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Resilience is a word we’ve been hearing a lot lately, but does anyone really understand what it means — or if you have it? Good Morning America’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton knows a thing or two about resilience. In today’s episode, she helps us understand it, too.
Join us as we learn what we all need to know to be resilient in the face of COVID and other adversities. We also discuss the different types of resilience, from financial to psychological, and how to tell if we’re resilient — and if we’re not, Dr. Ashton shows us how to be.
Dr. Jennifer Ashton is ABC News’ Chief Health and Medical Correspondent. As part of the ABC News medical unit, she reports on major health and wellness issues across all ABC News platforms. She also reports the latest breaking medical news for “GMA3: What You Need to Know,” informing viewers about how to stay safe and healthy during the pandemic and beyond.
Ashton has been at the forefront of ABC News’ COVID-19 coverage, visiting the NIH Vaccine Development Lab and the White House, meeting with Vice President Pence and White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx. Ashton also interviewed National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director and member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and I want to quickly thank our sponsor, Better Help. You can get a week free by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. Calling into the show today we have Dr. Jennifer Ashton. Dr. Ashton is the Chief Medical Correspondent for ABC News and Good Morning America. She’s also the author of the book on finding resilience in the time of COVID titled “The New Normal.” Dr. Ashton, welcome to the show.
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: Thanks, Gabe, for having me.
Gabe Howard: Oh, you’re very welcome. Dr. Ashton, your book is titled “The New Normal: A Roadmap to Resilience in the Pandemic Era,” and it was released in February of this year. And one of the things that I’ve noticed online, especially in doing research for this show, is that the phrase the new normal is not so liked anymore. Have you noticed that? Do you have an opinion on that?
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: No, you know what, I actually. So first of all, some behind the scenes kind of information for your listeners. I can’t speak for other authors, but “The New Normal” was my sixth book, so this was not my first rodeo in the publishing world. And with every single book, I will say that the title was largely selected by the publisher and or editor with my kind of approval and tweaking. The reason for that is because the publishers and editors, this is what they do for a living. You know, they can take content and then say, OK, let me think of what the best title is for that. No different, really, than how producers in television will package content and write, let’s say, the tease for the segment or something like that. So when my publishing team at HarperCollins and William Morrow Books, when they picked or suggested the title, “The New Normal,” I said, I hate that term.
Gabe Howard: [Laughter].
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: I actually, I actually said, that makes me cringe. Why do you think that’s a good title? And they basically described exactly what you did in your question and they said, and remember, this was six months before the book came out. So this is in the fall of 2020. And they said, you know, this is going to be a buzz term and it’s people are going to be using this and it’s going to generate very strong feelings. And I said, right, I mean, I can’t stand that term. So they said, why do you dislike it? And I said, Well, because I think there’s nothing normal about what’s going on, and it’s at a certain point, not new anymore. And they said exactly. So it’s almost like an oxymoron or a double entendre or a tongue in cheek. They described it any number of ways in the literary world. And I realized that as usual, they were right. There was enough to that that sparked conversation and emotional reaction that I trusted them and said, OK, let’s compromise. I’ll settle on that for the main title if I can give you the subtitle, and as we’ve done with several of my books, we agreed that that was the good compromise.
Gabe Howard: Now, resilience is one of those concepts that has a lot of personal opinion mixed in with fact. For example, I may think it’s resilient to finish a race when I’ve lost, whereas someone else may think that it’s only resilient to find a way to win. With so much ambiguity, how do you clearly communicate and teach about resiliency in the way that you do?
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: Well, I always use my starting point to be what I would tell an individual person or a patient. And that’s really what I use to inform my segments. It’s how I often say my job as chief medical correspondent makes me a better doctor, and being a real practicing doctor makes me a better medical correspondent. I’ve learned a lot in the 16 years that I’ve been in practice, and I’ve learned a lot in the 16 years that I’ve been doing national television. And I really drew on that heavily in the last, I would say, four and a half years for different reasons. But I feel like what we’ve all been living through has really kind of forced us all to get up close and personal with this concept of resilience. And I think the short answer to your question is that resilience means different things to different people. There could be physical resilience, there could be psychological resilience, there can be financial resilience, or it could be one of those things one day, another thing another day. At the end of it all is really that resilience means a strength and survivability that exists, maybe even in settings where we don’t expect to find it.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Ashton, for you personally, how do you define resilience?
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: Um, I define it as just doing something that you didn’t think you could do. And whether that’s surviving a diagnosis or living through the loss of a loved one, a death of a loved one or the end of a relationship or the end of a job. I’ve in some ways experienced a lot of those things personally, and certainly we all know someone who’s experienced those things by now. And so for me, I kind of am a glass half full type of person. So I look at resilience always with a positive spin, which is how much better are you than you thought you actually were? And I think that definitely the pandemic, but also just life experiences that we’ve been through recently, that I’ve been through, has really taught me a lot about resilience.
Gabe Howard: I’m very much a glass half empty kind of person. Understanding, and I just say that because I do understand resiliency and as somebody who lives with bipolar disorder, who’s somebody who was fired from their job, as somebody who’s been through a lot, even though I am still very pessimistic, I still think that I’m very resilient. Is there a space in resiliency for people like me? Am I allowed to consider myself resilient?
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: Oh, I mean, definitely, I think that again, there is no, there is a definition, obviously in Webster’s, but I think that it will mean different things to different people. And whether or not you’re pessimistic at heart, I think, is not exactly the same thing as resilience. Resilience, I think, means you can withstand or tolerate more than you thought you could. That doesn’t mean that you’re enjoying it, right? That doesn’t mean you’re putting a positive spin on it. It just means that something that you didn’t think you’d be able to get through you are.
Gabe Howard: One of the reasons that I never liked math in school is because it was absolute, I was always attracted to things that had discussion, philosophy, for example. You can just debate that until you’re blue in the face and there’s never any way to arrive there. And I sort of feel like resiliency is one of those things that how you survive, how you move forward is in some ways very personal, but it has a common thread. Am I speaking about resiliency correctly as an analogy for our listeners? Or am I completely off?
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: No, I think that you’re right, I think that is an accurate way of thinking about it. For me, I’ll give, I’ll make this concrete. I’ll give you a personal anecdote that I’ve spoken about in my book “Life After Suicide,” and in that book, which I wrote in 2018, I talk about the experience that my children and I had after my ex-husband and their father died by suicide just four years ago. And for us, that was really the first time that we experienced what having resilience means, because what did we have to do? Well, we had to keep living. We had to figure out a way to live with our grief and sadness and pain, but at the same time, not become sad or angry people on the planet, which is not easy to do sometimes. My children had to go back to school. I had to go back to work. There were just realities of how we dealt with that loss. And so for us, being resilient looks like, well, we got through it. We are getting through it, will always be getting through it. And in some ways, we found that we were stronger than we thought. I think that I can speak for both of them. They’re both not minors anymore. They’re 21 and 23 years of age. But I think I can speak for all of us when I say that before Rob’s death, if someone had come to me and said, Do you think that the three of you could survive a suicide death of your children’s father? I would have, it would have been unfathomable for me to even answer that question. And but on some levels, I probably would have wanted to say, no, I don’t think we could survive that because no one thinks they can survive anything, you know, a diagnosis of cancer or an accident or losing their home or any of those things, a breakup, losing their job.
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: But in fact, most people do survive. And so right off the bat, that resilience is kind of your lived experience through something like that. And then on top of it, it’s how you interpret, you’ve come out of it. So my children and I, we, and we talk about our story and life after suicide, but I also share the stories of other survivors who really are the walking embodiment of resilience because it was very important to us not to not to make Rob’s memory kind of be tainted in some way, by the way he died and by the way he ended his life. We all wanted to live in a way that honored his memory and honored the incredible life he had. And we know that when someone dies by suicide, that is not really that different than dying of cancer. You know, it doesn’t make them a bad person. It’s a disease that took their life and we wanted to figure out a way to live through it and live without him in a way that honored his spirit, honored his life, but also kind of cared for us as the survivors. And so for us, that’s really I think when we think about resilience, that’s what comes to mind. And that’s a process
Gabe Howard: Before you shared with me that story, and I’m very sorry for your loss and thank you so much for being open, before you shared with me that story, I thought resilience was just something you were born with. You’re either resilient or you’re not. But my mind is shifting. In fact, it’s shifting rapidly. It sounds like resilience is something that you can learn. Is resilience, something you can learn?
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: Oh, I definitely think you can learn it, but I also think some people are born resilient, and I think that that’s why it’s a kind of a vague and elusive definition or target, if you will. There are a lot of people who have lived through very, very difficult experiences. And so you would say, Wow, you just obviously you were born resilient, you were born to deal with these things. But then there are people that you would kind of be surprised or least expect it from. And I think that in a lot of ways, it is a trait or a skill or a habit or characteristic that can be cultivated and practiced. And I actually think that when that is the case, resilience begets more resilience.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with Good Morning America’s Dr. Jennifer Ashton discussing resilience. For the longest time, I never considered myself resilient at all, and what finally convinced me was just the sheer number of people that kept saying, Gabe, you’re resilient. Look at all you’ve done. Look at all you’ve survived. So it’s great. It’s wonderful
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: That I have wonderful people around me. I mean, big shout out to my family and friends.
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: But how can somebody know personally whether or not they’re resilient?
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: Well, as I said, I don’t think it’s as simple as yes or no, there’s a test for resilience and you either pass it or you don’t. But the one question that I think is helpful for people to ask themselves is, am I in a better place today than I was yesterday or this week than I was last week or this month or this year or even this hour? And I think that that can be helpful to define resilience, and obviously it’s very subjective. But another question that people can ask is, am I surprising myself with the way I’m handling X, Y or Z? I always think it’s helpful in medicine for perspective. You know, I oftentimes have to deliver some unpleasant diagnoses to people, and they’re upsetting and they’re upsetting when you look at them in isolation. But then if you compare or bring in a sense of perspective, which is, look, this is bad, but it always could be worse. And I think that that is helpful. And it’s even helpful when you ask yourself, am I doing better than I was before? That’s one way that you can get at how am I doing? Do I feel resilient? Am I surprising myself with how I’m handling this? Did I think that I was going to come out of this in as good a condition? And, by the way, could give you zillions of medical physical examples. It becomes harder when these are nonphysical, when they’re life examples or psychological or emotional examples. Any time there’s hard data, whether it’s your finances or your physical condition, it’s easy. It’s easier to answer that. But in my career as a practicing OB/GYN, I’ve delivered over 1500 babies, and if I had a dollar for every time a woman said to me, Oh my God, I can’t believe I just did that, it would be probably $1,500. I mean, it could be a physical feat, but it also could be emotional or psychological. It could be all those things.
Gabe Howard: Along those same lines, how can a person increase their resilience? Because it sounds like we can always have more?
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: Well, sure, I think it’s always something that I look at it like it’s a bit of an athletic endeavor, right? So I say, how am I doing today? Did I surprise myself with my performance or how I’m feeling? And how can I keep myself up to do even better tomorrow? And maybe that’s with you’re controlling your emotions or modulating your behavior? Maybe that’s with certain lifestyle practices like getting more sleep or meditating. Today, for example, I woke up and I was feeling super stressed, mentally and physically stressed, and I was looking down the barrel of a 15 hour workday and I’m looking down the barrel of a 75 hour work week. And I was just feeling super stressed. And right after I got off the air on Good Morning America this morning, I meditated in my dressing room for 20 minutes and I absolutely felt a dramatic improvement. So for me, that’s how I’m trying to bolster my resilience to this acutely stressful week. In a month this week won’t matter. You know, I won’t be looking back at this week and say, Oh my God, that was such a brutal week. I’ll just say, Oh, okay, well, it was another week, but meditating definitely helped me through it.
Gabe Howard: It sounds like coping skills are a personal trait that one could cultivate to improve their resilience. For you, it was meditation and I’m sure you probably have other coping skills as well. But is that accurate? Are there coping skills that can increase our resilience?
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: I think they’re, whether you call them coping skills or whether you call them just life skills or behaviors. I definitely think so. And I think again, if you’re talking from time about the physical condition of a surgical patient, for example, resilience would be what? What kind of condition are you in before I take you to the O.R.? What kind of condition is a woman in before she gets pregnant and has a baby? That’s something that can only help in terms of the way someone comes out of something, whether that’s standard definition of physical fitness or whether that’s different for different person. You know, I think they’re both OK. I think it’s physical. I think it’s behavioral. I think it’s social and emotional. I think my, to give you a psychological example, my children and I, since Rob’s suicide, are constantly plugged into our therapists, to mental health professional, and we try to check in with her even when things are quote unquote smooth and going well and all positive. We tend to check in with her more when we’re needing her guidance. But the bottom line is that’s part of how we maintain or try to grow psychological resilience is by having coping strategies in place so that when we need them, they’re there and they’re not unfamiliar, very similar to how an athlete would do the same thing physically.
Gabe Howard: One of the questions that keeps coming up in my pessimistic mind and remember I’ve already copped to being a pessimist. Isn’t resilience just another way to say be optimistic or look at the bright side of things?
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: No, definitely not. As a matter of fact, when I was listening to your question, what I was reminded of is a really important book that I read around 2014, 2015 called “The Resilience Dividend” by Judith Rodin. And in that book, Dr. Rodin, she used to be the CEO of the Rockefeller Foundation, and she was the first female president of an Ivy League university. She was the president of Penn. And in the book, Dr. Rodin talks about resilience of systems, of cities, of countries, of corporations. She really doesn’t talk about the resilience of individuals, and there’s a lot in that book that I’ve drawn upon in the last year and a half of the pandemic again, both personally and kind of big picture. And she talks about things like being adaptable, being able to incorporate new information in your actions as one of the key six pillars for developing resilience, how to weather a storm in situations with great uncertainty. That’s a measure of resilience. And again, she’s talking about this on a macro level. You and I are talking about it more on a micro level or an individual level, but it has nothing to do with seeing it in a rosy view. You know, she talks about how the city of Boston got through the marathon bombing and that certainly there was not a lot to look at there like from an optimistic standpoint, right? I mean, people were killed. People were maimed. It was horrible, but they still came through it with this resilience. And I think that has nothing to do with whether someone’s a pessimist or not.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much for clarifying that. Once again, I’m married to an optimist and I know, it’s opposites attract, right? And I’ve always been curious about the way that well-known concepts like resilience play out in each of our minds and where we both end up, and often we both end up in the same place. Now in your book, you table resilience with the pandemic, we all need to be resilient, well, to survive a worldwide pandemic, and I’m seeing how that’s playing out in my household. During your research and your writing for the book, what did you discover about resilience when looking at an entire nation, going through the same thing and needing to have resiliency?
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: What I saw from the country is that there were people who stepped up in ways that I know surprised not only them, but people around them. There were systems that stepped up in ways that were unexpected and as part of that whole experience there were also spotlights that were shown on what didn’t go well, and I think that’s part of trying to cultivate resilience is taking a view of something in a critical way and saying what worked? What didn’t work? What do I want to amplify and what do I want to minimize? And what do I want to see more of and what do I want never to see again? And I think that as a country, there were a plethora of examples on all those fronts. But I think that at the end of the day, we saw not only from sectors of our society to individuals that we can withstand a lot
Gabe Howard: Dr. Ashton, thank you so much for being here, I really appreciate your candor and answering all of our questions. Do you have a website that people can find all of your social media, your book? I mean, I know your book is available on Amazon, wherever fine books are sold, but what’s your website?
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: My website is JenniferAshtonMD.com. But I have to tell you that I engage most with the public on my Instagram, which is @drjashton. I run it myself. I don’t have someone else running it for me. So it’s truly authentic and I feel that people are nice. But it’s an open, kind of honest space for interaction. And I don’t know, you may not like it because you admit to being a pessimist, but I do think that my Instagram tends to be a place of positivity, and I feel like we all need that.
Gabe Howard: Well, thank you so much for saying that, and you know, I met, fell in love with and have been married to for 10 years, the most optimistic person I know. I often joke with her that if our house caught on fire, she would become happy because it meant that we got s’mores, that
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: There you go.
Gabe Howard: That’s the level of optimism I’m dealing with in my household.
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: So, I do see the value in it. Thank you so much for being here. We really, really appreciate it.
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: Thank you so much for having me. It was great talking to you.
Gabe Howard: Well, you are very welcome. To all of our listeners, a great big thank you. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” as well as an award winning public speaker who is available for your next event. My book is on Amazon because what isn’t? Or you can get a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me just by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It’s absolutely free, and please recommend the show to your friends and family. You can do it via social media or word of mouth is absolutely still a thing. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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