Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Seeing the World with Purpose

Photo by Erin Channell

By Erin Channell MA, LPC
As an art therapist, I believe that a depth of healing and growth are uniquely reached through the process of making art. Growing up people are often encouraged to create things that are “beautiful.” At some point during the early middle school years, those who do not excel in rendering “beautiful” art stop practicing and engaging in the process. What a shame, because when creativity is not fostered, it is often lost. We begin to believe the lie “I can’t.”
            One of the best tools of self-care that I have nurtured is my own practice of art-making as a way to process personal issues and gain perspective in a quickly shifting world. This is practicing art as therapy (a way to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of embracing creativity) in contrast to art psychotherapy (art utilized during therapy to enhance the verbal communication between therapist and client).            
           Personally, photography is the medium that I gravitate to when the desire to make art surfaces. There is something transcendent that occurs when I am looking at the world through a lens and purposely observing details that many others miss. I don’t mean snapping some pictures with my iPhone (however, the accessibility of iPhones has brought photography to a much wider audience). I mean charging the battery of the good ‘ole DLSR and manually changing the settings to adjust for light changes, depth, and feeling the weight in my hand as I purposely walk around observing the world around me.
            It takes a minute to fully slow down, forget about looking, and to begin seeing. I believe that this process is available to anyone who searches for it. Take a different route to work and leave 30 minutes early. In these moments of slowing down, I begin to feel full and alive. This practice of seeing highlights the importance of therapy through the process instead of becoming consumed with creating a visually appealing product.
            Challenge yourself today to bring creativity to the way you approach your daily activities. This could be creating visual art or simply approaching something mundane with a new perspective. My guess is that you will be surprised by the new flow that often occurs when you bring your creative brain into your everyday life.

Erin Channell is an Art Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) at The Awakening Center. She facilitates a weekly art therapy group and sees clients for either art therapy or talk therapy services. She has special training in working with children on the Autism Spectrum and adults facing a range of issues including, but not limited to, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and stress related struggles.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

I Go Easy on Myself.

By Sheana Tobey, MA, LPC
So, I’ve been trying this new thing for about a year now, and I dare you to try it too. Any time I notice that I am being hard on myself—or when my thoughts start to spiral out anxiously—I stop, take a deep breath, and say “I go easy on myself.” I learned this simple mantra from an old therapist of mine. I’ve been sharing this idea with loved ones whom I notice are a bit hard on themselves too. Of course it’s so much easier to have compassion for others than for ourselves, which is why this mantra is so neat to try. It is simply presenting the idea that you CAN go easy on yourself, and things will still get done. You CAN go easy on yourself and learn from your “mistakes.”
            So often, I find that we are hard on ourselves because we think we have to be. We believe the tough love approach is the ONLY thing that will keep us motivated and working toward the impossibly high bar that the American culture encourages us to set for ourselves. So, how has that been working out for all of us? For me, it created an internal environment ruled by fear of punishment and a feeling that I wasn’t doing anything _________ enough. It felt like I could ALWAYS be doing something better, more better, or even better than that. It was exhausting.      A key piece for me to learn to go easy on myself was to identify my core values and then choose to allow them to be a guiding post. Now the bar I set for myself is simply to live by my values as much as possible. There are moments, of course, as we all have, when I act outside of my value set. And that’s when I practice going easy on myself. I go easy on myself so I can move forward with an internal environment that is nurturing and allows for growth. I am able to take these moments and learn from them, rather than become ashamed of them.
            Another large piece of learning was to acknowledge and allow myself to make these “mistakes” and then recognize that it is a human thing to do. I used to believe everyone else was allowed to make “mistakes” except for me. My bar told me I had to be perfect or get as close as possible to perfect. Only then would I have value as a person; only then would I be loveable. Once I allowed myself to make mistakes and go easy on myself when I did, I noticed that I still had value. I noticed that the people around me still loved me. The bar I set for myself wasn’t the bar anyone else even dreamed of setting for me. They just loved me. Because I am loveable. And so are you. So. Is. Everyone! Every. Single. Person. In. This. World. Was. Born. Loveable. Period. And you are no exception.
            So, I encourage you to give this a try. Introduce the idea that you are allowed to go easy on yourself by using this mantra any time your thoughts are spiraling anxiously, or anytime you are being hard on yourself. Stop. Take a deep breath. “I go easy on myself.” Repeat as many times as needed.
Sheana is a Licensed Professional Counselor at The Awakening Center working with individuals and groups. She creates an empathic, accepting environment in which she walks with her clients on a path toward peace and happiness. For inquiries or to set up an appointment, please contact her at (773)929-6262 Ext. 16 or TobeySheana@gmail.com.

P.S. If you need help identifying your values, try Googling “list of core values.” Find a list that has A LOT, even one that feels like it’s too many. Then, write down next to each one a V if the value is very important to you, an I if the value is important to you, and an N if the value is not important to you. Then, see if you can identify your top 6 values. See if you can put those in order of importance. If it’s too hard to narrow it down to 6, go for 10 or 20. Whatever works for you. If you can’t identify 6, only list the ones that make sense for you. If you have questions, feel free to reach out and ask or leave them in the comment section below.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Tackling the Gut

Karlee Pinto, RD, LDN
Sometimes I think of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract as this large dance party. There is a lot going on. Everyone is spinning around on the dance floor. All different dance styles and music. Unique and individual wardrobes and personalities. So much is happening at once. The night is constantly evolving. OK, bear with me here…we don’t have a dance party in our bellies (although sometimes it may feel like it), but the GI tract is incredibly complex and intricate. It feels like we have been researching the GI system forever, yet we still have so far to go. But this is the true beauty of it. There is so much to learn and so many unknowns to discover.
            Because this system is so intricate and a hot topic to study right now, it receives a lot of attention, specifically when addressing food and its effect on the GI tract. Think about it. When you have an upset stomach, a lot of gas, or some abnormal bowel habits, often the first thing you think is “ohh…what did I eat today??” Certainly, some medically diagnosed conditions—such as an allergy or intolerance—relate specifically to a certain type of food. If you feel that you may have an allergy or intolerance, please consult your general practitioner. But in this post, I hope to provide you with a little more knowledge to help you understand just how complex this system is and how many factors impact our GI health.
            Often, when we are presented with some sort of GI issues, the immediate recommendation is an elimination diet. For those unfamiliar with elimination diets, here’s a brief overview. Individuals experiencing GI distress keep a detailed food log and deeply analyze and study the specific GI symptoms that they experience to try to link them to a specific food or food group. Depending upon the specific protocol, foods and food groups that are more common allergens and intolerances are strictly removed from the diet and then gradually added back, one by one to determine which ones could be causing the GI symptom. This may seem like a no-brainer protocol, however the restriction has the potential to be harmful and triggering to someone who has a history of dieting, an eating disorder, or disordered eating. There is a fine line between reasonable intention to take care for one’s own body and using elimination as a vehicle to manage other aspects of our well-being. Maybe it is that inner factor that thrives on controlling all aspects of the diet. Or maybe we are searching for stability in our live, so we seek this through our experiences with food. In these moments, we need to take a step back and take a look at the bigger picture. The sole focus may not necessarily be on food itself.
            Our digestive system is intricately connected to the nervous system. Our thoughts and feelings can transform into a very real, physical experience or sensation. Have you ever been super-stressed before an exam and your breakfast just didn’t sit too comfortably? Or you had a meal just prior to experiencing some unpredicted stressful situation and suddenly a wave of nausea hits? Our GI system is heavily impacted by emotions, such as stress, anxiety, fear, depression, and so forth. Surely, we could be having some other co-occurring physiological symptoms that exacerbate the feelings of GI distress and discomfort. However, add in some other strong emotions like anxiety and stress around eating, and you can see how we fueling the fire. Thoughts and emotions live in our bodies and deserve to be acknowledged while we try to understand and decipher this mind-gut connection.
            Gastroparesis is a fancy term that can be easily defined as delayed emptying of food from the stomach into the intestines. This process is caused by decreased stomach motility, or movement. In some cases, the vagus nerve, which controls the stomach muscles, is damaged. This interferes with your stomach’s ability to naturally contract and move food along the GI tract. Another possible determinant to gastroparesis could be a change in the gut microflora, which could be triggered by restricting specific foods or food groups. There could also be changes in the production of digestive enzymes. In simple terms, this variation could impact how certain foods are broken down and digested. Once restriction barriers are taken down and food is reintroduced back into one’s routine, some GI discomfort could potentially arise.
            So how do we begin to calm down this gastrointestinal dance party? How do we wind down and relieve some of this chaos? What follows are a few simple steps to help work through some of these GI issues:
Balance and Regularity
Our bodies love routine. In fact, our digestive tract prefers meals every 4 hours or so. Things may seem to pass along more smoothly when we honor our bodies’ natural rhythm. Make it a priority, and care for your body by eating balanced meals and snacks every few hours. Bring mindfulness and awareness to this need. Just as someone with the diagnosis of diabetes mellitus is more mindful of the impact of carbohydrates on their blood sugar, perhaps you may need to be more mindful of routine eating patterns to aid in the digestion process.
Stress Management
Work with members of your treatment team to develop skills and tools to tackle and manage stress. Remember, the nervous system feeds into the gut. A stressed-out mind can lead to a stressed-out gut. Consider how an emotion might be affecting your digestion just as you would question the impact of food.
The Squatty Potty
Well, I guess this is happening—I am indeed going there. Because of the body’s natural physiology, the rectum and anus are located at the end of the digestive tract. You have a muscle that sort of ropes around the rectum, kinks, and contains the stool so that you can go about our life. Using a squatty potty allows our knees to rise above our hips, mimicking a natural squat. The muscle that loops around the rectum loosens up, making it much easier to go to the bathroom.
Fibrous Foods
Are you eating a lot of raw produce or fiber-enhanced foods, such as protein bars or crackers? Highly fibrous produce can be taking a toll on our GI system as it may not have the capacity to digest all of this roughage. Allow your gut to relax. For ease of digestion, try to cook some of the produce that you believe may be triggering GI distress and see if this helps to alleviate gas and bloating.

            Most importantly, give this process time and grace. If you are experiencing GI distress and discomfort, let your treatment team know as each member can contribute something meaningful to help improve your digestive health. Allow them to provide you with that support and guidance while you patiently explore your own, individual digestion. 
Karlee is a staff nutritionist at The Awakening Center. To schedule an appointment, call 773.929.6262.

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 www.psious.com.
            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? Dictionary.com 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!