Psychologist offers advice, assistance in coping with stress from COVID-19 isolation

By Eric PilgrimApril 20, 2020

Dr. Laura Johnson works with patients from her home office during the COVID-19 pandemic. She offers several ideas for how to cope during the stress of telework and health threats. (Photo courtesy of retired Col. Fred W. Johnson)
Dr. Laura Johnson works with patients from her home office during the COVID-19 pandemic. She offers several ideas for how to cope during the stress of telework and health threats. (Photo courtesy of retired Col. Fred W. Johnson) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT KNOX, Ky. — As cases of infected COVID-19 patients continue to rise across the United States, military mental health professionals are encouraging Soldiers, DOD civilian employees and contractors, veterans, and families to seek help when needed and find ways to cope with the stresses of fear and isolation.

A psychologist at Ireland Army Health Clinic here is taking matters into her own hands to help patients get through the pandemic.

“I’m hunting people down,” said Dr. Laura Johnson. “I am literally contacting all my patients and saying, ‘When are we talking?’ because I know it’s such a stressful time.”

In an effort to help others, Johnson started a meditation group and yoga group online. The meditation group meets Wednesdays from 9:30 to 9:50 a.m. on Zoom. She varies up the sessions to keep interest.

“It’s just breathing,” said Johnson. “I do a guided meditation where I help relax your brain and your body, and you emerge from it feeling like you just took an hour-and-a-half power nap.

“Next week, we’ll do some progressive muscle relaxation, and then some guided imagery; it’s a 20-minute check-in every morning on Wednesday.”

She said the Friday yoga sessions start at 9:30 a.m., last 30 minutes, and involve a chair.

“I want everybody to be able to do it. I don’t want to do the Instagram pretzel yoga,” she said. “All of this is meant to be something twice a week that people can schedule and look forward to, because scheduling and having that structure is probably an incredible coping strategy in and of itself.”

Groundhog Day, again.

“People are talking about how it’s Groundhog Day,” said Johnson. “As I sit here in my yoga pants, I don’t want to say, ‘It’s important to get up and shower and put on makeup and put on real clothes!’ That would make me a hypocrite —

“But getting up and making your morning as much as you had made it prior to the COVID is really important,” she continued. “Get up, have your coffee or your tea, walk your dog; keep that structure.”

A report released earlier this month by the Office of Personnel Management highlighted the new reality of telework. In fiscal 2018, which ended Sept. 31 of that year, about 38% of the workforce at the Defense Department was eligible for telework. About 40% of that workforce teleworked in some capacity with 15% of overall military and civilian employees working remotely.

Today, military and Defense elements have increased that number five to tenfold, according to the Pentagon. Johnson said a lot of people are beginning to struggle with having to work from home.

“It becomes mission creep because now all of a sudden your work laptop is on the kitchen table, and you’re always thinking about,” she said. “That can become very stressful.”

The routine of shutting off the computer, gathering your things, getting in the car and driving home was once part of the workday, said Johnson. Because of this, she recommends finding some place in the home that can be declared as “the office.”

“I don’t care if you have to sit in your closet, if that’s the only place you have where it’s like you’re going to work, use it,” said Johnson. “Go someplace where you can shut the door and leave your day in there.”

I’m working here!

Added to the stress of working from the home are all the home life stressors.

“Normally it’s just other colleagues that are coming by and wanting to chit chat, but now it’s the dog needs to be walked, and the kids need help with their schoolwork, or your spouse is working from home and you have different work ethics,” said Johnson. “Here, you’re having to be very structured, very professional, in your home.

“You can feel very torn.”

She stated that a recent conversation with a client revealed that civilian employees might be working more in telework than they would at the office.

“It’s always there. It’s hard to jump up and say, ‘I’ll get to it tomorrow,’ because — it’s right there,” said Johnson. “So I told her we needed to put fences around protected times. If you used to take a 30-minute break at noon to get outside and get some fresh air, then structure your teleworking that way, too. Set a reminder on Outlook.”

Johnson admitted she struggles with this, having made a commitment to close the door to her office at the end of the day and leaving it closed until the start of the next day. She even has her husband hold the work phone, if necessary, to reduce the temptation to hop on it for a few minutes.

“It’s there; it’s hanging on. You think, ‘Aww, I could just do it now,” said Johnson. “But we’re not staying true to our structure, not staying true to those boundaries, and that’s what stressful.”

Another snack attack.

Johnson said another area that is becoming difficult for people working from home is food.

“I hear a lot of people talking, almost jokingly, about having to go on some kind of crazy restrictive diet when this is all done because people are just not eating like they should,” said Johnson.

Comfort food, as she called it, is not necessarily bad, according to Johnson.

“Carbohydrate-rich foods help us activate serotonin production, and that helps improve our mood,” explained Johnson.

Johnson recommended eating regularly scheduled healthy, well-balanced meals each day and maintaining a sleep schedule that ensures getting enough sleep to fight off depression.

“People are worried about everything right now, so having an evening bedtime ritual — maybe getting off the computer, or the Facebook, or the cell phone an hour ahead of time works,” she said.

Move your body.

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to start the yoga group,” she said. “I just wanted some movement. Gyms are closed. People don’t have that healthy outlet that they had. Some people saying, ‘I’ll take a walk around the block,’ but it’s very easily overcome by events.”

She chose yoga because of its slow movements and ability for a wider group to participate in.

“We need to have movement built into our day,” she continued. “We’re not walking to our car, and walking to the parking lot; walking to our office. You have 15 steps from your bedroom to your office — maybe very tiny steps. I tiptoe so I feel like I’m going on a journey.”

Stay connected.

“A lot of my clients are doing a great job of staying connected,” she said. “In the military, we are used to living away from our families. But it can still be difficult to keep up with.”

Johnson said she has a client that has established a social hour with her family once a week through the Zoom app.

“They’re all sitting down having a snack and sharing about their experiences. It’s like a Sunday dinner, but virtually,” she said.

Johnson said she frequently shares that idea with others. The feedback has been well received.

“This is a really great time to relax our standards and to not put any pressure on ourselves,” said Johnson. “I get angry with these famous folks who say we should use this time to learn a new language or write a book. No, we should just be okay with getting up and breathing on a morning.

We should make sure we don’t put any undue pressure on ourselves because this is not extra time,” she said, “this is emotionally draining every day.”

She recommended, instead, that folks take the time to develop some self-care hobbies around the home. If that includes writing a book or learning a new language, all the better.