Monday, April 2, 2018

Virtual Reality Therapy with Susan Morlock, MA, LPC

By Hallie Schwartz
We are living in the golden age of technology, and mental health professionals are finding new and innovative ways to help their clients. Susan Morlock, a staff therapist at The Awakening Center, is one of those innovators.
            Virtual reality therapy offers an entirely new experience to clients. Susan explained that exposure therapy is often used with clients who experience anxiety. Her virtual reality technology brings exposure therapy directly into the office. Susan stated that virtual reality therapy immerses people in their fears in a safe environment. Fear of flying, for example, could be treated using exposure therapy. Clients would be incrementally exposed to entering the airport, checking into a flight, going through airport security, boarding a plane, preparing for take-off, and so on. Likely, this would involve clients driving to and from the airport on multiple occasions. Using virtual reality therapy allows clients to receive a very similar experience without all the travel back and forth.
            I asked Susan about her biggest success story with virtual reality therapy. She was proud to tell me that the technology, along with some additional education, helped one of her clients fly after not going near an airplane for 16 years! 
            Susan purchased her virtual reality equipment from a company called PSIOUS, which is based out of Spain. The virtual reality platform, called PsiousToolsuite, provides animated and live environments that can be used in clinical practice. Susan showed me some of the technology’s additional capabilities: typing messages to participants that can act as replacement thoughts, changing parts of the scene to make them more stressful, and the biofeedback monitor that can track physiological responses. PsiousToolsuite provides environments for more than just the treatment of anxiety and anxiety-related disorders. The technology can be used for mindfulness and relaxation techniques too. In fact, Susan relayed that she mostly uses the equipment when teaching mindfulness and relaxation to her clients.
            I was excited to play the role of Susan’s client as she showed me how virtual reality therapy works. I wore a pair of googles that had a cell phone attached as a means to provide the screen. Susan used her laptop to control the images on the cell phone screen. She presented me with a very calming scene of a green pasture with a tree in the forefront. As we worked through this mindfulness module, I watched the tree’s leaves slowly fall to the ground. I truly felt present in the moment and calmer afterward.
            Susan said that PsiousToolsuite is updating its modules all the time and offering more to mental health professionals. Virtual reality therapy does not require a certification and can be purchased online at
            As an intern therapist, I am inspired by Susan’s efforts to explore more new age therapeutic interventions and plan to do the same in my clinical practice. After all, it’s called the golden age of technology for a reason.
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.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Starting Your Intuitive Eating Adventure

By Rachel Baker, MA, LPC
Let’s talk about intuitive eating. We all know what “eating” is. We get that part, but what about the “intuition” part? has several definitions for “intuition.” Here are two of my favorites:
1. direct perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process; immediate apprehension.
2. pure, untaught, noninferential knowledge.
            There are a few things that stand out for me in these definitions. First, intuition allows us to perceive “pure“truth.” Second, intuition happens without any “reasoning process,” meaning it’s not a cognitive or thinking activity. Finally, intuition is “untaught.”
            Now, for those of you thinking, “If intuition can’t be taught, and I can’t think my way through it, how will I ever learn intuitive eating?” Fear not! The beauty of intuitive eating, is that we were all born with this skill.
            As toddlers, we all intuitively knew when we were hungry, and we let our hunger needs be known. We did not pause to think about what we’d already eaten that day or if we should wait until we felt hungrier. Once we got our food, we also intuitively knew when we were satiated. We did not feel compelled, unless taught to be, to clean our plates. When we were done, we were done. It wasn’t until we got older and societal messaging told us to ignore our bodies’ hunger and satiation cues that we lost our sense of intuition.
            So, how do we find it again? Two of the most important concepts in intuitive eating practices are rediscovering our bodies’ hunger and satiation cues and trusting ourselves and our bodies to seek satisfaction in our eating. There are many ways to explore these concepts, but for now, I’d like to share one activity or practice for each concept.
            Let’s start with rediscovering our bodies’ hunger and satiation cues. I like to think about hunger and satiation on a Scale of Fullness from 0–10, 0 being, “I’m empty. I’m starving,” and 10 being, “I’m so full it hurts.” One way to begin to relearn our bodies’ hunger cues is pause periodically throughout the day, turn our attention inward, and genuinely ask out bodies, “On a scale of 0–10, how full am I right now?” The key here is to remember that intuition is NOT a cognitive or thinking process. Instead, of thinking about our fullness, we must practice asking our bodies and listening for their responses.
            Once our bodies’ respond with a Scale of Fullness number, it can be useful to ask our bodies, “How do you know that’s the number?” Your body might respond with anything from, “We have a headache,” “Our stomach has started to gurgle,” or “We’re having trouble concentrating,” on the low end to, “I feel comfortable and content,” in the middle to, “Our stomach feels full,” or “No more food,” on the high end. With practice, you may begin to notice patterns or typical ways your body let’s you know how hungry or full it is.
            Another important intuitive eating practice is seeking true satisfaction in eating. This may seem daunting, but as you practice, you will begin to discover that your body usually craves what it needs nutritionally. So, imagine that you’ve asked your body for its Scale of Fullness number, and it has become clear that it would like something to eat. Here is where the seeking satisfaction practice comes in.
            Before heading to the fridge, ask your body what kind of food would feel satisfying. I like to ask three main questions: “Body, would you like to eat something hot or cold? Sweet, savory, salty, bitter? Smooth and soft or chewy and textured?” Let’s assume your body said it wanted something hot, salty, and smooth. It might then find satisfaction in a bowl of miso soup or soft scrambled eggs, or anything else that meets those criteria. Your job then is to work to satisfy your body’s food desires as closely as you can with the foods that are available to you at the moment.
            Learning to eat intuitively can be a truly enjoyable exploration once you start. Remember, this is NOT about doing it perfectly. Instead, it’s about experimenting and staying curious. Getting support from a therapist or nutritionist can be helpful on this journey. Cheers to you intuitive eating explorers! Bon apetit!
Rachel is a staff therapist at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she also co-leads the Yoga-Informed Therapy Group. You can reach Rachel at 773.929.6262.

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