The COVID-19 pandemic has made us increasingly stressed out, according to a study by the behaviour change technology company, Thrive Global.

Eighty-five per cent of the study’s respondents reported significantly more stress and anxiety as a result of public responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

Arianna Huffington, a media entrepreneur and author, launched Thrive in 2016, following her own experience with burnout. 

HuffPost (formerly The Huffington Post), which she founded in 2005, became a leading online news and opinion site and was sold to AOL in 2011 for US$305 million.  

Despite her financial success, her own personal wake-up call came when a lack of sleep resulted in her falling and breaking her cheekbone.

Huffington, who served as an early board member at Uber and has long-served on the board of the private equity firm Onex Corp., is not alone in her desire to tackle issues such as work-life balance.

Thrive Global’s early investors have included high-profile backers ranging from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. founder Jack Ma to NBA basketball player Andre Iguodala.

As for navigating stress during COVID-19, Huffington has some recommendations.

Here’s our full email Q&A. Some answers have been edited and condensed.

Q: We all seemed stressed out these days. Does the data support that?

A: Yes. In fact, 85 per cent of participants in a Thrive Global study report significantly more stress and anxiety as a result of public responses to the coronavirus pandemic, while less than 30 per cent are confident in their abilities to manage their mental health and psychological well-being.

We’re seeing a surge in stress at precisely the time when our ability to manage stress is more important than ever. Stress is a big suppressor of our immune system. And stress, of course, has cumulative effects on other factors that directly impact our immune response: our ability to fall and stay asleep, and on our impulse to stress-eat or drink too much. The coronavirus paradox here is: every day we are exposed to a constant stream of coronavirus news, but instead of easing our worries, the flood of information about new cases, some of them close to our homes, event cancelations, stock market drops, etc., only makes us more stressed, which in turn suppresses our immune system.

Q: We might have individual health or financial concerns, but is there a common stress thread for everyone?

A: There are certain universal concerns and themes. This is a historic time of uncertainty, not limited to any one population or community, but affecting all of us.

There’s also the impact on our collective mental health. Even before COVID-19, we were already in the middle of a mental health crisis. Worldwide, over 264 million people were struggling with depression, and in the U.S. alone, nearly 50 million adults had experienced some form of mental illness in the past year. And now, long periods of isolation, the loss of loved ones, the loss of jobs, financial insecurity and the daily stress of our new normal are accelerating that mental health crisis. Just as we’ve had to make drastic changes to our lives to stop the spread of the virus, we need to take urgent steps to safeguard our mental health, too.

Q: Thrive was built on the idea of re-thinking how we work and live. With that said, what should people be thinking about on that subject as they are forced into this period of change?

A: We should be thinking about how we can use this time to shift our entire culture away from an always-on, perpetually stressed-out, fight-or-flight state of being and reconnect with some essential truths we have forgotten. Just a few weeks ago, as we went about our busy lives — talking about how slammed and swamped we were with work, always on the edge of burnout — there were plenty of signposts along our path directing us to keep climbing up the ladder. But there were almost no signposts reminding us to stay connected to the essence of who we are, to take care of ourselves along the way, to reach out to others, and to connect to that place that unites us in our humanity and from which everything is possible. 

So one thing that needs to change if the new normal is to be better than the old one is that we stop living in the shallows — that we stop hurting our health and our relationships by striving so relentlessly and breathlessly after success as the world defines it.

Q: You often talk about burnout. What is your advice for those who fear burning out in this period of limbo before life returns to a version of normal?

A: The most important thing we can do right now is to remember the in-flight safety presentations that always instruct us to secure our own oxygen masks before helping others. Taking care of ourselves is the most essential thing we can do in order to care for others.

We have all now been forced to pause. And during this pause, 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

We also need to take microsteps — small daily steps — to recharge. It’s far too easy to get caught in a cycle of endless work that leads to burnout. Here are some examples:

1. At the start of each day, make a list of the top three things you want to accomplish that day. In the absence of your normal workplace routines, it’s easy to feel unfocused.

2. Make sure you move throughout the day. For example, walk around your home (or even around the room) while speaking on the phone.

3. Make a point of logging off from your remote work at the same time you would typically leave the office. It’s easy to let your workday bleed longer when you don’t have your usual commute home, but it’s important to build in time at night to rest and recharge so you can work sustainably.

Q: What about our devices? And our screen time? It seems unavoidable that we are going to be spending more time online. How do you manage that?

We shouldn’t judge ourselves for finding comfort and connection in our screens. But time away from our screens is more crucial than ever now for recharging our bodies, minds and souls — especially when it comes to strengthening our immunity, managing anxiety, connecting with ourselves and building our mental resilience.

My favorite microstep to help with this is setting a news cut-off time at the end of the day. While being informed can help us feel more prepared in a public health crisis, setting healthy limits to our media consumption, especially before we get ready for bed, can help us have a restorative night’s sleep, which in turn will help us and put the stressful news into perspective.