As the chief medical correspondent for ABC News, Dr. Jennifer Ashton has spent the past year helping to make sense of the pandemic for the network’s millions of viewers.
But another aspect of the pandemic that she deals with is the toll it has taken on our nation’s mental health, which she sees on a daily basis at her medical practice in New Jersey, where Dr. Ashton is an obstetrician-gynecologist. In the past year, she says, patient after patient has opened up to her about the crippling stress and uncertainty caused by Covid-19 and their struggles with fear, anxiety, loneliness, frustration and depression.
“I have patients ranging in age from teenagers to women in their 70s and 80s, and they all say this to me,” Dr. Ashton said. “They express it to me almost with this tone that they think there’s something wrong with it. The first thing that I do is I help them recognize that it’s appropriate and it’s OK. Everyone is having these feelings.”
Dr. Ashton explores the psychological toll of the pandemic in her new book, “The New Normal,” which shows us how thinking like a doctor may help us to build resilience and strengthen our overall health. We recently caught up with Dr. Ashton to discuss her thoughts on how the pandemic is affecting our mental health, why it’s essential that we practice self-care during these stressful times, and one of the best hacks she found to improve her diet. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Q. How do you define the “new normal”?
This past year has been filled with so much uncertainty and unfamiliarity. Nothing that we are doing today or have lived through in the last year is normal. The approach that I’ve taken to covering this pandemic has been that of viewing the country as one big patient, and the first step in healing or recovery from any illness is accepting the current situation.
It’s like taking care of a patient who has recently undergone an amputation. The goal of rehabilitation is to get that person walking again or using a prosthetic device. That is their new normal. If they keep thinking of what they did before the amputation, it just hinders their progress. But when you stop looking back and start focusing on the present and the future, you can have an incredible healing and recovery.
Q. You write that a lot of people have developed signs of post-traumatic stress this past year, even if they didn’t develop Covid-19. Can you explain?
I divide it up into different subsets of the population. First, you have to address the frontline health care workers, and not just doctors and nurses. The transporters, technicians, clinical clerks — there are so many people who work in hospitals that never get recognized. And yet every death due to Covid affects them in the same way. To be in a hospital setting where you are losing a patient every hour for months on end takes a massive psychological toll.
And for everyone else, I’ve spoken to many mental health professionals over the last year, and every single one has said that the social isolation and persistence of this pandemic has affected all of us. Human beings are social creatures. If you think about how many of us have been isolated for so long, it’s easy to see how entire elements of our society will have post-traumatic stress disorder because of that.
Q. You say that it’s essential for people to practice self-care right now. What are some of the best ways to do that?
How you eat, sleep and move is what I call the trifecta of good health and wellness. But I realized after the first stay-at-home period in New York, when I was working 15-hour days from my small New York apartment, that I had let all of those things fall by the wayside, and it had a massive impact on how my brain and my body felt. I had to turn the doctor lens on myself and say, ‘How would you talk to you, if you were your own patient?’
I said it’s time to go back to the basics: Stop eating this comfort food that you never ate before the pandemic. Make sure that you get outside and exercise every day. I recommitted to getting eight hours of sleep and doing my meditation practice every day, and it was incredibly transformative. It made a huge difference in how I felt.
Q. In the book you talk about how the pandemic has changed the way we eat, and mostly for the worse. What is one of your top rules for eating right?
For those of us who are lucky, one of the blessings of this pandemic was that by necessity we started cooking from home. I could not cook a single meal before this pandemic. But I learned to cook and no one was more shocked than my children, who couldn’t believe what they were seeing. So, I would say my first rule is don’t be afraid to fail safely and quickly when it comes to trying new things with food, whether that’s with cooking or a new diet. Now is the time to be curious and experiment. I had to quarantine three different times in the last year because of exposure to positive cases. The last time I quarantined, I experimented with being completely vegan. In only 10 days, my LDL cholesterol dropped from 111 to 85. I had never considered going vegan before, but there are certain parts of it that I’m going to continue forever.
Q. You’re a busy doctor and journalist. What do you do for exercise, and what advice do you have for our readers?
Exercise is my stress release. I like a combination of resistance training and all kinds of cardio. Sometimes I do what I call low and slow, which is when I’m barely sweating but it’s something I can do while I’m on my device or watching TV. I do a lot of work with resistance bands because it never gets easy. You can work your entire body. You can do it anywhere, and they’re cheap. I keep them in my office and in my apartment. That’s my default.
Q. What is one thing you do every day for your mental health?
I’m a big believer in meditation. I do 20 minutes of it every day, and it’s life changing. I try to start my day with it because then I know that I’ll get it in. As the saying goes, I don’t find the time, I make the time. It’s helped me immensely during this pandemic.