By Rachael Tolliver-IRAHC PAOOctober 15, 2018
Sometimes there is no substitute for personal experience. And Dr. Laura Johnson, a licensed psychologist who is the Fort Knox director of psychological health and the chief of the Department of Behavioral Health at Ireland Army Health Clinic, is a perfect example.
She joined the Army in January 1988 and reported to Fort McClellan Alabama for the military police officer basic course.
"I was 22 years old, straight out of college and anyone who knew me was baffled that I had chosen to go into the Army--my nickname, at that time was Private Benjamin," she laughingly explained. "I ended up loving it and served nearly 10 years, resigned my commission, entered the IRR/IMA and was recalled to active duty in February 2002."
But after the usual stress that comes with being in the military during this time frame and being a company commander three times---a job she said was the most rewarding job in the Army--she said she was stretched too thin.
"I was really tired and frustrated and angry," she explained. "(After a little incident), my commander told me to go see somebody and get better-- I went to see the unit psychologist. He recommended that I look into yoga and meditation. This was 1996, so these weren't common recommendations back then-- he saved my sanity and unknowingly set me on a new life course."
Leaving the Army was hard too because while she was trained what to in the Army, she had not been trained how to leave the Army or what to do in the civilian world. Again, her time in counseling came in handy.
As a positive result of the experience, she learned she enjoyed the idea of helping people heal. She became a yoga instructor, and then started dabbling in mediation and aromatherapy and other alternative options. And eventually studied for, and received a master's in counseling with a certification in children's play therapy.
"I was finding a unique path to healing--I found a powerful combination of complementary alternative and integrative medicine techniques," she said. "I'm so glad I did because I eventually went back to graduate school earned my doctorate in psychology and now it is my honor to work with Soldiers who are struggling in some of the same ways that I had been."
Enter, Yoga and other techniques that she uses in conjunction with traditional methods.
To be clear, Johnson said she isn't against using medications. Many times medications are the only way someone will get better. And, she added, medications are quickly effective so problems like PTSD, bipolar disorder, depression and insomnia don't create more problems.
"The medications allow us to treat the root causes more completely--but I like to capitalize on all the ways to treat," she explained. "Research has shown that combining medication and psychotherapy is the most effective way to treat mental health issues. There is additional evidence that these alternative and complementary treatments are powerful adjuncts to traditional treatment and they have no associated risk of side effects with them."
And who doesn't like the idea of better health without risks?
She has used alternative treatments in all kinds of therapy situation including those with Soldiers, young adults and veterans or those who are about to leave the military.
"Most of my patients come in uniform and it's hard to truly 'be oneself' in that uniform --I'm pretty sure that is why we wear them," she said. "One client was crying and was so upset because she was crying while in uniform and she said, 'You aren't supposed to cry in the superman suit.' That pretty much sums up the expectations we have of ourselves--that we are a member of the most elite team in the world. That when we leave (the Army) we will miss being a part of something so much bigger…That we will never share that comradery, have that same level of pride in what we do, serve and sacrifice and know that what we do matters."
That was one of Johnson's many favorite patient quotes--"You aren't supposed to cry in the superman suit." Another was from a young patient with whom yoga was a breakthrough tool.
"'I feel fierce,' was uttered by a young girl while tears streamed down her face when we were doing her favorite yoga pose, 'fierce,' sometimes called Chair," she remembered. "This young girl had found her mother's dead body and for weeks we met and sat in mostly pained silence."
Johnson said that one day it dawned on her to teach the patient yoga to help address the trauma in non-verbal ways. So she created a yoga flow just for her, and it included the fierce pose. Finally, she worked through some of the trauma and was feeling stronger.
But something as simple as the normal ups and downs in life and everyday stress can be greatly helped with alternative treatments such as yoga.
"Resilience is about taking care of ourselves so that we can meet and conquer the challenges that daily life brings to us, and so that we can stay strong through the more difficult situations," she noted. "Resilience is very much like a muscle--we can build it, and we have to work at it to keep it strong. And what we eat contributes to that muscle."
She added that research articles show a correlation between low Omega-3 levels with depression, ADHD and bipolar symptoms and she said a poor diet in general correlates with mental and physical health issues. Additionally, there is research that supports SAMe, vitamin B12, folate and vitamin C are helpful in addressing depression symptoms.
Johnson recommends everyone have a "tool box" of resilience methods that includes exercise, diet, sleep and a form of relaxation such as meditation or, and, yoga. But if you are someone who likes to "dip your toes" before deciding to jump right in, Johnson recommends adding a few apps to your tool box.
"What would we do without apps and smart phones? Pick one or two of your favorites to help build your tool box," she said. "A few great apps to help with yoga include, Daily Yoga (all levels); 5 Minute yoga; 10 daily yoga poses, and Down Dog: Great yoga anywhere."
She also said there were some good apps for meditation that included, Insight Timer--her favorite; Smiling minds--for kids; Relaxing Melodies and Headspace.
Johnson said she started keeping a list of her favorite quotes that patients would say in a small journal--no PHI, no HIPAA violations, just a reminder of why she gets up each morning--and one of her favorites has stuck with her through the years.
"I was working with a young man, a young Soldier who was profoundly impacted by war and his combat tour," she explained. "He sat down in my office and he said 'I think this little stint as a soldier is the most significant thing I'll ever do.'
But it seems Johnson has found another significant role, and it started with Yoga.
Writers note: For more information on available programs to help with stress, anger management or other issues please visit the IRAHC Behavioral Health website at https://bit.ly/2MJKWIh, or call 502-626-6187 / 6188 / 6153.
Johnson's Top Ten list of things to do/have in our "tool box" to better build resiliency includes:
10. Do something you enjoy everyday
9. Find time to relax daily -- deep breathing, PMR, yoga, meditate, pray
8. Drop 5 words: eliminate "should," "ought to," "must," "terrible," and "perfect" from your
vocabulary -- "I'd prefer it if …" frees us from expectations of ourselves and others that can let us down.
7. Prioritize, Simplify, and Let go -- Focus on the intention: "what's the purpose?"
6. Exercise -- move at least 30 minutes 3-5 days a week (strive for everyday)
5. Limit (or eliminate) caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine - they can all interfere with our sleep and
our emotional well being.
4. Water -- drink at least 8 glasses a day
3. Eat a balanced diet
2. Take a multivitamin each day
1. Get enough sleep (8-10 is recommended)