Mell's Blog

By Mell La Valley 21 Nov, 2017

It may not come as a surprise to hear that men and women experience and express stress differently. While the majority of stress research in the last 50 years has been conducted on men, a recent study done on women’s friendships in the context of stress management has had “stunning” implications and has turned much of that research “upside down”. The following is a summary of an article by Gale Berkowitz, titled “UCLA Study on Friendship Among Women: An alternative to fight or flight” which outlines the fascinating findings of this study.

As a woman, I found this study especially interesting however not surprising. For you men reading this: Just because your physiology doesn’t utilize oxytocin in the same fashion as women does not mean you are stuck. As you read this summary, consider these questions:

·        What obstacles or excuses do you create preventing close ties with others?

·        How has isolating in the face of stress affected you?

·        How willing are you to include something other than fight or flight in to your response to stress?

The study was a result of what was initially a joke made between two female scientists at the university, followed by their identification that approximately 90% of stress research to date had been conducted on men. The “joke” was that when the women scientists were stressed, they would come in to the lab, clean, make coffee, and bond with one another. When the male scientists were stressed, they would “hole up” somewhere and isolate themselves. While this was a casual joke among colleagues, the consideration of its truth combined with the realization that so little research had been done on women’s experience of stress had implications too large and fascinating to ignore.

This study recognizes that women’s friendships have unique and special qualities. These relationships impact women’s identities both present and future, they sooth inner turmoil, they can meet needs not being fulfilled within a marriage, and can be grounding in terms of experiencing one’s authentic self. Beyond these important and special factors, however, are even greater implications.

Prior research had led to the conclusion that stress, in either gender, triggered a hormonal reaction that resulted in the classic “fight or flight” response. This study suggests that a woman’s response to stress results in a chemical reaction within the brain that actually causes her to make and maintain friendships with other women. It has also resulted in the belief that women have a “larger behavioral repertoire” than just the fight or flight response, and that the release of oxytocin in the face of a stressful situation may actually buffer the fight or flight response. The result of this buffering is a tendency to tend to her children and gather with other women. Engaging in these behaviors causes further release of oxytocin which produces a calming effect and counteracts stress.

Men do not experience this phenomenon because, under stress, their bodies produce high levels of testosterone which can exacerbate it. The implications of the different reactions between genders are huge in regards to health.

This reaction in women is labeled a “tend and befriend” response and it’s acknowledged that it may take some time for studies to reveal all the ways in which oxytocin elicits this. It may explain why women outlive men, and it has been firmly established by many studies that social ties have several positive impacts on health. These include lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol, and there have been studies conducted that directly correlate friendships, or lack of, with mortality.

It has also been identified in research that friendships improve quality of life. A study conducted by Harvard Medical School found that the more friendships women had the less likely they were to develop physical impairments with age, and that they experienced more joy-filled lives. The researchers who conducted this study concluded that the impact of friendships on health was so significant that lacking them is as detrimental as smoking or being overweight.

Research has also found that women who have close friendships are more capable of withstanding the extreme stressor of losing a spouse without developing new physical impairments or experiencing a loss of vitality.

This article concludes with a powerful and important point: If friends help us counter stress, keep us healthy, and even increase the longevity of our lives, why is it so challenging to make time to spend with them? Berkowitz cites author Ruthellen Josselson, Ph.D., in answer to this, stating that women’s friendships are one of the first things to be put by the way-side when life becomes busy. We can now understand what a mistake this is as women are “such a source of strength” to one another, are able to nurture each other, and can create an “unpressured space” to talk with one another in the unique and healing way that women can.

By Mell La Valley 18 Sep, 2017

If you have visited my website, , you know that the concept and practice of mindfulness plays an important role in how I work with clients as well as in my own life. This article, “Why Some People Get Burned Out and Others Don’t”, blends the concepts of emotional intelligence and mindfulness beautifully. Here is a summary, enjoy.

Kandi Wiens and Annie McKee, the authors of this article, identify that stress and burnout are not the same, and that stress often leads to burnout. It is possible, they say, to manage stressors in a way that safeguards one’s self against this, and that the key is tapping in to your emotional intelligence.

In a study of chief medical officers at 35 large hospitals conducted by Wiens, it was determined that despite reporting extremely high levels of stress, the majority were not burned out. Interviews with the chief medical officers revealed that the commonality regarding managing stress was emotional intelligence.

Research has suggested that emotional intelligence “supports superior coping abilities” and aids people in managing chronic stress and preventing burnout. There are various components of emotional intelligence that promote this:

  • Emotional self-awareness is the ability to understand the sources of negative emotions so that alternative responses can be considered. 
  • Self-management involves remaining calm, in control, and acting appropriately when experiencing stress.
  •  Conflict management skills promote problem solving rather than internalizing conflict. 
  • Empathy can aid in stress management through the seeking of understanding that often leads to increased care for others.  
  • Compassion can also combat the physiological effects of stress. 
  • Finally, increased understanding of others’ perspectives helps us gain trust and improves our ability to influence others. This translates to the ability to get the help needed to manage stress before it results in burnout.

Wiens and McKee point out that people engage in all kinds of maladaptive ways of dealing with stress. They offer the following suggestions for leveraging one’s emotional intelligence in order to avoid burnout:

  • Don’t create your own stress by dwelling on future events that might be stressful. Be mindful of your perfectionism or high need to achieve, which can make you more prone to being the source of your own stress.
  • Be aware of your limitations, know your strengths and weaknesses so that you can be aware of what you may need help with. Ask for help when you need it.
  • Breath deeply when tension or anxiety increase. Mindfulness practices address both immediate stressors and longer-term challenges, such as decreasing your heart rate in the face of stress and lowering your tension level. While calling attention to your breathing may be challenging at first, “attention is the ultimate act of self-control." For more about this see my post about the benefits of breathing .
  • Consider another way to look at the situation. Viewing something as a problem to be solved versus perceiving it as a threat can have a profound effect on managing the stress attached to the situation.
  • Deescalate conflicts by taking the other person’s perspective. Conflicts can contribute significantly to burnout, so managing them can be crucial. Asking questions, listening, and giving your attention by focusing on someone can help gain their trust and improve your ability to influence them.

Practicing and using emotional intelligence can prevent burnout. Be patient, forgiving, and kind with yourself while developing these skills and remember that it will take time and effort to improve.

By Mell La Valley 08 May, 2017

There is much talk about the benefits of breathing, beyond the obvious of just staying alive. Meditation, yoga and martial arts instructors, psychotherapists, medical doctors and those involved in the fields of brain science espouse the mental, emotional and physical rejuvenation, healing, relaxation and focus that breath work can bring. (There is a definite reason why Joc Pederson, centerfielder for the Dodgers, breathes the way he does when at bat).

I want to share two breathing exercises I have found extremely helpful in dealing with stress and anxiety. I have run across numerous variations. However, this first one presented by Dr. Weil is very explicit in its execution. This breath exercise is apparently a very ancient one and seems to have been passed down with specific instructions.

#1 The count of 4, 7 and 8 is the key element and should not be changed. How fast or slow is not the emphasis in this exercise.

 Inhale for 4 counts. I practice diaphragmatic breathing. Dr. Weil did not emphasize this, nor did he say NOT to do this.

Hold for 7 counts.

Exhale for 8 counts. The way the exhalation is done is very important: Place your tongue behind your front teeth. Breathe out blowing around your tongue so that your lips are pursed. Make a whooshing sound.

Do this 3-4 times, 3-4 or more times a day.

I have been doing this for about 8 weeks and I can honestly say that I am aware of an overall sense of calmness. It is very important to do this every day, though. Dr. Weil stated that if done regularly, in time you will experience a positive difference in how you respond to stress.

#2 This works well for those who are visual.

Imagine there are two vertical balloons that stretch from your lower abdomen up to your collarbones. As you inhale, imagine you are filling these balloons up from bottom to top. When you exhale, imagine and feel these balloons empty out from top to bottom.

The count with this one is inhale for a 4 SECOND count, pause, and exhale to a 5 SECOND count. Do this 10 times.

In both exercises note that the exhale is longer than the inhale. This promotes relaxation. Also, the mindfulness required to do these inherently promotes relaxation and focus.

Keep it simple. Do it often.

Happy Breathing!

Mell La Valley, LMFT

By Mell La Valley 13 Dec, 2016

I often wonder why most of us are so hard on ourselves. Why we barrage our brains with negative thoughts, self-criticism and harsh judgments about our thoughts, actions, decisions and even about our feelings (I shouldn't be feeling this way). In my experience as a therapist, and more importantly, as a member of the human race, we tend to be more forgiving and accepting of others, for those same things we are apt to heavily condemn ourselves.

Perhaps there is some nobility in settinghigher standards for ourselves but on the other hand, it is highly incongruent. And ultimately it promotes and reinforces the false believe that we are separate.

I love this quote by Thich Nhat Hanh: "We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness." No matter your spiritual orientation, or lack thereof, it is undeniable we are all of the human race. We share similar thoughts, feelings, needs, wants, dreams, and goals and perhaps most importantly, the undeniable need for connection. What I believe is forgotten is the need for self-connection. So what does this mean?

To be connected to oneself is to experience integration of mind, body and soul - to acknowledge and own our thoughts, feelings and actions. And here is the key:  In a gentle, compassionate, nonjudgmental way. Easier said than done for sure. But what if we habitually spoke to ourselves in the same way we would speak to and support a friend or family member who may have made a "mistake"? What if we showed ourselves the same love we show others we care about?

I, for one, am committed to doing just this. And in so doing I am contributing to the wellbeing of my fellow humans.

Self-love and compassion is not selfish. It is selfless.

By Mell La Valley 11 Dec, 2016

In this blog, I want to provide you with a few techniques that you can start practicing. Many people, including myself at first, have this notion that practicing mindfulness is somehow complicated or laborious. The opposite is true! These techniques are straight forward, simple and intended to help us "BE", in the present moment. When we allow this, a mini vacation ensues, whether it be for 5 seconds or 5 minutes.

First, rules #1, #2 and #3: BE KIND AND GENTLE TO YOURSELF. It is impossible to do these, or any mindful technique wrong. Whatever degree you practice, it is ALWAYS good enough.

1) FOCUS OUT  - This is one you can do even while driving!

This techniques focuses on the external:

Touch - Sight - Sound - Scent

Choose one external sense and intently focus on it for a few seconds. Say it out loud as doing so adds to grounding and centering. If your attention is on more than one, pick one for a few seconds. Touch includes smell and taste. You are only using these labels. You are not labeling what you see, hear, smell or touch. As an example, I hear the sound of a crow, I say "sound". I feel a bump in the road, I say "touch". This is an excellent exercise for people who have been traumatized and find it difficult to tolerate internal experiences.


We can't "forget" to breathe but how often do we breathe consciously? When we take a few moments to become aware of our breathing, make it slower and deeper and feel it inside our body, we activate relaxation. There a many ways to engage in mindful breathing and you can even create your own exercise. This is how I do it:

I put one hand on my chest and one hand on my abdomen, over my belly button. Adjust which hand is where, depending on how natural and comfortable if feels. Inhale to a 4-second count, breathing deep into your diaphragm, pause, exhale to a 5-second count, pause and repeat. Count 10 of these slow, deep, conscious breaths and notice how your body relaxes.


There are also many ways to do a walking meditation. Here is one I invented:

You will be repeating the words, "I am here. It is now." Take one step, say, "I am here." With the next step say, "It is now." Walk slowly, with relaxed breathing. Even doing this a minute or two around your house brings us back to the present and provides a brief respite from your busy day.

There are countless mindfulness activities and exercises. You can certainly create your own. Again the only "rule" is to be kind to yourself. So, if you find your mind wandering, gently and non-judgmentally, bring yourself back into the present moment, knowing that in that moment, you have arrived once again.

By Mell La Valley 08 Sep, 2015

The term “mindfulness” is heard a lot these days. There are endless books, cd’s, articles, and many presentations on Youtube that talk about mindfulness. Here in the U.S., there are countless businesses, corporations, government agencies, medical facilities, prisons, schools (elementary as well as universities) that teach mindfulness practices. In my practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I teach techniques that involve mindfulness-based skills to reduce stress and anxiety and help heal from trauma. So, in this blog, I will briefly define “mindfulness” and how cultivating this state can be beneficial.

Mindfulness practice is inherited from the Buddhist tradition. People often mistake mindfulness and meditation as being somehow associated with Buddhism as a religion or other Eastern religions. (Meditation is but one method used to develop mindfulness). Although this may be true for those who follow the teachings of Buddha, the practice of being mindful and even meditating does not necessarily have spiritual or religious ramifications or connections. I like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness:

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn is a very well know teacher and scholar. He is one of the central founders of the science of mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn is also the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of MassachusettsMedicalSchool.

What is so important about being in the present moment? We have 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts a day. Most of these are thoughts we have had before and many are negative due to the hardwiring of our brains. When we are not in the present moment, we are essentially in a state of mindlessness: Our attention and awareness capacities are scattered due to preoccupation with past memories or future plans and worries, leading to a limited awareness and attention to experiences in the present moment [1]. Being here and now, and accepting the NOW with equanimity, brings much serenity and peace.

Notice I did not say equanimity brings happiness. Although it certainly can (and will), the goal is not happiness because that state is fleeting and usually based on outward circumstances that are forever changing. Equanimity is an internal experience that is characterized by:

  • Softening rather than tightening
  • Allowing rather than grasping
  • Accepting rather than rejecting
  • Loving rather than aggressive
  • Making peace with oneself rather than fighting. [2]

What does it mean to be “nonjudgmental”? Jon Kabbat-Zinn states this simply means to suspend judgment about how judgmental you are. Of course, we will have opinions, judgments, thoughts, feelings, etc. but if we can consider them as background noise and let them go as they pass through our mind, they will not be able to take root and pull us away from the present moment.

I hope this has helped to explain what all this talk about “mindfulness” is about. In future blogs, I will explore different aspects as well as talk further about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation.

  1. Black, D.S. (2011). A Brief Definition of Mindfulness. Mindfulness Research Guide. Retrieved from
  2. Young, S. (2009). Mindfulness-Based Awareness Skills for Emotional Well-Being: Therapeutic Intervention for Mood, Anxiety and Emotional Turmoil. Course Workbook.
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