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Dr. Jennifer Ashton On Finding Strength — And Silver Linings — In Our New Normal

The question from patients that concerns ABC News' chief medical correspondent the most.

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Dr. Jennifer Ashton of ABC News
Heidi Gutman/ABC
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As Jennifer Ashton often says, “I’m not just a doctor on TV, I actually have patients in real life, too.” The chief medical correspondent for ABC News and co-host of GMA3:What Your Need to Know has a private practice in Englewood, NJ and is board certified in OB-GYN and obesity medicine and holds a degree in nutrition.

One of the questions Ashton hears repeatedly from patients and TV viewers is, "When will things go back to normal?" and this concerns her. She says, "You can't live life looking backwards. If you do, you will miss the present and won't be prepared for the future. We need to evolve and adapt because this is our new normal.”

To help people adjust, Ashton, a  51-year-old single mother of two, wrote her recently released book, The New Normal; a Road Map to Resilience in the Pandemic Era.  She explains, “I want to help people learn how to think like a doctor so they can better decipher the medical news now and interpret what may happen in the future.”

Ashton understands why people are fearful and feel like they have no control over what is going to happen next. But she hopes that the book will help people to understand how they can regain some of what they have lost. She says, “There  are many aspects of our health and wellness we can control."

Oxygen Mask on First

Ashton says people of all ages have been psychologically impacted by the pandemic but in different ways.

For middle-aged women, the pandemic has amplified the classic struggle of taking care of others before they look after their own needs. Ashton says, “As women, we have a circle of people that depend on us: our kids, our parents, spouses, friends, co-workers and community. But we are the hub of the wheel that keeps things going. If we don't take care of ourselves, the hub collapses."

Time to Stop Overindulging

At the beginning of the pandemic, many of us developed some less-than-ideal coping techniques. We self-soothed (drinking more alcohol, over-eating, etc.) to replace the pleasurable activities we lost and combat feelings such as fear, anxiety, loneliness and boredom.

Ashton equates it to a wild weekend in Las Vegas. Ashton says, "We thought we were in a finite situation that would end in a few weeks. So we went off the rails. We ate more, we drank more alcohol … we did what we needed to comfort ourselves. But now it's been a year, and it is not ending anytime soon. It’s time to take care of ourselves.”

Maintaining Importance of Maintaining A Healthy Weight

Ashton explains, "The single most effective thing you can do to help pandemic-proof your body is to lose weight. That is because being overweight or obese is the biggest chronic risk factor to developing severe COVID-19 complications.”

If your Quarantine 15 has turned into 30, don’t berate yourself or feel guilty. Ashton explains, “If you are overweight or obese, it is not your fault. There are genetic, metabolic, hormonal and behavior components at play."

Worry less about the number on the scale and more about getting your BMI into a healthy range. Ashton says, “The goal shouldn’t be dramatic, unattainable weight loss. It’s about taking simple steps (eating less processed foods, drinking less alcohol, lowering sugar intake, moving more, etc.)”

Finding the Strength

There was a small hope in many of us that the end of 2020 would bring about a magic conclusion to the pandemic. But that hasn’t happened. People are getting tired and frustrated. Ashton says, “We have never lived through anything like this before. While it's understandable that people are feeling mentally and physically fatigued, now is not the time to give up or stop being diligent. We need to continue to wear masks, stay socially distanced and get as many people vaccinated as possible.”

We also want to avoid placing blame or being judgmental of others. Ashton says, “As a doctor, I try to inform and educate my patients, but in the end, they make their own decisions. It’s the same with people in our community. We can’t tell others what to do. But we can control our own actions and reactions. And we can give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they are trying their best.”

Silver Linings

While each person's experience this past year is unique, everyone has lost something due to the pandemic.  Some losses are greater than others and it is important to recognize this fact while also understanding that we are all in this together. Ashton says, "We are all grieving together and getting over it together.”

Ashton acknowledges that the virus has changed the world and created a new normal. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. These past few months have given people a chance to re-define their priorities. Ashton says, “The new normal hasn’t taken away our power to be our best selves. We can be who we want to be and that includes being happy, hopeful and grateful.”