Us, Interrupted: How Soledad O'Brien Prioritizes Well-Being Amid COVID-19 

Epidemiologist and writer By Amitha Kalaichandran, M.D.
Epidemiologist and writer
Amitha Kalaichandran, M.D., M.H.S., C.P.H., is an epidemiologist, physician, and writer. Kalaichandran graduated from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with a master's in Health Science, received her M.D. from the University of Toronto, and completed fellowships at the University of Arizona and the Munk School of Global Affairs.
Soledad O'Brien Q&A on mindbodygreen

Image by Courtesy of Soledad O'Brien / Contributor

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Us, Interrupted is a series that focuses on public figures as well as professionals on the front lines of the COVID-19 global pandemic. During this unprecedented crisis, we hope these stories of vulnerability and resilience will help us move forward, stronger together.

Soledad O’Brien is a powerhouse. As the CEO of Starfish Media Group, host of the show Matter of Fact, and an award-winning broadcast journalist, she is used to busy days. She also started the PowHERful Foundation with her husband, supporting women in their journey to higher education.

Here, she shares with us how she and her family are adapting to life during COVID-19: with schedules, long walks, and how it has affected her physical and emotional well-being.

What was your life like before we learned about COVID-19, in terms of your self-care & maintaining a sense of well-being?

I don't think I was very good at self-care. I travel a lot for work, and it's easy to get exhausted. I tried my best to get six to eight hours of sleep and avoid red-eye flights as much as possible. The main thing was eating well and trying to get enough sleep.

In terms of other aspects of my well-being, a big part of it for me was needing to feel "useful," as in getting stuff done. I'm a box checker, and I'd feel good knowing if I got everything on my list done. I never found much relaxation in cooking, but I'd volunteer to clean up, for instance; that would help me feel like I was being useful.

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Before COVID-19, what did you most struggle with in terms of self-care?

Schedules! I was traveling all the time. I'm a person who likes a schedule and consistency. I'd see that in other areas of my life, too. I used to be a runner, and when running with my husband, he would say, "Let's explore a new path." But I'd prefer to stick to the same, where I knew it would be, for instance, exactly 1.4 miles.

If you can remember, where were you when you first learned about COVID-19 as being a real threat to us in North America? What were your initial impressions?

We knew early on because we were reporting on it for a while as part of Matter of Fact. We saw it unfolding in China, but we didn't get a sense of how dire it was until more recently.

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What sorts of things have you put into practice now, from a "public health" point of view to help lower the risk of COVID-19?

Serious hand-washing for 30 seconds with warm water and soap. My kids are older now (high school and college), so they get it as well. We made it clear that people aren't coming over right now. Otherwise, we're really trying to make sure we keep things clean

We've also adopted the mindset of assuming we could each have it, so keeping ourselves away from other people.

How has "self-isolation" or "social distancing" affected your sense of well-being? This includes physically, emotionally, and your relationships.

The whole "Did I check any boxes off?" has been tough, but overall it's been easier to find time to workout. Now, I'm learning a lot about my own personal schedule. I still create my list, but the items on the list are a bit different: shoots for the show, conference calls, but also things like laundry and walks with the kids. 

In a physical sense, so far I’ve really noticed my hands are getting really dry!

Emotionally, I'm lucky we have a big family, and we can play board games and things. My daughter does a lot of cooking. We've been sitting down and coming up with routines and getting the kids on their routines especially with their classes being online now. Meals are at a certain time and downtime to read books and things are also allocated their own time. I also check in on my staff to make sure they know they have someone to call because it can be a lonely time. One of my best friends is on the West Coast, and she lives alone, so I check in on her.

The other big thing with relationships, as I've discussed with my kids, is that we need to recognize that everyone is stressed right now, so taking that extra moment to give people a break is key—it's OK to ignore some stuff if we have to, keeping our opinions to ourselves, that sort of thing. I know it's been hard for my daughter because her birthday just passed, and we missed graduation. It's hard to complain about when people are really ill and dying right now, but it's OK to be feeling upset, and we make sure that's clear.

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What have you most struggled with during this time?

At first it was keeping busy, but having four kids is helpful because there's always stuff to do: laundry, dishes, wiping things down. So there's lots to keep busy. 

Workwise, we continue to pitch projects; we're shooting three documentaries and a series. I'm in the middle of three podcasts—since we can't have face-to-face meetings, it's a lot of conference calls. I'm dealing with my teams and crews remotely and making sure that everyone is doing OK and that they have enough supplies. 

Do you have any ideas, resources, tips, tricks, or advice you've put into practice to optimize your well-being?

Get some exercise! Working out is hard, but it's key to have a routine where you feel pushed and challenged.

The other thing is coming up with some kind of project or game every day, which keeps you focused.

I also like taking a break from Twitter because the constant news can be hard. I like watching videos about things that bring me joy, like horseback riding. I've also started posting documentaries we've done. Videos that people can watch, enjoy, and draw some inspiration from.

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What have you learned most about yourself (and your family, if you choose to share) during this time? How do you believe you have grown/will grow through this?

I know I'm a person who likes routines, lists, and order in general, and so during these times, I know I need to do things that make me feel organized and in control. How have I grown? Not sure I know yet. I think we'll all have more insight into that once this terrible time passes.

Any piece of advice, a quote, anything motivational you'd like to share with our readers?

So much of life is figuring out yourself. We always try to figure things or other people out, but it's less about cracking their code and more about cracking your own code. The idea about focusing on what you need in the moment and trying to fulfill that need as much as you can. Ultimately, it's about understanding yourself more than the circumstances we find ourselves in. 

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What makes you most hopeful right now?

I've been heartened to see that most people are doing a good job given the circumstances. I know people are scared right now, but it's been nice to see grocery store workers helping elderly people get the things they need. It's been nice to see people try to be helpful even if they can't get close.

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