Dr. Timothy Avery is a Clinical Psychologist working for the National Center for PTSD at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Menlo Park, California. Dr. Avery is a U.S. Navy veteran, having been enlisted for 16 years and having served in Iraq. Dr. Avery’s specialty in his clinical psychology work includes PTSD and co-occurring mental and physical conditions, such as chronic pain, insomnia, depression, and anxiety. His work at the VA is centered around the adoption of mobile mental health apps into care for veterans and family members, which are available in the App Store or Google Play.
Dr. Avery is the Director of Program Evaluation and teaches yoga for the Veterans Yoga Project, a 501c3 which offers yoga classes to veterans. His yoga teachings emphasize a deeper connection with the body and being fully present, translating yoga practices to everyday life. Dr. Avery’s work is critical for ensuring veteran care. Thank you for all that you do!
Bianca: You are a former Naval officer. Where are you from originally and what drove you to the Navy?
Dr. Avery: I am from Upstate NY–born and raised. The Navy provided a job opportunity and engineering training, and means to move out of my parents’ house. My second semester of community college was not going as well as the first semester and I felt a strong need to change direction.
Bianca: How long did you serve in the Navy and what did that tenure entail?
Dr. Avery: My service was not contiguous. The total time from enlistment to resigning my commission was 16 years. However, in between I served on active, reserve, and inactive reserve statuses for a total service of less than half that time. Most of my years were spent learning and training, a common experience in the military. The military culture and mission require one to learn new skills, practice those skills, apply them, then move on to the next job. It is a rhythm that many veterans maintain after service. My formal jobs were varied: night janitor, financial management IT policy analyst, logistics watch where I tracked world-wide Navy assets, insurgency and foreign military capability analyst, and combat support for ground forces in Iraq.
Bianca: From what you have seen and experienced firsthand as a Naval officer, what aspect of your experiences has been most defining?
Dr. Avery: The most defining aspect of my military experience was the leadership and teamwork I had the privilege of witnessing. The military is as diverse as citizens of the world. There are different personalities, priorities, stages of life, skill sets, and shortcomings. These people are asked to perform extremely difficult tasks under tight deadlines and uncontrollable circumstances. It takes passionate and adaptable people to make all these factors move together towards mission achievement. It’s not always done gracefully or faultlessly, but these teams achieve extraordinary feats.
Bianca: You went on to pursue your Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and currently work for the National Center for PTSD in Menlo Park. Your role at the VA sounds quite multifaceted. Can you provide an overview of it?
Dr. Avery: My team aids VA providers and clinics in the adoption of mobile mental health apps into care for veterans and family members. The VA has produced a suite of these apps that are evidence-informed and have high privacy standards. The apps are portable, discreet, and can support people before, during, and after an episode of care (check them out, you can find VA apps in your Google Play or Apple App Stores). This innovation, like any innovation, requires additional support as people learn ways to incorporate the tools into their jobs. This is where my team comes in. We reach more veterans with the apps by informing VA providers how to use the apps.
Bianca: Did you always seek to become a Clinical Psychologist? How did you decide you’d pursue this line of work?
Dr. Avery: A career in clinical psychology was not an option I’d considered growing up. I knew no one who studied psychology or who went to therapy. I didn’t know what such a career would look like. After a period of military orders and management consulting, I had a desire to dig deeper in some field of study. The book What Color is Your Parachute? provided structure to self-exploration to help identify which field. Clinical psychology involves the skills and impact I want to make on the world.
Bianca: Your talents are multi-faceted since you have been able to pursue many different lines of work, which has included your time in the military, management consulting, as well as your doctoral work. It is remarkable that you have pursued work in clinical psychology coming out of all of those experiences; is PTSD your primary focus area as a psychologist?
Dr. Avery: I focus on PTSD and co-occurring mental and physical conditions, such as chronic pain, insomnia, depression, and anxiety. PTSD is a logical reaction to extremely stressful experiences and everyone has a unique reaction. Both a feature and common reaction to trauma is the belief that one cannot have a full life. It is meaningful to me to leverage research, clinical skills, and our relationship to help someone live fully after traumatic experiences.
Bianca: When you achieve results in your research, what does that prove to you?
Dr. Avery: The social sciences are different than the physical sciences because nothing is ever “proven,” findings support or do not support a hypothesis. I enjoy research because it is a structured ongoing conversation about a topic amongst colleagues, many of whom never meet each other. In terms of application, significant research findings help me narrow the selection of potentially useful therapeutic interventions thus making therapy more effective.
Bianca: In addition, you teach yoga to veterans through the VA and through the Veterans Yoga Project, a 501c3. I can imagine a deeper sense of connection to the body and listening to your body is essential to your teachings. Is that your main focus while teaching yoga?
Dr. Avery: Listening to one’s body certainly is an important part of yoga practice. There are multiple foci in my yoga classes. If I had to pick one, however, it’s integrating one’s thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations to permit the student to be fully present on the mat and in daily life.
Bianca: Can you give some background on the Veterans Yoga Project and how this organization came to be?
Dr. Avery: The Founder and Director, Dan Libby, PhD, observed yoga in clinical programs on his path to psychology licensure and became a yoga teacher himself. He observed drastic benefits from yoga reported by some veterans. Based on those experiences, he decided to leverage his knowledge of trauma to help more veterans gain access to yoga. A lack of adequately trained yoga teachers was one of the main barriers to the inclusion of yoga in more VA trauma programs at that time. He therefore created a workshop on trauma-informed yoga, titled Mindful Resilience, for yoga teachers, clinicians, and veterans. Thousands of classes per year are now taught to veterans, families, and communities by VYP-trained teachers. Now VYP also offers large community yoga events, a Compassion Satisfaction online course, our first 200-hour Mindful Resilience Yoga Teacher for 20 veterans, and many other great services. Check out VeteransYogaProject.org for more info (yes, I snuck in a pitch at the end).
Bianca: As we all continue to live through a global pandemic, how has social distancing most significantly impacted your work or a specific work stream?
Dr. Avery: Our Mobile Mental Health Apps Project Team had planned to deliver training and implementation support in-person to VA’s all across the country. People appreciate the benefits of meeting face-to-face, especially when adopting an innovation. The travel restrictions prevented that, delayed some sites, and now we have only half a year to provide virtual training we planned to provide across the whole year and in-person. Our team has been dynamic, collaborative, and even more innovative than originally to put all the necessary pieces in place to make the project a success.