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Carolina Dozal: Evolve’s All-Star Therapist

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Carolina will be presenting Managing High-Risk Behaviors in Teens during our February Community Workshop. Learn more and sign up here.

Left: a Nike ad that Dozal appeared in in October 2015. Right: Dozal in her office at Evolve Vanalden, a Comprehensive DBT Residential Treatment Center

Meet Carolina, DBT Therapist at Evolve—and a Nike-Affiliated Athlete

Evolve prides itself on its dedicated staff. Often, our clinicians are experts not only in their field of mental health, but in other areas as well. One such example is Carolina Dozal, primary therapist at Evolve Vanalden in Tarzana, California.

Dozal attended the University of California-San Diego, where she earned her Bachelor’s in Sociology and International Studies. In college, as in high school, she was a starting player of her soccer team. She then went on to receive her Master’s at the University of La Verne, where she studied Educational Counseling with a specialization in School and Family Based Counseling. While working as a mental health counselor in charter high schools, she also started serving as a coach and fitness instructor at her local community center in Santa Clarita. She was responsible for running the youth sports leagues—boxing, basketball, soccer, tennis, cheer, and karate—as well as private fitness classes for adults and teens.

Dozal training in the Nike gym

This is when she became passionate about fitness. “Every time I stepped into the gym I felt different. It became my safe place, where I could just be myself.  I felt so positive after each workout, like I could accomplish anything, and I wanted to share this amazing feeling with the teens.”

After a while, administrators from the City of Santa Clarita approached her about starting an athletics program for the at-risk teens of their community. The result was CHAMPS, a free boxing mentorship program for at-risk teens struggling with substance abuse, behavioral issues, mental health concerns, or a combination. Many of the adolescents are on probation or come from the DCFS or foster care system. The program was perfect for Dozal, as it combined her love of fitness with her passion for counseling.

Passion for Mental Health Counseling–and Fitness

CHAMPS was—and still is— a unique program. For the first 30 minutes of the day, trained counselors sit down with the teens and talk about anything they’re struggling with. Mentors discuss emotional health and life skills, but also share resources on how the teens can continue their education and find a job. For the next half hour, coaches teach the teens boxing and fitness techniques, including proper stance, footwork, punching combinations and sparring. The program served as a way of preventing teens from staying on the streets, using drugs, becoming involved in gangs, or participating in other risky behaviors.

Dozal running in a Nike marathon in San Francisco

“Contrary to popular opinion, boxing is actually a sport that requires a great deal of mindfulness and focus,” says Dozal. “You need to learn how to read your own emotions as well as the opponent’s. I will never let someone enter the ring if their intention is to vent anger or learn how to fight better.”

As the program director of CHAMPS, Dozal found this work immensely fulfilling, and it earned her numerous accolades from community leaders. Later on, she founded another mentorship program, this time a Big Brother/ Big Sister program.  Adolescents who participated in the William S. Hart District Mentor and Mentee Program showed reduced truancy rates and higher grades.

A Nike-Affiliated Runner

Around this time, Dozal decided to sign up for her first half marathon, one sponsored by Nike.

“I had never run a marathon before. I hated running, even though I was a soccer player. It was the most painful half marathon of my life, but I got through it.” After she finished the run, a marketing coordinator for Nike approached her to ask if they can post a picture of her on their website. “She said, ‘I really liked your energy and positivity, can we share a photo?’” I said sure.”

(Photos above: Dozal competing in various Nike marathons)

That successful half-marathon, and the fact that she now appeared on the site of a highly visible athletic brand, motivated her to do more.  “I’d always seen these ads of athletes, and to think that now it was me… it helped me realize how far you could go.” She signed up for more marathons. Beat more records. Appeared on an advertisement for Nike in San Francisco. Trained with Olympian Allyson Felix, the most decorated female track-and-field athlete in U.S. history. Eventually, Dozal became a Nike ambassador.

Incorporating Fitness at Evolve

What makes this all even more impressive is that Dozal works full time at Evolve. She runs on weekends, late nights, and early mornings. That’s not to say, though, that she separates her two passions. She often takes clients out for runs, hikes and even walks around the Valley. In fact, Dozal started out as an independent vendor for Evolve, serving as an exercise instructor for several of their PHP/IOPs and RTCs. Now in residential treatment, she uses her love of fitness to motivate her clients to get moving—even when it’s difficult just to get out of bed. Exercise, she says, not only builds rapport but is evidence-based to be therapeutic

Physical fitness is valued at Evolve: not just for the clients, but for staff as well. Here, four members of Evolve Vanalden Residential Treatment Center staff, including Dozal, are shown participating in the Tough Mudder Mud Run in April 2018, where they completed dozens of physically challenging obstacles over a distance of 10 miles.

“Certain clients report less anger and sadness directly after exercise than those who were just in the therapy room.  I find that there is also potential for much more openness and disclosure while engaged in a physical activity. Some clients become easily overwhelmed or even blocked by the intimacy of therapy in an office setting. Others with attention-deficit disorders may have trouble sitting still and focusing, so something about getting out and moving really helps them stay on task and retain information. I am a big believer that creativity, self-awareness, emotional awareness and other positive therapy outcomes can heighten during movement.”

Dialectical Behavior Therapist

In addition to her individual clients at Evolve—she sees the teens and their families in her private office, a therapeutically designed treehouse in the backyard of the Vanalden home— Dozal facilitates DBT skills-training groups, where she teaches the core skills of emotion regulation, mindfulness, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness. Fitness goes hand in hand with Dialectical Behavior Therapy, says Dozal.

Just recently, Dozal was foundationally trained in DBT through Behavioral Tech, the premier Linehan-founded training institute.

These are long strides for a woman who, in high school, was self-admittedly struggling with school. “To think that I’m now a licensed, trained DBT therapist, have my Master’s, and running for Nike… it does make me feel accomplished,” she admits.

“I share this in order to show others—especially our teens—that it is possible to do difficult things. To motivate them, and demonstrate that no matter how low you feel like you are, you can always get up and go so far.”

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