life transitions

Are You Voting for Your Marriage?

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Happy anniversary to us!

My husband and I recently celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary! On that day, I performed the social media ritual of posting a throwback photo of our wedding. Captured in that sepia-toned photo were two joyful people, kids really, preparing for a journey they knew little about.

We may have looked like a couple of kids... but we were old enough to vote. My husband touched on something important when looking back on that day: you do need to vote. Every day you need to vote/choose to be a couple. The wedding day is all cake and laughter, but the choice to be with one person for the rest of your life, for better or worse, is hard work

Getting through the rough patches

Everyone gets thrown some curve balls in life. And when you are married, you are not only dealing with your own curve balls, but you are also dealing with your partner’s.

When I think back through the past 18 years, I reflect on some pretty hard times. The stress of having young kids, worrying about finances and health scares, and balancing that with a busy career can leave little time or energy for anything else. Even date night can start feeling like a chore. Honestly, neither of us were very fun to live with in those days.

Thankfully, things have gotten easier over the years. However, we often reflect on how thankful we are for making it through those times and not giving up on us. It’s definitely tempting to run away in those dark moments. Instead of giving up, we decided to go to couples counseling. 

We voted to be a couple.

Taking the leap

Going to counseling wasn’t an easy step to take. So many fear-based thoughts went through my mind that almost prevented us from asking for help… Going to couple’s therapy meant our marriage was a failure Maybe we can work things out on our own... or What if it doesn’t work? Ultimately, I realized that sometimes even the strongest people can use some outside help. 

Considering all the objections my mind came up with, I’m thankful that we chose to seek help.

What couples counseling taught us

Couples counseling helped us change the way we communicate with each other. We learned to recognize our pattern of fighting that got us stuck in a negativity spiral. We were encouraged to look beyond the content of what we were saying and doing, and focus more on the process of how we were interacting with each other.

I never would have thought that a stranger could be the answer to our problems… that an outsider could hear the details of our specific situation, and use our story to guide us closer to each other.

But here we were.

We got to the heart of what we were feeling and what we needed from each other. When we started communicating from our needs and genuine intentions, it was easier to hear what the other person was saying. We started feeling heard and understood. We were able to express our hurt and pain, and look into each other’s eyes and see that our pain hurt our partner, too.

Those moments were healing and it made it easier to vote for each other. 

Is this you?

As a marriage counselor on the other side of the room, I see many couples who clearly love (or loved) each other, but they have waited so long to come to therapy. Could it be that the inevitable hurts and resentments that naturally come with spending a life with someone have hardened you and built up a wall between you and your partner? 

This wall can get in the way of your ability to vote yes for your marriage.

We can do something about that. 

Tearing down the wall

In a marriage, while you and your partner are so interconnected through kids, shared memories, and assets, you can also build walls between yourselves when it comes to your own needs. Although the wall might have protected you in many ways from your hurts, it has also caused isolation and loneliness, which hurts even more.

Sometimes the task of breaking through that pain feels insurmountable, and you might give up hope. Separating from each other can be the right thing for you, despite the shared experiences and love you had for each other. But for others of you, there is light on the other side of this marital hardship. Having the strength to walk through the hardship is what is needed to see that light, and feel the connection and happiness you once felt. 

I’m voting for you

Going to marriage counseling is like voting yes for your marriage. It can give you the extra support you need to walk through the darkness and come through on the other side. It takes hard work, but just like marriage itself, it can be well worth the work. 

Let me know when you’re ready to come in and vote. I’ll be here. 


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Kristin O’Hara is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate at People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond psychotherapy practice. She helps couples find love and connection in their relationship. She also helps people struggling with midlife transitions. She spent her anniversary relaxing with her husband, reflecting back on their many years of joys, sorrows and wonderful shared memories.

The Emotional Roller Coaster of Tidying Up

Photo by tu tu on Unsplash

Photo by tu tu on Unsplash

Marie Kondo has spread spring cleaning fever across the nation with her Netflix show Tidying Up. If you’ve been watching and think you might want to venture on your tidying up journey, maybe my experience will inspire you to take the plunge. I read Kondo’s book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying up a few years ago and followed through with her KonMarie method to declutter my life.  

Don’t let the title fool you - there is no magic trick it; the process is tedious, emotionally draining and physically exhausting. But the result is absolutely magical. The KonMarie method helps you declutter with mindfulness and intention, and it might just be the most rewarding project you’ll ever set your mind to.

How do people become collectors?

As the daughter of an immigrant mom from the old country, I inherited a tendency to hang on to things. Growing up, everyone in my family had their own collections - I collected stickers and stationary;  my older siblings saved stamps and coins, my dad had his books. At the dinner table, we did not waste a drop of food and ate leftovers for weeks. We complied treasures at yard sales every weekend, and never threw functional things away, because “you never know if you’ll need it.”

Not only do I hold onto practical items, but I’m also sentimental - and not just for heirlooms from childhood or memorabilia. I’ll attach sentimental value to a shopping list from my adult life 10 years ago because it reminds me what I bought when I was living in that brownstone apartment in downtown Portland. If I don’t keep it, how else will I remember those days?

If your stuff is piling up and you don’t know where anything is, it’s probably contributing to your stress. But anyone who gets attached to things knows that their stuff is more than that. Stuff symbolizes important times, events, rites of passage, and sometimes it just brings us comfort.

When life forces you to make a change

My first indication that I had a problem was my fridge. You open my freezer at your own risk (of avalanche). The wake-up call was when my boyfriend cleaned out my fridge and found enough expired condiments and rotting food to fill a black 55 gallon garbage bag. Seeing it all in the bag was a shock!

I had become my mother.

I was actually upset with him for throwing away ancient freezer-burned food. I was strangely attached to it, because I bought it at some point for a reason, and I felt connected to it. And I felt embarrassed. A whole slew of emotions come out when you’re confronted with your own hoarding tendencies.  But I understood that my attachment to 3 year old frozen veggie dogs was ridiculous - and that was my turning point. Once the food was in the bag, I felt like a weight had been lifted. I wanted to face my clutter demons all over the house.

At the time I read Kondo’s book, I was moving from an 1100 sq ft apartment with storage where I lived on my own, to an 800 sq ft space with no storage that I’d be sharing with my boyfriend.  I had no choice but to downsize, which was a great motivator. If you’re about to embark on the great tidying, it helps telling yourself you have to downsize as you go through your stuff - even if you don’t. Someday you might, and if you have too much stuff, it’ll just be more work for you, later.

The Joy of Giving

Parting with my stuff was hard, but what made saying goodbye easier was knowing that my things would be more appreciated elsewhere. On the day I moved, I had a giveaway “free-sale” and got to see my old stuff spark joy in others. My Anatomy and Physiology textbook was going to a college student who would continue to use it. Craft supplies went to a kindergarten teacher and a mother of young kids. Tennis rackets were going to a couple of best friends in high school. My old pottery work that I wasn’t too proud of was going to be treasured in someone else’s kitchen. My stuff was doing a lot more good with others than in dark corners of my closets.

This brought me joy.

The decluttering process

The KonMarie method guides you step by step on how to part ways with different types of items, starting with clothes. Clothes can be overwhelming to sort at first, but become easier the more you do it. I had collected so many items in my 20s that I kept into my 30s -  vintage dresses alone made a mound that took up my whole queen bed.

It took me weeks to sort through clothes, and it was tedious at first. The difficulty came from the feeling that by getting rid of things from my past, I’m dismissing my former self. But the beauty of this method is that you get to honor those items by parting with them lovingly, thanking them for their service. While this may sound corny, showing gratitude was crucial for sentimental folks like myself who get attached to things.

I kept only items that “sparked joy” that I wanted to bring with me to the future. I got rid of about 75% of my clothes and have no regrets. Now I know where all my clothes are, and I wear only things that fit well and represent who I am now and who I want to be. While it’s not perfect, I take pride in the organization that I’ve kept up. That’s part of the magic: once you’ve started a system that makes your life easier, you never go back to keeping things in unruly piles.

Reckoning with your past and present

Sorting through old papers was emotionally draining, but the epiphanies I had as a result were truly life changing. I attach so much importance to papers. I used to keep all my homework, notes and essays from college. School papers represented what I learned -  ideas that changed me and helped me grow as a person. Would throwing away these things be a denial of my own identity? And was it even my identity now that 15 years have passed? Am I the person I hoped to become 15 years ago? These thoughts fully spiraled into an identity crisis as I sat on my bedroom floor buried in piles of paper, overwhelmed and emotionally distraught. When I watch the Netflix show and see people go through similar struggles while sorting, I realize how universal this feeling is.

When you find things from your past, you’re forced to reckon with who you were, who you are now, and all the ways you’ve changed. Going through it was an important ritual for me in order to accept my current life and let go of the past. It was time to forward. What I discovered was this: I can get rid of things and still know who I am, and accept how I’ve changed from who I used to be. If you watch the show, you see that other people find self acceptance through this process. The work is brutal, but they come through this process better in the end: free of things that used to hold them back.

How I parted with sentimental items: the power of one

I used to keep brochures from a good play, invitations to friends’ weddings, academic journals from interesting college classes. Written documents represented my life and I honored those times through keepsakes that spark nostalgia, but not necessarily joy. Ultimately, it’s not sustainable to keep everything as a memento.

I took the time to glance at each document and process how it made me feel. I chose the one item that represented each time in my life, or each person I wanted to remember best. I only kept one example of an essay from each important class, one love letter from each relationship, one birthday card from a good friend. I took pictures of documents and journaled how it felt to read old letters. I extracted the memories from items, without having to keep them - and said goodbye.

In the end I consolidated 4 banker boxes of paper to just one box of items I cherish most. I’m thankful to have gone through this, because now when I look at that box, I no longer feel the overwhelm, guilt and avoidance I used to feel. Prized possession are inside. There is something cathartic and therapeutic about going through old stuff. Once you do it, you’ll get it out of your system and feel better - like a good cry.

Loving your space and mental clarity

We moved to our first home since my tidying days, which meant that I got to bring only things we love into our permanent space. We’ve curated our things and keep only our most valued and precious items that spark joy. My partner’s favorite photos from art school and only my presentable pottery pieces are displayed. We feel at peace when we spend time in our home together. We have our spaces for doing art, for relaxation, for working. My mind is less cluttered as a result of a cleaner house. We can concentrate, relax, and breathe in our space, and this has done wonders for our mental health and our relationship.

If you’re feeling the burden of too much stuff, Kondo’s book is a good place to start. It could plant the seed for a magical transformation in your life.  

And, if you feel like your emotional life is too cluttered, call our therapy office. Our therapists will be glad to help.


Karen Lenz People Bloom Counseling Redmond Executive Assistant.png

Karen Lenz is the Office Whiz Extraordinaire at People Bloom Counseling. She writes blog posts as a human navigating this world, a client sitting across from a therapist, much like you. She is thankful to get to share her experiences with you. Her Tuesday evening plans involve doing laundry, an activity she now enjoys because every shirt has its place, and every sock has its partner. She hopes you can find your joy in decluttering too.



Friend, this is how to Support me During a Break-up

Photo by Court Prather on Unsplash

Photo by Court Prather on Unsplash

Yes, it sucks and it hurts

First of all, if you’re going through a break-up, my heart aches with you. This absolutely sucks and it can feel like the pain never ends. If you haven’t already, I want you to watch this video. Psychologist Guy Winch talks about what it takes a to mend a broken heart:

I might add that while it’s important for your friends to show you compassion and patience, it’s even more important to be compassionate and patient towards yourself as you recover. The time it takes for you to heal might not be proportional to the length of the relationship. 

Close to home 

As a relative, a friend, a therapist, I’ve witnessed many heartbreaks. Take Tammy, for example, my playmate. We go way back. We have so many inside jokes and recall the silliest stories. We share embarrassing selfies and we’ve seen each other at our best and at our worst. And worse it was when she went through a tumultuous divorce a few years ago. Is her ex coming back? Is he gone for good? There was so much back and forth and “fun” is not the word I’d use to describe this rollercoaster ride.

The thing is, there’s never a good time to break up. Even if it’s for the better, it always sucks. Sometimes it’s easier for the relationship to keep dragging on than it is to be honest about parting ways. Regardless of how your relationship ended, when your friends don’t know what to say, they can say the most insensitive things. Have you ever stopped opening up to a friend because of something they’ve said? You probably didn’t bother correcting them because you’re just trying to stop hemorrhaging.

So what shouldn’t your friends do? Let’s see if this resonates with you. 

What not to do when helping me get through my break-up 

1.    Bad mouth my ex – When I call my ex every name in the book, you want to support me and jump on the bandwagon. I know you mean well because you don’t like seeing me this way. But when I hear those colorful words flying out of your mouth, I’m silently wishing that you’d tone it down. Not only am I managing my own emotional response; I’m also cued into yours. I don’t have the bandwidth for that.

2.    Argue with me when I defend my ex – So there’s a reason why we got together. However long or short it has been, there was something there. If they’re all that terrible, what does that say about me that I chose to be in a relationship with them? This back and forth is a part of the process. Please let me be.

3.    Remind me why we should’ve never gotten together in the first place – This stings. I might already realize this and have mustered up all the courage to break up with that person, let alone tell you. The last thing I’d need to hear is, “Remember when I told you...”

4.    Tell me I’ll find someone better – I’m not saying that’s not true, but not now. I’m still aching over this relationship and I’m not ready for another one. Please; I really can’t think about someone else right now.

5.    Hurry me along – I don’t know why but I feel like I’m never going to get over this person. Every playlist, place, car ride remind me of them. I don’t know how long this is going to take. The last thing I need is for you to get irritated at me because it has been five months and I’m still down and out. Please let me be me when I’m with you.

So, let’s take a break here. Rather than simply telling your friends what they shouldn’t do during your break up, what would you rather they do instead? Would the following help?

What to do when helping me get through my break-up

1.    Listen – I know I’m rambling. I just want to pour my heart out and get things off my chest. You don’t have to agree with me. You don’t even have to side with me. Just give me your best ear and don’t judge me.

2.    Offer a place to stay – Sometimes I just want to get out of my element and have a change of scenery. I wouldn’t mind crashing on your couch for a few nights. Just offer.

3.    Take a break from talking about my ex – That’s all I think about. Perhaps it seems like that’s all I want to talk about. But really, help set some limits around that. Let me go on for an hour and then let’s move onto something else. I need a break from this too.

4.    Keep inviting me out – I still want a life. Whether I’m in a relationship or not doesn’t change that. Yes, it might be hard to see people in pairs but I’m still human. Being in good company helps me heal.

5.    Give me space – I know I sound like I’m contradicting myself, but I’m really not. Sometimes, I don’t want to go out and I just need space to think and process what the hell just happened. If I’m not in the mood, you can probe a little but then check back later if I insist on being alone.

I’m sure this is not an exhaustive list but I really hope this can be a conversation starter. Share this post and add your own pointers. You’re uniquely you and your friends who have never seen you this way simply don’t know how best to support you.

For your recovery, for their understanding, for your friendship, given them somethin’. 

Finally, let us know if the counselors at People Bloom can support you in more ways than 10. We’re not your friends and we can’t thank you enough for them, but as therapists, we have other tools to help you get back on your feet. You know where to find us.


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 Ada Pang is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond psychotherapy practice in WA. She helps unhappy couples and families living with cancer. Her clinician Bob Russell specializes in teens and young professionals. Whatever your challenges, let us know if we can help you!

There Is Such a Thing as Too Much Self Help

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Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

Self-help? No thanks!

The year I turned 30, the life path I thought I was on took a sharp turn and derailed. The end of a six-year relationship left me broken. I was diagnosed with a debilitating autoimmune disease.  A nice Welcome to your 30s! combo set.

At the same time, my friend Emma was going through her own massive life upheaval. She carried me through my post-break-up identity crisis and I offered her support through a messy divorce. Emma suggested I read Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie. There was a time I would have scoffed at those cheesy self-help books. I never would have considered that codependence could be my problem. But desperation set in and I flung open to page one. Here's the short version: opening that book opened my heart to the wisdom of strangers, and it saved my life.

As it turns out, Beattie knew my soul.

I then jumped on the self-help bandwagon. I read all the self-care guides, journaled daily, and was determined to heal - emotionally and physically. The guidance of experts in health and wellness became my enlightenment. If I hadn’t faced some truths about myself, I might still be living in those dark days. My Before Self Help Era (BSH).                   

...

Putting down the books

Fast forward four years. As I sat with Emma at a coffee shop recently, I realized we were doing it again. Swapping our latest self-help tips, divulging our deepest flaws and sharing the new tool we learned for coping with whatever challenge we were facing at that moment.

I couldn’t remember the last time I hung out with Emma without psychoanalyzing and dissecting our behaviors and motivations. As we grew and changed together, and as life continued to throw curve balls at us, it was like we’d become each other’s therapists. Our quest for healing had become our common ground and set the tone for our friendship.

Now don't get me wrong, it’s great to help each other when we're struggling! And it’s also easy to dwell on our problems when we catch up - our problems become a topic we know so well! But it’s not our job to treat each other’s emotional pain, especially without proper training.  I trust Emma with my struggles because she is a great listener and gives the best advice. I try to do the same for her. But after all these years, I don’t know if my advice has been helpful, no matter how good my intentions.  A trained therapist would know best how to handle our respective baggage. It was time to stop letting the quest for self-improvement and healing consume us. 

As much as Emma and I thrived on each other's support, we were both feeling the burden of playing counselor. 

Finding middle ground

I missed just being. Emma and I have been friends for 15 years. There was a time when we didn’t analyze our every thought or decision (long before BSH). We were care-free and spontaneous. I know we can’t bring back our free and breezy 20’s. Or, let’s be honest, the days of drunken shenanigans. But, we can try to remember who we were then, and channel that feeling - before obligations, heartbreaks, and mortgages took their toll. We don’t have to constantly obsess and worry about whether we’re doing life right. Self-doubt is at the root of many of our quests for self-improvement.

For a moment over coffee, I can stop trying to fix myself and others. 

So I experimented: I decided to hang out with Emma and do things that bring us joy. We ordered pie to go with our coffee (guilt-free!) and reminisced about things that make us laugh. We walked to the park and played on the swings, like a couple of kids. I think our friendship needed that jump-start. Nothing was broken at that moment, and nothing needed fixing. 

Going against my nature and trusting my instincts

I tend to delve deep when I get into a one-on-one conversation. Keeping things light-hearted is out of character for me, so just having fun is a much needed reprieve. Whenever the conversation over coffee got heavy, I suggested to Emma that she discuss the issue with her therapist. We no longer dwell or talk in circles like we used to.

Granted, I’m still on this journey and have much more to learn. But during that coffee break I gave myself a break from self-improvement, from healing and processing. To exist, free of worry or a need for order and perfection. Ironically, it's self-improvement books that have taught me to be more present and live in the moment.   Maybe I'm finally learning to trust my own instincts - not rely so completely on the guidance of others. Could it be, I'm actually applying what I have learned in my search for wisdom and wellness?

What's your nature?

If you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing you are open to self-improvement and to learning tools to cope with life’s challenges. Doing the work to better yourself can be life-changing. It takes guts to face yourself, flaws and all, and it’s noble work to aim to be the best version of you.

But, if you’ve been bogged down by too much processing, give yourself permission to take a break from overthinking. It’s okay to put down the books, for as long as you need. They’ll be there when you want to jump back in. But for the time being, do the thing that brings you joy. I’m off to play in clay and to see if I can still throw a mug or two. Maybe Emma and I can use it at our next coffee date. If my mug doesn't come out perfectly from the kiln, well, it'll have my fingerprints all over it.

Taking care of you and your Emma

Do you have an Emma in your life?  The next time the two of you end up going down the psychoanalysis rabbit hole, save your own issues for your session with your therapist. If your Emma doesn’t have a therapist and she's open to seeing someone, you can suggest that too. It’s ok to lean on friends for support, but having fun and letting go of it all sometimes can be just as therapeutic as the best self-help book. It can also do wonders for friendships.


Karen Lenz  Executive Assistant

Karen Lenz
Executive Assistant

Hi, I want to introduce myself as People Bloom's Executive Assistant. I know you look to Ada’s  blogs for helpful messages and tips to get through life’s challenges. But running a small business is non-stop work, which means the blog sometimes gets pushed to the back burner. I mentioned to Ada that I like to write, and she kindly offered for me to contribute blogs during those busy times. I was thrilled!
I’m in the office business - not a therapist. I’ll share my experiences as a human navigating this world, a client sitting across from a therapist, much like you. Thank you for letting me share a part of myself. Maybe my journey will resonate with you, and we’ll get through this messy life together.

How Standup Paddle Boarding Informs my Life and Counseling Practice

I'm out and about, living my life and I see stories that tie into how I practice counseling. Here is an example of such.

SUP

I first tried SUP in O'ahu. I took a lesson with my husband, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law and we were in very calm waters inside a canal. I was the only one who didn't fall in. I used to be proud of that, except when I look back, I knew it was because I was the only non-swimmer and was tensed the whole time. I really didn't enjoy the lesson as much as everyone else. They were laughing and splashing around and I was, just scared.

Is it possible that falling into the water is a part of the SUP experience?

SUP + falling

Now a few years later, I've grown less afraid of water and have been out on many more SUP adventures. I've decided that falling in is inevitable: a friend can threaten to tackle me, I can collide into my husband, the currents might be too strong... When I fall in, it is an opportunity for me to work on my chicken, airplane, solider stroke. And while there really isn't a graceful way to fall, it is still preferred to fall directly into the water rather than to hit the board first.

SUP + waves

It's not always calm like the canal. Boats and jet skis pass by, it's breezy, or the water is just choppy. I've learned that if we waited until it's calm, we might never head out.

It's tempting to sit down when the waves come. Sometimes I sit too long before I get back up. And I've tried avoiding the waves, only to have them catch up with me. It seems counter-intuitive, but the most effective way to go through the waves is to face them head on. When I point the nose of my board perpendicular to the waves, while I still feel the motion, I'm actually more stable.

Now I'm not saying there isn't a time and a place to sit and ride out the waves, or even take a break ashore. My husband and I were in Maui and the white caps barely missed us. It wasn't wise to stay out, especially not with a sea-sick husband. But, it's important that that experience did not keep us in the rest of our trip.

SUP + joy

So, what's all the rave about SUP? Why bother? SUP takes us places we couldn't otherwise go. Today, we started out at Madison Park and explored the Arboretum. It was a gorgeous day in Seattle. We got to watch the clouds change patterns, feel the warmth of the sun on our backs, say hello to kayakers and canoers, and explore beneath the 520-bridge. The waters gave a beautiful reflection of the sky and the motion of swaying side-to-side soothed and comforted us.

SUP + life

What parallels am I drawing here? There are times when life is calm. Enjoy those moments. And when it gets rough, know that's also a part of being alive. Falling is inevitable, and getting back up can take a while. After getting back up, it's tempting to stay put so you don't fall again. But when you're sitting down, it's also hard to go very far.

What if feeling the currents of life and feeling off balance at times is a part of living? There's no way around that. And when you try to run away from problems you need to face, they will catch up with you. Like in my previous blog post quoting Robert Frost, it helps to keep going.

That begs the questions, “Where are you heading? What do you want life to be about? Have you let the current of life swept you in another direction? Or, are you distracted by where others are going? Can you pause to orient yourself to where you want to go and keep heading in that direction, even though you can't see very far?”

Focus on what's near you. You can make immediate choices and overcome challenges that will get you closer to where you want to go. Then, remember to zoom out and look ahead. Don't lose sight of where you're heading. You can always change direction based on what you value and the goals you set.

Sure, have your me-time, but know that life is not meant to be journeyed alone. It helps to have someone share with you the joys and the trials. This could be a partner, and it could also be family and friends. In a recent blog post, I talked about why relationships are important.

SUP + psychotherapy

What about my counseling practice? How does this apply? I believe you want your life to matter for something. I want to help you get there, one moment at a time. Try swiping your paddle in the water this way, what happens? If you went back to the gym only 1x/week, what would happen? What if you reached lower with your paddle, how does that affect your speed? If you were to practice this defusion exercise I give you, would you let me know how that worked for you?

Ultimately, you don't HAVE to do anything I ask you to do. After all, I want your life to be about wanting to, rather than having to. However, I'm guessing you want your life to be different, and I would want that for you too. Would you join me in braving the waves, the falling in, while learning ways to face your problems as you live a value-driven life? I'm ready when you are.

Note: while I love being on a SUP, I want to clarify that I don't practice psychotherapy on one. 


Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She has a vision to help people flourish and live vital lives. One thing she loves about SUP is the little waves she creates when she goes perpendicular to the current. It makes her feel like she's chartering a small boat.

 

What Happens to the Human Brain when Touch is Provided?

The hand holding mystery

Rachael Crowe/unsplash.com

Rachael Crowe/unsplash.com

I recently came back from a 4-day conference and had the privilege of hearing from neuroscientist Jim Coan. He had the question, “Why do people hold hands?” and the only way to find out was to feed people through a MRI machine, so he says.

He had a group of happy couples come in. He fed the female partner inside a MRI machine and showed them either a red X or a blue O. When the red X flashes, it signals a 20% chance of a mild electric shock on the ankle. When a blue O appears, it means no electric shock.

Coan measured 3 conditions: the woman being alone, holding the hands of a stranger, or holding the hand of her partner. Can you guess what happened?

When under the threat of an electric shock by themselves, the brain got really busy. When holding the hand of a stranger, the same regions of the brain were less active. Finally, when holding the hand of a significant other, there was a reported decrease in vigilance and physiological arousal. The pre-frontal cortex, partly responsible for regulating emotions, was less active, because the partner's touch helped to regulate and reassure. Moreover, there was also less activity in the area of the brain responsible for dumping stress hormones into the bloodstream.

Similar results were found in larger, more diverse populations, and between not just partners, but also friends. There was an overall decreased activity in the region of the brain sensing pain. Somehow, pain or emotions about the pain were attenuated with handholding.

Here's Coan's study on Ted Talk:

Bringing it home

In my last blog post why friends matter, I talked about how the presence of my best friend, aka husband helped mitigate perceived stress. Let me give you a different example with a near stranger.

Last year, I had to go into a medical procedure which had me feeling very scared. It was unplanned, so my husband couldn't be there. The nurse Joanne walked me through what to expect. While I still sensed the anxiety and pain before, during and after the procedure, something was very memorable: she had put her hand on my shoulder the whole time. There was something comforting about the touch of another, the pressure that I felt, the knowing that I wasn't alone. Squeeze me into a MRI machine and I can only imagine her touch was soothing to my busy brain.

What does this mean for you?

If you are in an unhappy relationship and you yearn for your partner's hand to hold and comfort you, there is hope. Sue Johnson, the pioneer of Emotionally Focused Therapy teamed up with Coan to do a study with a group of distressed couples. Prior to 20 weeks of EFT, there was NO difference in these women's brain activity whether alone or holding the hand of their partner. Post treatment, their brains looked a lot like that of happy couples: their partner's presence was soothing and created a buffer against the threat of a shock. EFT helped these marriages create a sense of safety and closeness, and Johnson would say such security is a protective factor against life's challenges.

I practice this type of therapy and I can help you! Give me a call!


Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She loves helping couples reconnect in their relationships. Her most memorable moments with her husband are not at their wedding or during their travels; rather, it's when they're on the couch, talking about anything and everything. 

The Guest House

Dragan/stock.adobe.com

Dragan/stock.adobe.com

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

- Rumi
 

Break Up Haircut

Relationship ended? Making some drastic changes, to include a hairstyle change? I recently contributed materials to Simplemost as to why women cut their hair after a break up. I have some additional thoughts...

Alex Holyoake/unsplash.com

Alex Holyoake/unsplash.com

A break up, whether planned or a shock, cordial or full of conflict, is a significant event. It's not uncommon for men and women to make radical changes following a heartbreak. For some women, they cut their hair. Why?

Here are my speculations: 

1) Stereotypically, men like women with long hair. If there's a desire to dissociate yourself from your ex and his preferences, chopping off your hair will make the statement, both to him and yourself.

2) Perhaps you've always wanted a new look but it wasn't preferred by your partner. Now you get to make the decision for yourself. 

3) Look at yourself in the mirror. Short of changing out your wardrobe, your hair is an easy thing you can doing something about. A new hairstyle is not going to solve all of your problems, but it does give you some very visible control over your circumstances.

4) I'm often amazed at how fast my hair grows without me realizing. While that's not always the case for everyone, seeing new growth is also a reminder of the life possible after a break-up. Your hair will grow back, so your heart will also mend. If you keep the same style, growth is less noticeable.

If a new look is not enough to help you move on, let me know!

Bringing (Another) Baby Home

arekmalang/stock.adobe.com

arekmalang/stock.adobe.com

I was recently asked to comment on how to prepare your child for the arrival of another sib. If it's true that nothing changes the lifestyle of a couple more than the addition of a first baby, then the birth of a sibling must be just as radical for the once-upon-a-time only child. You hear stories of jealousy and parents feeling guilty about not being able to spend as much time with the older child. Know that those moments will naturally happen, and there are also things you can do to make the transition smoother.

  • Keep them in the know: using language that your child would understand, let them know that mommy is prego and the family is expecting another wonderful kiddo!
  • The 9-month period is a process: in the same way you'd go for your ultrasound, go through body changes, and perhaps experience morning sickness, cravings, etc, let your child know that you went through similar and/or different things when pregnant the first time. Talk about your first pregnancy and what that was like.
  • Use other families as examples: talk about uncle Billy or family friend Susie and how there are x number of kids in the home and that makes them siblings.
  • Refer to books: there are a ton of helpful books for children about bringing a baby home. Examples include Babies Don't Eat Pizza, I am a Big Brother, I am a Big Sister, I'm a Big BrotherMy New Baby, and the classic The Berenstain Bears' New Baby
  • Talk about feelings: what is it like for your child to think about having another sibling? Use different mediums to express those feelings, be it drawing, storytelling, acting, etc. Validate all feelings, especially the ones that are hard. Share your own feelings about growing the family.
  • Increase involvement: how would your child like to help decorate the baby's room? What is one or more toy(s) your child would like to put in there? Come feel the baby moving inside mommy's tummy!
  • Anticipate challenges: explain that parents will be busy, sleep deprived and probably crankier, grandma will be over more, and your child won't get as much time with parents, etc. Nonetheless, it doesn't change how much your child is loved.
  • Propose a tentative new routine: bedtime story might be with different adults, 1:1 time to spend with your child might vary depending on the day, etc. Talk about the non-negotiables: your child will still get fed, need to brush their teeth, go to bed...
  • Go over coping skills: in non-urgent situations, and your child wants the attention of pre-occupied adults, what to do instead, for a moment? Color, build Legos, draw, play house...

Enjoy the journey, knowing that the chaos will only be for a while, until you establish a new normal...

Need more support? I love helping people through life transitions! Contact me!