Saturday, February 17, 2018

Our Daily Triumphs

By Nancy G. Hall, MA, LCPC
Let’s demystify therapy a bit. It is not taking inventory of all of our faults. It’s not sheepishly listing all the ways you “failed” at recovery. But most of my clients excel at that skill. They can list all their missteps, outline how they fell short, and describe in excruciating detail all the evidence that confirms they are unworthy pieces of garbage. But what happens when I ask what went right? How were they good enough? Blink … blink … that’s a tough one. I’ll admit that it’s tough for me too.
            Evolution has wisely provided us with a negativity bias, which means that our brains tend to hold on to negative experiences rather than positive ones. How is that wise? Well, it was more important for our prehistoric ancestors to remember where the saber-toothed tiger was instead of where the pretty flowers grew. The negativity bias helped ensure our survival. But this useful survival tool can become a hindrance in our relationships and sense of self-worth.
            So how do we introduce intention to our negativity bias? Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) offers a few ideas to remind us that we don’t fail at everything all the time.
            We can use the skill of Building Mastery to tap into that sense of accomplishment. These do not have to be monumental, life-changing challenges. They can be small—working a crossword puzzle, trying a new recipe. Or taking up a new sport of craft.
            Building Mastery is a key component in what DBT calls Coping Ahead. Emotions can be tough to manage or regulate. And they’re even tougher when we’re in pain, not rested, or hungry. So we need to tend to those needs but also reach further. By choosing to set daily challenges for ourselves, we foster a sense of accomplishment and competence. We become mindful of what we can do instead of ruminating over what we cannot do. So when the difficult emotion starts to dislodge our inner anchor, we have a series of experiences that remind us that we are competent and able and can withstand the current challenge.
            It’s hard to understand how doing a daily crossword puzzle can help when anxiety knocks you off your feet. But each reminder of our competency counters the self-judgment that waits to pounce at the slightest hint of imperfection. So set those daily challenges. And bask in your triumphs!
Nancy is a staff therapist at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she facilitates the adult DBT group and the Eating Disorder Therapy Group. Like her on Facebook and subscribe to her personal blog.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Jigsaw Puzzles as Coping Tools

By Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC
In my Thursday evening Women’s Therapy group we were discussing tools and resources for dealing with anxiety. We talked about deep breathing and yoga. Then one woman said, “Jigsaw puzzles.” The group stopped, considered that for a while, and the discussion veered towards how perfect jigsaw puzzles were for anxiety relief.
“It keeps my hands busy.”
“My mind focuses on the colors and shapes rather than what I’m worried about.”
 “I don’t eat while doing a jigsaw puzzle—I don’t even think about food!”
“It gives me something to talk about when spending time with my Dad.”
I love jigsaw puzzles. There’s something calming and very Zen about building a jigsaw puzzle—starting with the edges and then working inward to complete the image. Every New Years Day, my family and I build a jigsaw puzzle. I bring a puzzle when I visit with my Dad. (Yes, that was my comment above) He’s a hard person to talk to, but we can spend hours building the puzzle and we talk at length about the various colors and shapes and the difficulty. 
I was curious about why puzzles are so calming and did some research. Doing jigsaw puzzles exercises both halves of your brain: the left brain uses logic and sequence while the right brain uses creativity and spatial imagery. Exercising both halves of the brain has been shown to decrease the risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease!
The production of dopamine is increased while doing jigsaw puzzles. In the simplest of terms, this is the chemical in the brain that keeps us happy and healthy. It is also responsible for reward-seeking behavior. Every time you find the correct puzzle piece your brain registers a “reward.” And there’s a sense of pride and accomplishment when you finally put in the last piece! 
While building a puzzle you concentrate and become more attentive, while at the same time your mind can roam around all the pieces until you spot the piece that fits. It is a form of meditation, which makes you feel calm and peaceful!
There are physical advantages as well by lowering the rate of respiration, reducing blood pressure, and decreasing the heart rate.
Here’s a short piece about jigsaw puzzles. I hope you enjoy it!
Everything I Need to Know About Life I Learned From a Jigsaw Puzzle
By Jacqui Sewell
• Don't force a fit. If something is meant to be, it will come together naturally.
• When things aren't going so well, take a break. Everything will look different when you return.
• Be sure to look at the big picture. Getting hung up on the little pieces only leads to frustration.
• Perseverance pays off. Every important puzzle went together bit by bit, piece by piece.
• When one spot stops working, move to another. But be sure to come back later (see above).
• The creator of the puzzle gave you the picture as a guidebook.
• Variety is the spice of life.  It's the different colors and patterns that make the puzzle interesting.
• Establish the border first. Boundaries give a sense of security and order.
• Don't be afraid to try different combinations. Some matches are surprising.
• Take time to celebrate your successes (even little ones).
• Anything worth doing takes time and effort. A great puzzle can't be rushed.
     I have started a Jigsaw Puzzle lending library located in the stairwell at The Awakening Center. You can “check out” a jigsaw puzzle and return it (with all pieces, please!) when you are done. 

            If you would like to donate used puzzles, feel free to give it to your Awakening Center therapist or group leader!  Thank you!  

Amy is the Founder and Director of The Awakening Center, and she loves puzzles of any kind! 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Fad Diets: Are They Healthful, Helpful, and Honest?

By Hallie Schwartz
I recently met with our staff nutritionist, Michel Harris. While engaging in a lively discussion about the misconceptions in nutrition, Michel exclaimed, “Fad diets are not put out by the scientific community!” This sparked my interest, and I began doing some of my own research on fad diets.  
            “Today’s high prevalence of obesity, combined with less than satisfactory results using traditional weight-control methods, has helped foster the popularity of fad diets” (Saltzman, Thomason & Roberts, 2001). But, how healthful, helpful, and honest are fad diets?
            The high satiety value of eggs is well documented, and, additionally, eggs are truthfully a great source of protein. As such, the Egg Diet has become quite the fad. The plan is simple: you eat eggs with every meal. In the short term, if you’re eating mostly eggs, you are likely to lose weight. However, any weight lost could easily be put back on after returning to a less egg-centered eating plan. In the long term, it is not realistic for an individual to stay interested in such a singular eating plan. Further, an extremely limiting diet, such as the Egg Diet, could likely lead to bingeing. Additionally, eggs are also very high in cholesterol. Finally, according to the “Egg Diet Review” on, “Eating too many eggs can cause flatulence and bad gas, which is negative for everyone.”
            Like the Egg Diet, many other plans promote low-carbohydrate, high-protein intake. Researchers Saltzman, Thomason, and Roberts assert that while these diets may lead to weight loss, the potential effects on cardiovascular, bone, and renal health are concerning (2001). These diets vilify carbohydrates. Yet, carbs are the body’s—and specifically the brain’s—main source of energy! The take-home message here is that CARBS ARE NOT BAD! Quite the contrary, actually—carbs are necessary. 
            Environmental Nutrition is an awared-winning, independent newsletter on food, nutrition, and health. In the July 2017 issue, they described diet trends and popular fad diets as “mostly hype.” Based on studies over the past 40 years:
1. Juicing leaves out much of the fiber and nutrients of whole fruits and vegetables and is high in calories and low in satiety.
2. Tropical oils (such as coconut and palm) are high in saturated fats and raise blood cholesterol levels.
3. Gluten-free foods are often highly processed, over-priced substitutions for whole grains, which are high in nutrients and fiber.
            According to Michel, with new and trendy fad diets surfacing, it is more important than ever to be aware of the sources from which you are getting your diet-related information. Websites ending in .com are often unreliable. Consider visiting, the official website for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Make sure you have all the info you need to know how healthful, helpful, and honest your diet truly is.
Hallie is a graduate intern at The Awakening Center and currently finishing her master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Roosevelt University. Hallie is passionate about working with clients who are in recovery. She has worked with clients in recovery from domestic violence, substance dependency, and eating disorders.


Egg diet review. (2017). Retrieved from 
Diet trends are mostly hype. (Cover story). (2017). Environmental Nutrition, 40(7), 1.

Saltzman, E., Thomason, P., & Roberts, S. B. (2001). Fad diets: A review for the primary care provider. Nutrition In Clinical Care, 4(5), 235-242. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Putting the Cleanse Fads in Perspective: An interview with Michel Harris, MS, RD, LDN

By Lily Bowen

Recently, I walked into a new juice bar that opened on my street. The menu board claimed that some of the juice options could “cleanse” my body of “toxins.” I was curious about what this meant, so I asked the cashier. Far from providing answers, our conversation left me more intrigued. I decided to interview The Awakening Center’s Staff Nutritionist, Michel Harris, MS, RD, LDN, to learn more about the research behind these cleanse fads.

Let’s start with the basics. Michel explained that our bodies already have a built-in cleanse system: a bowel movement. Seriously! It’s not any more complicated than that. In other words, your body doesn’t need any extra help to detox. Other organs (like the liver) also sift out anything your body can’t use, and your bowel movement does the actual cleansing. So any company (or infomercial) that claims to eliminate the toxins that hide in your colon has no medical research supporting it. Michel emphasized that those claims are false.

Although your body doesn’t need any extra help to cleanse itself (you don’t need to train your body to have a bowel movement) some do experience constipation. Michel noted that moderately increasing fiber in a diet will support your body’s built-in process. There are two kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fiber—found in foods such as wheat bread, fruits, and vegetables—helps move food and waste through the digestive track. Soluble fiber—found in oatmeal, beans, and other foods—actually binds with cholesterol, and helps remove it from the body.

All the talk about “cleansing” suggests that eating any diet will leave behind something “bad” (or toxic). Recently, I spoke with someone who had completed a 14-day cleanse that involved eliminating a few food groups. I asked Michel if there are any possible nutritional benefits to this practice. Short answer? No! There are no benefits from removing a food group from your diet, even temporarily. All foods are OK, and our bodies require variety. Now some folks actually experience allergic reactions to certain foods. Or might display sensitivities. If you suspect that might be your situation, then consult with your physician and a nutritionist.

I asked Michel if there are any harmful side effects from completing one of these cleanses. She emphasized that even for those without a history of an eating disorder, eliminating food groups can increase the risk to developing one. Many experience temporary water weight loss from a cleanse, which can trigger additional ED behaviors for someone who might be vulnerable. And the individual who chooses to complete a cleanse is more likely to set up the body for a nutritional deficiency. Michel emphasized that eating a variety of foods from all the food groups is nutritionally valuable. For example, a person completing a cleanse might cut out dairy suddenly and leave them vulnerable to calcium deficiency. Ironically, following a “cleanse” diet may make it more difficult to stay healthy.

So let’s put the current cleanse fads (Whole 30, juicing, etc.) in perspective. These are simply dressed-up versions of old trends. Remember the grapefruit diet? Or the cabbage soup diet? These days we laugh at these fads—who in their right mind thinks eating just cabbage soup is sustainable? We should be just as critical and dismissive of current cleanse fads. Resist the temptation for an easy fix, educate yourself and others, and remember to trust your body. It knows how to take care of itself.

Lily is a graduate intern therapist at The Awakening Center, finishing her master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health at Roosevelt University. In her free time, Lily enjoys reading poetry and playing the harp.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

“One Word: Plastics”

By Nancy Hall, MA, LPC
So says Mr. McGuire to Benjamin Braddock at the beginning of The Graduate. “There’s a great future in plastics,” Mr. McGuire goes on to say. And this 1967 observation wasn’t wrong. According to The New York Times, 8.3 metric tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s. Half of that since 2004. And while there are certainly benefits that come from plastic—lighter and easier to transport—it does not biodegrade. Once it’s made, it’s forever. And that has become a problem.
            According to a July 2017 article published in Science Advances, by 2050, “roughly 12,000 metric tons of plastic will be in landfills or in the natural environment.” That mind-boggling figure makes me want to curl up in my bed and pretend I never even saw The Graduate or heard of The New York Times. Don’t even get me started on Science Advances! How do we even begin to address this problem that seems bigger than impossible?
            Well, we can tackle the problem of single-use plastics. In December 2016, the National Green Tribunal in India banned disposable plastic in Delhi and its surrounding region. The ban was enacted in response to the tremendous amount of waste and illegal burning of plastics creating an environmental crisis. Many US cities are banning or taxing disposable plastic shopping bags. In 2016, France passed a law banning plastic cutlery, plates, and cups that do not contain at least 50 percent “biologically sourced” materials. This law will take effect in 2020 as part the Energy Transition and Green Growth Act.
            Unfortunately, our current president has opted the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. However, many businesses and manufacturers are looking to reduce their global footprint and there are things we can do as individuals. Who would have thought tending and caring for the earth would become an act of resistance?
            The Natural Resources Defense Council recommends the following 10 actions to reduce our use of disposable plastics:
            1. Wean yourself off disposable plastics.
            2. Don’t buy water.
            3. Don’t use any product that contains microbeads.
            4. Eat out less.
            5. Purchase items secondhand.
            6. Recycle.
            7. Support bag tax or ban.
            8. Buy in bulk.
            9. Bring your own garment bag to the dry cleaner.
            10. Pressure manufacturers to be conscientious in their packaging practices.
While the statistics are overwhelming and—quite honestly—terrifying, that’s no reason to become paralyzed or give up.
            And being a good steward of the earth supports personal growth. Recovery comes from compassion and love—and that is a bi-directional process. If we make decisions that are kind to the earth, then we better able turn that kindness inward as well. We come from the earth and when it suffers, we suffer too. So connect to your compassion and take care of Mother Earth.

Nancy is a staff therapist at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she also leads the adult Dialectical Behavior Therapy Group and the Eating Disorder Therapy Group. You can contact her at

Monday, August 14, 2017

Finding What Makes You Come Alive

Photo courtesy of Nancy Hall

By Rachel Baker, MA, LPC
In recent months, many of us have felt the desire to give back, to stand up for what we believe in, to become politically active--in short, to make the world a better place. Watching the news and reading our social media feeds, it is clear that there is a lot of work to be done. This can feel like an incredibly daunting task! So, how do we begin?
            First, it’s important to remind ourselves, we are each just one person, and we only have to do our share of the work. Phew! Now the task is to figure out what MY share of the work is going to look like. Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” The world needs us to hone in on the issues that makes us feel most alive, most energized, most ourselves.
            A great place to start is to really explore what makes you come alive. Do you feel energized while creating art? Do you feel most alive playing pick-up softball with friends? Do you feel most yourself while giving a speech on a topic that excites you, or do you prefer one-on-one conversation? Maybe you love being around animals. Whatever it is, it’s helpful to get clear about the things that light you up.
            Second, get curious about the world issues that you care about most. Which articles to do stop scrolling through your newsfeed to read? Do you turn up the volume on news stories about environmental issues, women’s rights, Black Lives Matter, education, religious freedom, education, or something else entirely? It’s likely that you care about many issues, and getting clear about one or two that you care about most will help inform how you decide to take action.
            Now it’s time to put it all together. How can you use what makes you come alive to support issues and organizations that you care about? If hanging out with your friends on a Friday night feels awesome, why not start the night by writing letters to your House Representative regarding an issue you all feel passionate about? If you love to perform, could you present a concert to benefit an organization you care about? If you love animals, volunteering at an animal shelter might be right for you. Don’t be afraid to get creative! The world need to you to “come alive.”

Volunteering Websites
Rachel is a staff therapist at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she co-leads the Yoga-Informed Therapy Group. You can reach Rachel at 773.929.6262.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Lots of Progress, But Still Far To Go

By Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

For The Awakening Center’s #awakentoaction, we are celebrating LGBTQ Pride this month! 

I was thinking back to the mid 1980s when I took a graduate school course “Abnormal Psychology.” The way the professor taught the course makes it my favorite class, to this day! As we worked our way thru all the various mental illness diagnoses, she taught us that every diagnosis was on a continuum, and we (the students in her class) were on the same continuum too. She wanted to eliminate “them” versus “us” mentality. Rather than “Those people who have Schizophrenia” we could feel empathy for our clients whose symptoms were more profound than what we ourselves experienced. 

One day, the professor stopped the class and said, “I am supposed to teach you that homosexuality is a mental illness, but I refuse to do so!” She gave us an assignment. For the following week, we were supposed to pretend that we were gay and we had to hide this from everyone we knew. Some of us who were married, and since same sex marriage was not legal way back in 1984, we had to pretend that we were not allowed to marry our current partners. We were not allowed to hold our partner’s hand in public for fear of getting harassed or arrested. We were to remove pictures of our partners from our workplace, for fear of getting fired! We had to hide who we lived with for fear that we would be evicted from apartments or would not be allowed to purchase a house with our partner. 

The next week, the class discussed what it was like to hide something fundamental about who you were deep inside. The reactions ranged from humiliation and shame, to rage and indignation. This experience has stayed with me to this day. And I was relieved that soon afterward homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.  

If we zoom to the current decade, many changes are in place. In many states (but not all), tt is no longer legal to discriminate against a person because of their sexual orientation in housing or employment. LGB individuals can now join the US military. It is legal for same sex couples to marry. Gay pride flags and banners wave in stores and windows throughout our city. The Gay Pride Parade just took place here in Chicago and has become a big summer event. 

However this is not enough. We need to continue to move forward with progress in our society to the point that every person, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, is treated with respect, worth, and dignity. Every person should be able to live their life without constant vigilance for harassment and persecution. Every religion of the world has a version of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”; and I would love to see every person of every religion, or of no religion at all, live by this rule.

So how can we help make this change happen?  It starts with ourselves. Those of us outside the LGBTQ community can become allies. A true ally actively combats anti-LGBT bullying and harassment while uplifting the voices of LGBT people. Allyship is more than broadly supporting LGBT people; it's an active, ongoing process of advocating for LGBT individuals (and other marginalized groups) without speaking for them or over them. ( )

Just as it takes courage for LGBT people to be open and honest about who they are, it also takes courage to support your LGBT friends or loved ones. We live in a society where prejudice still exists and where discrimination is still far too common. Recognizing these facts and giving your support to that person will take your relationship to a higher level and is a small step toward a better and more accepting world. ( )

Here are 10 Ways to Be an Ally & a Friend (from:
  1. Be a listener.
  2. Be open-minded.
  3. Be willing to talk.
  4. Be inclusive and invite LGBT friends to hang out with your friends and family.
  5. Don't assume that all your friends and co-workers are straight. Someone close to you could be looking for support in their coming-out process. Not making assumptions will give them the space they need.
  6. Anti-LGBT comments and jokes are harmful. Let your friends, family and co-workers know that you find them offensive.
  7. Confront your own prejudices and bias, even if it is uncomfortable to do so.
  8. Defend your LGBT friends against discrimination.
  9. Believe that all people, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation, should be treated with dignity and respect.
  10. If you see LGBT people being misrepresented in the media, contact us at
It starts with me. And you! And if we tell two people, and they tell two people, and they tell two people, and so on and so on and so on…. Hopefully, we can help change the world to be a much more loving and accepting place for all!


Amy is proud to be a LGBTQ Ally!