul. Given the confusing data and knowledge, what's the best precautions I can take right now to minimize transmission? If I have transmitted already the disease or have been infected, what's the best way to minimize the damage, reduce inflammation? And finally, how can I find meaning out of all of this?

JOHN WHYTE: Sure.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: All those things are important.

JOHN WHYTE: Absolutely.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: [INAUDIBLE] means going from do not sacrifice wisdom for knowledge. Do not sacrifice knowledge for information. And do not sacrifice information for data, which is meaningless by itself.

JOHN WHYTE: We spoke to Arianna Huffington last week, who talked a bit about spiritual awakening, and that's what this epidemic could be causing, and that's what we need. What's the role of spirituality in our health?

DEEPAK CHOPRA: If we understand spirituality as self-awareness, then it's the most important thing. I'm not-- you know, spirituality is not religious dogma--

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --or religious ideology. It's just self-awareness, awareness of the body. Body is a modified form of awareness, awareness of the mind, which is another modified form of awareness, awareness of our emotions, which is another modified form of our awareness, awareness of our personal relationships, social interactions, our business deals. That only comes under self-awareness.

And finally, awareness of awareness, that is spiritual awakening, to understand that every experience you have is a modified expression of a deeper reality, which we call the "self." Right now, you know, self-regulation is a big deal. In biology, we say, you know, feedback loops, self-referred--

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --feedback loops, endocrine feedback loops, in-- immune feedback loops, metabolic feedback loops, body temperature feedback loops, sleep-wake cycles with feedback loops, self-regulation.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: But we never say, what is the self? OK, what is the self that is regulating itself? That, at a fundamental level in the great wisdom traditions of the world, is awareness. And the more self-aware you are, the better your choices for healing are.

JOHN WHYTE: Right. And how does that play into the new normal? You've written about we need to find new ways to be happy in this new normal.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Well, there's a lot of good research now by social scientists on what makes people happy. In fact, they already have come up with something called the happiness formula. And in one shape or another, it's the following three things. So happiness is number one.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Your attitude to life, is this a crisis or is this an opportunity? But that's true of anything. Any adversity offers you those two choices.

JOHN WHYTE: OK.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Either to panic or to have a creative solution. That, attitude, is 50%--

JOHN WHYTE: 50%?

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --of our happiness experience on a daily basis. The second part of the happiness formula or equation is what we call conditions of living. Right now that pertains to financial conditions, and that is very significant too.

10%, 15% of our happiness comes from--

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --our financial security. And then the last part of the happiness formula is what we call, um, meaning, purpose, and our ability to make other people happy. So if you give other people attention, affection, appreciation--

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --acceptance, they get happy, and then you feel happy. In fact--

JOHN WHYTE: Sure.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --that's the fastest way to be happy. But finding a meaning and purpose is another way to be happy.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: But we do know what takes-- it takes to be happy. Find, uh, opportunity, number one. Make sure you're financially secure. If you're not, ask for help. There are a lot of--

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --people, by the way, who are offering help right now and asking for help. There are a lot of food bank, so many things we-- I'm involved in find-- in the foundation with--

JOHN WHYTE: Right.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --where people are exchanging resources--

JOHN WHYTE: Right.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: --with financial--

JOHN WHYTE: And no need to feel embarrassed for asking.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: You don't need to feel embarrassed.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hmm.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: And then the third part is make other people happy and find some meaning and purpose every day, and you're increasing your quotient of happiness, which ultimately translates into dopamine, oxytocin, opiates, serotonin, which, by the way, modulates the immune system.

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah. All those good hormones.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Direct connections-- happiness and immune regulation as well.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, Dr. Chopra, I want to thank you for all those good tips.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Thank you, John. Thank you for having me.

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

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