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Arianna Huffington on the best antidote to the stress and disconnection we are all feeling

The CEO of Thrive Global talks to Mika Brzezinski about her life in quarantine, what she’s learned about herself during this uncertain time, and how to build mental resilience.
Arianna Huffington on the set of "Morning Joe."
Arianna Huffington on the set of "Morning Joe."Anthony Scutro

Coronavirus has taken a toll on Americans’ mental health. In fact, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, nearly half of adults say the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health.

So how can you help yourself get through this difficult time?

“Many times during the day, I remind myself of all I’m grateful for, because I know gratitude is the biggest antidote to the stress and disconnection so many of us are experiencing now,” said Arianna Huffington, the CEO of well-being and productivity platform Thrive Global and founder of The Huffington Post.

Huffington recently chatted with Know Your Value founder and “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski about how we can build resilience, her life under quarantine, the future of work and much more:

Mika: Where and who are you quarantining with?

Arianna: Right now, I’m sheltering in place at my home in Los Angeles with my daughters and my sister.

Mika: How has it been, and what do you find is the most challenging part of this for you? What have you been doing to cope with this challenge?

Arianna: It’s challenging, of course, so many times during the day I remind myself of all I’m grateful for. Because I know gratitude is the biggest antidote to the stress and disconnection so many of us are experiencing now — and that living in a state of gratitude is our gateway to grace and a vital part of our well-being. Gratitude reminds us that we are not alone, and this is not forever.

I am working hard to bring Thrive’s solutions to companies and individuals. I love my work and the main thing for me has been managing all our Thrive employees scattered all around the world. A lot of the things that Thrive is about — how can we show up at work and in our lives really recharged and connected with our own wisdom, with our own sense of creativity and empathy — are now indispensable. They're no longer just nice things to have, because when we are frazzled and when we are exhausted, it's very hard to be empathetic and it's very hard to be creative and deal with the growing stresses of living in these very uncertain times. And when we are reading constantly about the latest coronavirus news all that adds to that generic atmosphere of stress.

Mika: What surprising things have you learned about yourself during this time?

Arianna: It’s not surprising to me but it might be surprising to others: I really am an introvert! I’ve always known this about myself, but life in quarantine has proved it beyond a doubt.

Mika: How do we best approach a shift in mindset to this unpredictable timeframe and new landscape?

Arianna: We approach it by acknowledging that the goal is not to return to the pre-pandemic “normal” but to emerge into a world that is better, fairer and more compassionate than the one we leave behind.

Because the pandemic has made it all too clear that we cannot continue to live and work the way we have — breathlessly and always on. The casualties of this way of living have been proliferating for years: the skyrocketing increase in chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension; the increase in mental health problems like depression and anxiety, the increase in stress and burnout, which the World Health Organization identified as a workplace crisis last spring.

One of my favorite insights about the pandemic is from Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, who writes that it is “a gateway between one world and the next,” and we have the choice to “walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”

Mika: What kind of behavior changes do we need to examine and focus on as we shift from a temporary change of environment to a longer-term new normal?

Arianna: Once we understand that we can’t continue to live breathlessly and always on, we can begin to take microsteps. And the habits we build now will help us not only during the pandemic but afterward.

At Thrive, we have hundreds of microsteps in our behavior change platform, but here are some of my favorites. Every time we wash our hands for 20 seconds, we have an opportunity to remember three things we’re grateful for.

This actually changes the circuitry of our brain, creating new, more resilient neural pathways. Focusing on the rising and falling of our breath, even for 60 seconds, is another microstep that activates our parasympathetic nervous system, lowering our cortisol levels. These are not warm and fuzzy steps we can take. They are science-backed and data-driven. A new book, “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art,” by journalist James Nestor, shows our breath is our superpower. “Breathing properly can allow us to live longer and healthier lives. Breathing poorly, by contrast, can exacerbate and sometimes cause a laundry list of chronic diseases: asthma, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, hypertension and more,” said Nestor.

Mika: Can you talk about “getting through” versus changing our perspective on things?

Arianna: The key is building mental resilience. Resilience is the ability to adjust and recover in times of extreme stress and anxiety. In physics, the term describes a material’s ability to return to its original shape after absorbing a blow. What makes this moment so powerful is that both individually and collectively we have an opportunity to propel ourselves forward to a state better than the one we left behind, so we can emerge stronger, healthier and more effective than we were before the pandemic.

This time when we have been forced to pause is an incredible opportunity to change our perspective. We are discovering that certain parts of life were not as essential as we thought — and just as important, rediscovering certain essential parts we had forgotten. It’s a kind of Marie Kondo exercise for our whole life, stripping away what is not needed and moving to our more essential nature. As Pope Francis said in the blessing he delivered while praying for an end to the coronavirus, “It is a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.”