Gwyneth Paltrow Talks Candidly About COVID-19 and Stress with California's Surgeon General

Like all of us, the actress has been working to stay healthy and positive during this challenging time. Here, she interviews California’s first surgeon general to find out how we can fight the stress, feel better, and start moving forward.
By the SHAPE Editors
June 12, 2020

Gwyneth Paltrow has made some surprising discoveries these past few months.

“I had not realized how much the normal pace of life was overburdening our bodies, our minds, and our nervous systems,” she says. “As we have been forced into the confines of our own homes, that has brought up a lot of emotional distress for some, and for others it has been very peaceful. In my case, I have experienced both,” says the actor and founder of Goop, whose latest project, season 2 of The Politician on Netflix, premieres on June 19. “I have started to settle down in my brain and body. It has given me new perspective about how much I will take on going forward.”

Her health routine has also shifted into a more relaxed pace. Previously, “I was constantly trying to pack in wellness moments, but I wasn’t really decompressing until the weekend or when I went on vacation,” says Paltrow, 47. “Now I feel different, letting my body go to sleep and wake up in its natural rhythm, having my kids around all the time, eating meals together and having meaningful conversations. We linger at the table; our dinners are an hour and a half long. My heart feels fuller, and my mind feels calmer in that respect.”

Still, coping with the stress and uncertainty of the situation has been tough, she says. “I haven’t fully figured that out,” says Paltrow. “I try to do exercises every day for my back and neck because of all the Zoom calls I’m on. My husband, Brad, and I take a walk at least three or four times a week. And I’ve been doing a lot of online classes: Tracy Anderson, the Class by Taryn Toomey, Bulldog Yoga, CorePower Yoga.”

As she started thinking about how this stressful time has affected all of us, Paltrow had an idea. For Shape she would interview an expert on the subject: Nadine Burke Harris, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.A.P., California’s first surgeon general, who has done groundbreaking work on the health impacts of adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress. “I was intrigued that we’d never had a surgeon general in California," says Paltrow. "When I saw that Dr. Burke Harris was a female African American M.D. and had spent her career helping children who’d grown up in adverse childhoods in disenfranchised neighborhoods, I watched her TED Talk. And I sort of fell in love with her.”

Listen in as she speaks with Dr. Burke Harris about how to handle difficult times and stay strong and healthy, or watch their full conversation in the video below.

Lachlan Bailey

PALTROW: Gosh, I have so much I want to ask you. How did you start to make the link between trauma and health? Why were you drawn to go to a disenfranchised part of San Francisco and start a practice?

DR. BURKE HARRIS: To answer your last question first, my family is from Jamaica. We were raised to give to the community. When you’re from a small tribe, everyone takes care of one another and looks out for one another. I’ve always felt really connected to caring for under-served communities. Also, you can’t grow up Black in America and not feel outraged by the terrible health disparities that are still going on every day. We’re talking about differences in people living or dying, kids having the opportunity to grow up and be healthy. That was the reason why I wanted to go and work in a really under-served neighborhood.

PALTROW: I’ve always felt like the bad things that happen to us become a footnote. We’re not taught how to process trauma at the time. It’s amazing to see how you’ve created science around adverse childhood experiences and conditions like heart health and asthma. What was the reaction of your colleagues?

DR. BURKE HARRIS: An interesting thing that’s inextricably a part of my story is how race plays a role. Because when you’re the only Black person in your science class of 1,000 at [the University of California] Berkeley, there’s a sense of a different level of excellence that’s required. My message always includes a blend of real life, like, “Hey, this is how it shows up. This is what it looks and feels like.” But I don’t mess around when it comes to the science. When people say, “that’s not really scientific,” I say, “Actually, individuals with higher doses of adversity have down-regulated beta-agonist receptor in their pulmonary endothelial.” (Related: Kerry Washington and Activist Kendrick Sampson Spoke About Mental Health In the Fight for Racial Justice)

PALTROW: I don’t know what you just said, but yes.

DR. BURKE HARRIS: My response is to be extremely rigorous with the science. As a result, what we’ve seen is that there has been a transformation. In the past decade, it went from people being like, “Oh, whatever,” to the state of California implementing the largest initiative ever in terms of training doctors on how to screen for and respond to childhood adversity. Frankly, I think this has the opportunity to be one of the greatest medical advances of the 21st century—for all health care professionals to recognize and understand the role that stress and trauma play in our health.

DR. BURKE HARRIS: The fight-or-flight response is activated. The amygdala in our brain triggers the fear response, and that prompts the release of stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases your blood pressure and your blood sugar, and it shunts blood to your big muscles so they work harder and more efficiently. Cortisol is more of a long-term stress hormone. It raises your blood pressure and your blood sugar as well, and it can make you slightly more aggressive. Cortisol also inhibits the part of the brain that’s responsible for executive functioning, judgment, and impulse control. We see the effects of stress on the body, the brain, our hormones, and our immune system. Stress even affects epigenetic regulation, which is the way your genetic code is expressed. (Related: How Stress Is Actually Killing American Women)

Nadine Burke Harris, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.A.P., California’s first surgeon general, is an award-winning physician and researcher dedicated to raising public awareness of adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress and transforming the way society responds to them.
Nadine Burke Harris

PALTROW: Are there interventions to reverse some of these negative health effects?

DR. BURKE HARRIS: When we looked at thousands of research studies, one of the things that helped regulate stress hormones is regular exercise. It not only helps to metabolize stress hormones, but it also releases something called BDNF, which is brain-derived neurotrophic factor. It’s like Miracle-Gro for brain cells—it stimulates our ability to make new neural connections. Exercise is really important, and so is good sleep, because when we’re sleeping, our stress response recalibrates itself.

PALTROW: I know there’s practically an epidemic of sleeplessness in this country, especially right now. What can we do to sleep better?

DR. BURKE HARRIS: No. 1, go to bed and wake up at the same time every night. When you do that, your brain starts to release sleep-inducing neurotransmitters at that same time, and that makes them more effective. I’m super religious about my sleep schedule. My bedtime is 9 p.m. That’s in bed, lights out. My husband and I have four kids. He’s on the late shift because he’s more of a night owl, and I’m on in the morning.

PALTROW: You have four kids. That’s incredible.

DR. BURKE HARRIS: We have four boys. Pray for me. So going to bed and waking up at the same time is really important. Also, stop watching TV or using your electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, avoid drinking caffeine after noon, and be aware of how your diet affects your sleep. The other thing is to make sure your sleep environment is calm, cool, and quiet. For folks who are really struggling with sleep, talk to your doctor, who might recommend something like melatonin or another sleep aid.

PALTROW: How much of your day is spent dealing with coronavirus?

DR. BURKE HARRIS: A lot, but in a really interesting way. The work I’ve been focused on is even more important in the era of COVID-19. Everyone is experiencing stress, and we have to understand how that affects our health. In other natural disasters there have been higher rates of heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes. It’s important for doctors and health care providers to understand that and to know what the best practices are. The other part of it is that adverse childhood experiences are going up. There’s more domestic violence happening right now.

PALTROW: It’s so upsetting and heartbreaking. I feel like we need to fix the systemic problems that cause trans-generational harm from parent to child. And this is what’s so beautiful about your work.

DR. BURKE HARRIS: That’s exactly what my work is focused on, even more so with COVID-19. Because if you have an adult who had adverse childhood experiences, they may have an overactive stress response. Then throw a stressor like a pandemic into the mix, and you have folks who are at greater risk of not only negative health outcomes but also negative mental and behavioral outcomes. And everyone is stressed right now. That means difficulty with impulse control, executive functioning, and for some, anger and frustration.

We need to get the word out and help people understand that their stress hormones are really pumping now, and these are the things that make a big difference—sleep, exercise, good nutrition, mindfulness, mental health, and healthy relationships. That message is more urgent than ever.