In 2011, I was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. In hindsight, this result was foreseeable: My boyfriend and I decided to start a bankruptcy practice in 2009 in the midst of the financial crisis. We were both working around the clock. I never thought about sustainability, creating a law practice where there is time not only to work but to renew, restore and rejuvenate.
When we got married, the honeymoon was the only vacation we’d had in over three years. I recall sitting on the porch of a beautiful house in Kauai with nothing to do and full of anxiety. I had no idea how to rest.
Returning to wholeness meant adding consistent and intentional habits to pay attention to my own well-being. I learned to guard myself from unintended consequences of lawyering, such as burnout, vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. I was able to tap into my natural sense of curiosity and creativity, which led to surprising insights and different ways of seeing challenging client issues.
I returned to a deeper sense of meaning and purpose for why I practice law. Rest wasn’t an adversary to my law practice, but rather essential and complementary.
Focusing on making small, incremental changes over a sustained period of time is the key to creating any new habit. This includes learning how to rest. As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang wrote in his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, “Rest turns out to be like sex or singing or running. Everyone basically knows how to do it, but with a little work and understanding, you can learn to do it a lot better.”
TIME FOR REST
Time is one of our most valuable resources. It is so valuable that we sell it in 0.1-hour increments. Ask yourself: How many hours do you dedicate to work and others each day? Does the current rate of work feel sustainable? Is it nourishing or depleting?
Often, lawyers will object and say they can’t afford to take any time for themselves. They are too busy. As Karen Gifford and I wrote in our book, The Anxious Lawyer, “This feeling of ‘busyness’ is both a seduction and a major source of dysfunction for many lawyers. If we are very busy, we secretly believe we must be doing something important—in fact, we must be very important.”
If you reflexively reject the idea that you can and should carve out time for rest, consider what effect this belief has.
Think about rest in the context of self-care. Self-care is an activity for you, by you. No one else can eat more kale or go to the gym for you. It’s about identifying your own needs and taking steps to meet them. Consider activities that feel nourishing and nurturing.
Self-care doesn’t have to take a lot of time or money. It’s about the attitude or the intention you bring to the activity. Are you taking proper care of yourself? Are you treating yourself kindly?
Movement. The word exercise is associated with specific activities, such as going to the gym. Broaden your definition to include any activities that involve moving the body. Find movement that feels good. Be flexible. One day, your movement practice might be an hour at the gym; the next day, it might be playing with your kids in the park.
Creativity and hobbies. Do an activity simply for the fun of it. Think back to your childhood and see whether there are activities you used to enjoy that have fallen by the wayside.
Journaling and writing. Writing is an excellent way to process held feelings, explore your inner world and tap into your creativity. One of my favorite practices is described as Morning Pages on the Julia Cameron Live/the Artist’s Way website. You simply sit down each morning with a pen and paper to write whatever comes to mind.
Mindful eating. There is no shortage of diet tips and what you should (or shouldn’t) eat. However, how you eat is as important as what you eat. Simply described, mindful eating means paying attention while you are eating. If you regularly eat mindlessly, shoving food into your mouth while doing email, only to look down and realize your plate is empty, consider making small adjustments to how you eat. Look at the food—all the colors, the flavors, the smells. Savor the experience.
AN ELUSIVE STATE
There’s no off button for the brain. You can go for a massage or sit down to read for pleasure, but the mind may not immediately go into rest mode. It’s natural for the mind to race, think about a case and wonder whether you sent that email.
Trying to force the mind to stop thinking is as effective as holding down a beach ball in the ocean. It takes a lot of effort, and sooner or later it will pop back up. Rather, frame it as an invitation for the mind and body to rest. Your mind or body may have other plans, but you’re still doing your part by creating an optimal state for rest.
You can go on a weeklong vacation to Hawaii, sit on the beach and sip your favorite beverage, yet your mind may still be back at the office, working frantically. These moments can be very frustrating. Part of learning how to rest is increasing self-knowledge about how your mind works. Rather than criticize yourself for feeling anxious, invite the anxiety to sit down for tea.
Finally, if you’re struggling to overcome guilt or negative self-talk about taking time to rest, remember: You cannot serve from an empty vessel.
MINDFULNESS PRACTICE (IN JUST 6 MINUTES)
Here’s how to let go of stress and anxiety: Begin by finding a comfortable posture, allowing the eyes to soften and taking a moment to congratulate yourself for being here. It’s helpful to work through stress and anxiety not by thinking about the content but rather noticing where in the body you’re holding the stress or anxiety.
Do a body scan. Starting with the head, move the attention slowly—down the neck, shoulders and torso, and notice whether there is any tightening or tension. Move down the arms and hands, then into the lower body—the hips, then the legs. Feel your feet on the floor.
Take a nice, long breath. Make it the longest breath you’ve taken all day.
If you notice the mind going into thinking or worrying mode, recognize that in this moment there is nothing to do except simply be here.
With each inhalation, you’re drawing in fresh energy. With each exhalation, you’re releasing and letting go of anything you no longer need.
Close the practice by beginning to wiggle the fingers and toes and very gently moving your body in any way that feels good to you. When you feel ready, allow the eyes to open. (You can hear an audio version of this guided meditation at jeenacho.com/wellbeing.)
Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms, focusing on actionable change strategies for stress management, well-being, resilience training, mindfulness and meditation. She is the co-author of The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation and practices bankruptcy law with her husband at the JC Law Group in San Francisco.
This article was published in the February 2018 issue of the ABA Journal with the title "The Art of Resting: It’s critical for lawyer well-being, so here’s how to fit rest into your schedule."
Do you dread going to work? If so, maybe it's time to look at the other ways you can flex your legal skills, Nancy Levit says. There are many types of jobs for lawyers, and sometimes what you thought you wanted to do doesn’t work out, Levit tells the ABA Journal's Stephanie Francis Ward in this episode of Asked and Answered.
Levit shares tips on how to find the work you want to do and how to find joy in the work you’re already doing.
One way to adjust your mindset at work is to look at who you’re spending time with, she says. Are you hanging out with colleagues who have positive outlooks, or with the workplace worrywarts and complainers?
Levit advises keeping a mindset of “upward” comparisons. Comparing “downward” means focusing on the things others have that you don’t, while comparing upward makes you grateful for the things you do have. Lawyers tend to want perfection, she says, and the quest to keep up with the Joneses—or the Jones Days—can cause people to be unhappy.
This podcast was brought to you by our advertiser, LawPay. “Did you know that attorneys who accept online payments get paid 39 percent faster on average than those using traditional payment methods? With LawPay, the only payment solution offered through the ABA Advantage program, you can accept client payments online, via email, or in person—no equipment needed. Visit LawPay.com/podcast to sign up and get your first three months free.”
Nancy Levit is a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law and the interim associate dean for faculty. She teaches defamation and privacy, employment discrimination, gender and justice, jurisprudence and torts, and is the co-adviser to the UMKC Law Review. Levit is the author of several books, including The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law and its sequel, The Good Lawyer: Seeking Quality in the Practice of Law, both co-authored by Douglas Linder.
Now that you’ve survived — maybe even enjoyed — the rounds of law firm holiday parties, the slate is wiped clean for 2018. No doubt, resolutions and good intentions bubbled up with the start of the new year. You may have noted them in your head or purchased a new motivational calendar with quarterly pages for tracking your goals.
Lawyers are two to four times as addicted as those in other professions.
Lawyers are four times as depressed as the general population.
During the first 10 years of practice, lawyers have the highest rate of addiction.
There’s Nothing Like a Civilized “Hunger Games”
Of course, this could be the year you break the predictable cycle of broken promises to yourself (and your spouse, your family, your doctor) and insert more balance into your life: eat better, get more exercise, spend more time with family and friends. You know the drill.
Unfortunately, as they climb the rungs to partnership or work to build a viable practice of their own, few lawyers really believe they have a choice in the matter. Finding balance is especially difficult in a law firm of any significant size, where each day is essentially an “interview.” You’re under a microscope as others scrutinize your billable hours, client originations and ability to respond immediately to any demand. You are at the 24/7 disposal of new partners, new clients and new peers who will like you or not, respect you or not, and assess over a six- to nine-year period whether you have “the right stuff.” Nothing like a civilized “Hunger Games,” right?
Tangible, Realistic Ways to Begin a Shift Toward Balance in Your Life
On the bright side, many law firms are shifting away from unhealthy work models, hoping talented lawyers can avoid burnout — and that they’ll stick around. Eventually, this culture shift should reduce defections and lead to more lawyers having long and robust careers.
Until then, however, here are five concrete things you can do to take control of your work-life balance:
1. Disconnect from technology whenever possible. Set up a message on your voicemail and email systems stating you are unavailable and provide contacts for those needing help. Leave an additional number to reach you in a real emergency (it typically is not one). Most senior partners and clients expect 24/7 instant availability, so this won’t be easy. But, it can be accomplished with some creativity. Doctors learned this decades ago by assigning “on call” weekends or weeknights. Maybe your practice group can do the same.
2. Learn to say no. Set realistic work boundaries that permit you to do quality work and maintain high energy. In my experience, a senior partner has more respect for young lawyers who are honest about their workload and do not wish to compromise quality.
3. Take all vacation and comp days. Make them real vacations, not “staycations,” especially if you have finished a major project or trial, or have been traveling excessively for work. Take off for two weeks — not one. You need at least three or four days to feel your body relax and then you’ll have a full week to decompress. And try not to plan too many trips that are exhausting in and of themselves.
4. Commit to healthy habits. Easier said than done, but here are the basics:
Take frequent, quick breaks: a quick walk, five minutes of deep breathing, a short meditation.
Every night, spend an hour doing something for yourself that you can look forward to — a good book, some Netflix, yoga.
Follow good nutrition habits instead of binge eating when you’re feeling starved or late at night.
Get some social interaction outside of work.
Make a sustained sleep schedule a priority. Studies confirm that we lose all stability if our sleep is compromised for any period of time.
5. Get in touch with your life’s priorities, goals and passions. Have you discarded or forgotten them? Your tombstone is not going to read that you had the highest billable hours for a decade. Here are a few tactics to use when looking to reconnect with your passions:
Identify your greatest joys. Feel free to go back to your childhood.
List five things (jobs, volunteer work, hobbies, adventures) you would like to do.
List five more things that you are very good at doing (even if you have never done them in public or as part of a job).
Complete this sentence: “My life is ideal when … ” Do it again 15 times, then reduce it to your top five.
Everything in life that results in real change begins with simple and tangible action steps, not a January flood of empty promises to yourself and new gym memberships.
Students at top law schools ask for more mental health support
Today’s law students may be more open about discussing their mental health issues than previous generations, but law schools still draw many Type A individuals, frequently on a never-ending quest for perfection.
“I think that people are beginning to realize that by eating right, getting enough sleep and doing things that make them happy, that will make them do better in school. But when you’re in a place like law school, and you see someone going to the law library for four hours, you ask yourself, ‘Should I be studying more?’ And then you give up going to the gym or having dinner with friends to study more,” says Alix Simnock, a Duke University School of Law third-year student, who is president of the school’s bar association.
Simnock is one of 16 student leaders at 13 law schools to sign a recent pledge (PDF) addressed to law school communities that is focused on both improving mental health and promoting wellness on law school campuses.
The letter noted a stereotype that law school must be “grueling and overwhelming” to prepare students for the practice.
“The toll on students’ mental health has become an accepted characteristic of law school life rather than properly recognized as an impediment to our success. Indeed, our laws and judicial decisions display a history of overlooking mental and emotional distress and continue to downplay mental illness as too enigmatic, unimportant or easily faked to have a role in the law,” reads the letter.
Also, it suggested that character and fitness inquiries regarding a student’s mental health history could encourage self-treatment with substance abuse.
“We say to our affected peers: you are not alone. We say to all our friends and colleagues: we can do better. Poor student or practitioner health is not a necessary byproduct of a rigorous legal education and needs to be treated as the scourge of the profession that it is. Students left behind are not failures of personal strength. They are testaments to our collective failure to uplift one another and raise the standards of our trade,” the letter stated.
Concern about the character and fitness portion of bar admissions can prevent students from discussing mental health problems with law school administrators, says David Jaffe, the associate dean of student affairs at American University Washington College of Law. Jaffe also chairs the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs’ law school assistance committee.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice advised Louisiana and Vermont that it is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act when bar associations performing character and fitness evaluations ask about bar applicants’ mental health and require detailed medical information.
In response, Louisiana changed its question, Jaffe says. He adds that several other states, but not all, “saw the handwriting on the wall,” and either changed or eliminated mental health questions on bar admissions’ character and fitness sections.
Jaffe would like to see the National Conference of Bar Examiners release aggregate data showing how many bar licenses are delayed each year over character and fitness issues, and why, so that law school administrators can be more precise when advising students.
“The students sometimes ask: ‘If I get help, will I need to report that to the bar, and will I be denied admission,’” Jaffe says. He adds that some states ask a compound question about candidates’ mental health, focused on diagnosis, treatment and whether the condition could create issues if not treated.
“Students will say: ‘I’m taking my medication for ADHD: How do I know if it will create issues if I don’t take it?’” he says.
Law schools could also get more data on mental health so they can better identify areas where reform is most needed, according to Nick DeFiesta and Alexandria Gilbert, co-presidents of the Stanford Law Association.
“Tracking changes in mental health as students progress through law school, as well as evaluating similar metrics and career satisfaction of law school alumni, would go a long way toward quantifying the problem and help administrators assess where focus is most needed,” the two wrote in a statement to the ABA Journal.
Also, they’d like to see law schools include mental health, wellness and professional fulfillment with their core institutional values, and have student programming that is reflective of that.
“It is critical that we talk about these issues openly and honestly. We can’t just pay lip service to ‘mental health.’ We need to acknowledge the prevalence of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse — and specifically name those things. When first-year law students arrive to campus, they should know that it’s OK to struggle, that resources are available for them, and that they are not alone,” the two wrote.
An online forum for student leaders at tier-14 law schools led to the mental health pledge, says Clara Chalk, president of the Texas Law Student Bar Association at the University of Texas School of Law. It was released at the beginning of December, shortly before the reading period that precedes final examinations.
Chalk says that at UT Law, the school has a “mental health week” around exam time. It includes massage chairs and social events. She’d like to see more counselors on campus, in safe spaces that could be easily reached from the law school, and student workshops focusing on behaviors that can be warning signs when students need help.
Also, she stresses that self-care is different for everyone.
“Sometimes it can be playing with a puppy, or watching a chick flick. Sometimes it can mean letting yourself be angry at something, and acknowledging that you don’t want to go into a social situation, you want to stay home,” Chalk says. “It’s also being more forgiving and honest with yourself.”
As we all reflect on the past year and plan for our New Year, let us ask ourselves how Lawyer Well-Being factors in to our plans for 2018? Well-Being in our profession has often been overlooked. But, to be an effective lawyer and leader one has to be healthy. Recent studies suggest our profession is not headed in a healthy direction. Yet, one author, in a recent publication, suggested that one significant contribution to achieving well-being is to engage more empathy in our interactions with each other, our clients, and ourselves.
I encourage you to check out the article and conduct your own empathy assessment!
In case you'd rather have a summary of this lengthy article, rather than reading the full post, here are some of the key summary points:
From the authors’ literature review and synthesis, the following summary points show the many important roles and functions of empathy in lawyers:
Empathetic communication, which builds rapport and positive interaction between lawyer and client, enhances the lawyer-client relationship;
A free flow of information which more deeply describes and discloses both the legal and non-legal aspects of legal disputes and issues better assists lawyers in developing and executing legal strategies and arguments for more effective resolution of client concerns;
Clients of lawyers with higher empathetic communication experience an increased level of satisfaction because they benefit from their lawyers’ attentive listening, understanding of legal issues from client perspectives and explanations of the legal process, strategies, and advice using language that the client can understand;
Clients prefer lawyers whom they perceive as empathetic;
Empathy, a multidimensional concept which involves the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of the client, enables the lawyer to see the landscape of the legal issue or dispute from multiple perspectives, facilitates the effective resolution of client legal issues, problems, or concerns;
Empathy motivates helping behavior and makes lawyers more inclined to uphold professional standards;
Empathy contributes positively to lawyer mental health and well-being and equips lawyers to attain greater happiness;
Compared with students in other professions, law students tend to have lower empathy levels and those levels remain stable.
Research Background: Health Professionals, Lawyers, and Empathy Assessment. “Medicine and other health professionals have long recognized the importance of empathy among their populations, and as such, has been the focused attention in developing a number of empathetic measurement tools.” Empathic behaviors, as indicated in the wide body of literature noted by the authors, has many positive links with the professional performance and mental well-being of law students and lawyers. While the legal profession may have recognized its importance for the well-being and capacity its students and practitioners, the measurement of empathy has not occurred in the law setting to the same extent as in the medical and health fields. The multi-disciplinary team of Australian researchers sought to fill this void.
The Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy (JSPE), described by the authors as “the most significant empathy scale to date”, offers a valid and reliable tool to measure empathy in medical professionals. The JSPE consists of 20 items which divide into four (4) factors: view from the patient’s perspective; understanding patient’s experiences, feelings, and cues; emotions in patient care; and thinking like the patient. Researchers have adapted and applied the scale to students of other professions such as nursing, dentistry, and pharmacy. The JSPE as adapated to these cohorts has been retitled the Jefferson Scale of Empathy – Health Provider-Student Version (JSE-HPS). The authors adapted that version to the law context by changing the phrase “health care” to “lawyer”. The phrasing of each item in the new scale for lawyers and law students – JSE-L-S – otherwise stayed the same. The intent of scale remained consistent with the widely used valid and reliable self-reported empathy scale used for health student cohorts.
Research using the JSE-HPS in the medical, dental, pharmacy, and nursing professions has shown that empathy assessment works. Its valid and reliable results play a valuable role in those professionals’ education, training, and practice and in their well-being. Accordingly, in terms of the legal realm, the researchers argued that “it stands to reason that the same could be achieved and be highly useful”.
What the Researchers Did: Participants, Methods, and Results. Two hundred seventy-five students (nearly 92% had not cared for a person with permanent disability in their family) enrolled in an Australian law school participated in the study. The researchers adapted the four factor 20 item Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy – Health Provider – Student Version (JSE-HPS). The participants self-reported their response to twenty (20) items which comprised the four factor new empathy scale tested in the reasearch. The total score can range (from 1 to 7 for each item) from a l0w of 20 (each response as 1 – “strongly disagree”) to a high of 140 (each response as 7 – “strongly agree”). According to the test authors and researchers, “Higher scores reflect higher self-reported empathy.”
This part will not discuss the details of the principal component analyses performed by the researchers. The resulting analysis, according to the authors, “yielded a four-factor solution”. The name of each factor, i.e. “big idea”, of the new JSE-L-S empathy assessment, and each factor’s top item, appears below:
Factor 1 – “understanding the client’s perspective”, 5 items, top item – “Lawyers should try to think like their clients in order to render better legal advice”;
Factor 2 – “responding to clients’ experiences and emotions”, 7 items, top item – “Attentiveness of clients’ personal experiences does not influence legal outcomes” (a reverse scored item, i.e. higher response should be closer to 7, “strongly agree”);
Factor 3 – “responding to clients’ cues and behaviors”, 4 items, top item – “Understanding body language is as important as verbal communication in lawyer-client relationships”;
Factor 4 – “standing in clients’ shoes”, 2 items, top item – “It is difficult for a lawyer to view things from clients’ perspectives” (reverse scored)
End of the Year Reflection: Why I Love Being a Lawyer
As we close out this year and welcome in a new one, I wanted to offer something that might remind us all of why we love being a lawyer. This work is stressful, frustrating at times, and often depletes our energy. But, there is also great benefit and value in being a lawyer. At this time when we reflect on what we've accomplished this year and look toward the next twelve months, let's reflect on why we love what we do.
I've included "5 reasons why I love being a lawyer" from Daliah Saper to help us in our reflection:
"Amid the stress of practicing law, we often forget how much of an impact we have on the individuals and businesses who hire us to provide legal counsel. Being a lawyer is rewarding! For my last article in 2017, I figured I’d reflect on why I love being a lawyer. Here are my top five reasons, in no particular order. What are yours?
Exposure to different industries. Even though I focus my practice on three or four areas of law, my clients come from a wide range of industries. This week, I helped an e-commerce store, an apparel company, a surrogacy company, a musician, a distributor of colored contact lenses, and an author. Few other professions give you the opportunity to learn about so many different kinds of businesses and allow you to actually advise those businesses.
Events. When you represent a wide range of clients, you often get to attend interesting events or take interesting trips. Clients have invited me to movie premieres, fashion shows, art exhibits and galas. One year I was invited to attend the Arabian Horses Breeders Cup in Las Vegas, where the guest list included foreign dignitaries and Arab sheikhs!
Teaching and Mentoring. I credit two important mentors for helping me start Saper Law. Now, I welcome the opportunity to mentor newer attorneys whenever I have the chance. It feels great to be a resource.
Closing deals and creating new law. Most legal services have a natural start and end. I love being a part of the process of facilitating a negotiation, obtaining a settlement, or winning a case. Helping to create new law along the way is an added bonus.
Great war stories. Even though the average lawyer’s life is not like anything we see in the movies, most of us have unusual stories to share over drinks or dinner. Stories can range from unusual case fact patterns to interactions with opposing counsel. See also, Nos. 1-4."
Don't forget the impact you have on others' lives. Your work is important, valuable, and worthwhile. I hope you have time for rest, reflection, and rejuvenation during this holiday season.
The next Tech Tip/Practice Pointer blog will be posted in the New Year.
INCREASING HAPPINESS AT A SMALL FIRM by Christine Bilbry at PRI (Florida Bar Association)
Large companies and law firms are usually well equipped with established systems to reward high performing employees and to assist an employee experiencing a personal crisis. But what is a small firm to do if the budget does not support ski slope retreats or comprehensive employee assistance programs? How can you make your employees feel valued when you have limited time and resources?
To move your employees from their current states to a place of engagement and positivity requires some effort on your part. Don’t assume that your employees know that you appreciate them. Employees need to be acknowledged and rewarded for a job well done. The most basic and immediate thing you can do right now (and I mean as soon as you finish reading this article) is to decide what behavior you want to see more of from your employees, walk out of your office and up to the employee who has most recently displayed that desired behavior, and tell them that you noticed them doing “x” and that you just wanted to take a moment to thank them for what they did. It can be anything. “I really appreciate your help with that project yesterday.” “Hey, thanks for unjamming the copier for everyone.” Keep a few $5 and $10 Starbucks gift cards in your desk for those occasions when an employee has gone above and beyond. To reinforce the good behavior, give positive feedback as soon as possible.
Why would you want to do this and what’s in it for you? Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work states, “We found that managers of companies, if they just increased their praise and recognition of one employee, once a day, for 21 business days in a row, what we find is that six months later those teams, as opposed to a control group, had a 31% higher level of productivity.” It should be noted that his research focused on recognition of an individual’s work. Being part of a team is great, but when a boss says, “Good job everyone,” it carries a lot less weight than acknowledging the specific actions of an individual employee.
There are many low and no-cost ways to increase employee engagement at your firm. If possible, implement a flexible work schedule for your staff. Respect your employees’ personal lives, which means no work calls or emails after hours. Encourage healthy lifestyles by providing nutritious snacks in the break room and consider having outdoor walking meetings to give people a break from the office while still being productive and enjoying some fresh air and sunlight. Everyone loves food. Throw a pizza party or have a barbecue in your parking lot on a Friday afternoon. Making your office a positive place to be benefits everyone. 1001 Ways to Reward Employees by Bob Nelson Ph.D. is a good resource to start you thinking about how to increase happiness at your own firm.
If there is generally low morale in your office, you may need to consider that you are setting the tone that has now spread to your staff. In the forward to the book, The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energyby Jon Gordon, Ken Blanchard shares an exercise he does at his seminars. He asks attendees to get up and “greet other people as if they are unimportant.” He then asks them to “continue to greet people, but this time, to do it as if the people they are greeting are long-lost friends they’re glad to see.” He describes how the volume and energy dramatically shift in the room during this activity and then he tells the attendees, “Every morning you have a choice. Are you going to be a positive thinker or a negative thinker?” This also applies to how you treat your employees. “You can catch people doing things right, or you can catch them doing things wrong. Guess which of those two activities energizes people more?”
Creating a happiness initiative at your office benefits you and everyone around you. It can alleviate stress and have a positive effect on mental health and resilience. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to employee happiness and engagement. Find what feels authentic to you because praise and recognition must be sincere to be effective. Even small changes and gestures from the boss can have dramatic results.
Stress is part of life. You can’t get around it. If you did manage to get around it, you would likely be dead.
You actually need stress to live.
Without stress, you would not get up in the morning, get to work on time, put food on the table, or shift positions when you are uncomfortable.
Stress is your body’s way of letting you know you are out of balance. Feeling hunger—that’s a stress. Feeling cold — another stress. Worried about paying your bills— stress again.
If the weather outside gets colder, the blood vessels in your body will constrict to help your body’s temperature accommodate. If this isn’t enough to maintain your body’s temperature, you will feel cold. All stress. That cold feeling will then motivate you to put on something warm. Presto, you have now adapted to the change in weather.
That’s pretty much how it works. You feel stress. A stress response is activated in your body that triggers physiological changes that motivate you to seek relief.
The problem isn’t so much stress, but the inability to get relief from stress, like being hungry and never getting any food, or being cold and not having something warm to wear. Not only is the stress an issue, but so is the stress response, which becomes over-activated, leading to a whole host of pathological problems like increased blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, inflammation, depression, and so forth.
Why is this a problem for you? You, like most people, ignore your stress. For example, when you feel tired, do you sleep or drink coffee? When you are anxious, do you take care of your feelings, or do you numb them with food, alcohol, or work?
The key to resilience is being able to recognize stress warning signals to motivate you to take care of yourself, not let the stress take the care out of you. You have the power to transform your mind and improve the functioning of your body, if you choose to pay attention, or you can let the functioning of your body deteriorate over time. Here are some tips to get started:
Listen to your body’s whispers before they become screams.
You want to learn to quiet your mind and your stress response long enough to become fully aware of why your body is in stress to begin with. This involves being mindful while witnessing and observing, nonjudgmentally, the sensations you experience in your body and how it may be speaking to you. Witnessing has its roots in the Buddhist meditation practice called mindfulness, which involves being in a moment-by-moment awareness of your thoughts, sensations and feelings, as well as of the surrounding environment, and has the added benefit of turning down the stress response, which then improves your mood, ability to cope more effectively.
To do: Pause. Take a deep breath in, counting to four, and let the breath out, counting from four down to zero for five cycles of breath. Allow your thoughts and tension to be released with your breath. As you quiet down, ask your body what it needs. Ask your heart what it wants. Observe any sensations that arise, listen to thoughts, do not judge.
Move your body.
The term “survival of the fittest” means your ancestors had to be fit to survive. Not only did the strongest and fastest person get to the food first, but research also tells us that regular exercise helps your cardiovascular functioning and reduction of stress response activity. It doesn’t matter what kind of exercise you do, as long as you do it. I personally recommend alternating days of vigorous exercise (can’t hold a conversation), with days of moderate exercise (holding a conversation), with active rest days (strolling with the dog).
To do: You feel anxious? See if going for a walk or a light jog helps. Feeling achy? Try stretching. Low energy? Perhaps this is from lack of activity. Begin by moving your body for 10 minutes—taking the stairs, parking your car farther away from the store, or dancing to your favorite tune.
Food is your fuel.
Food is not your enemy, nor is it your savior when you are anxious. Rather, food is fuel, your source of energy, not your source of inflammation. If you were to slow down and eat mindfully, or take the time to listen to how your body reacts to different foods, you might discover that certain foods leave you feeling more achy, tired or irritable, even though in the short-term, they enable you to feel better as your cravings are tempered. Indeed, studies show that sugar intake, particularly in the form of glucose, is likely more of a risk factor for developing high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease that high salt intake.
To do: Eat mindfully. Enjoy the aromas, the colors and the textures of the food on your plate. Chew. Notice the tastes. Choose food that is grown naturally in your environment. Choose grass-fed foods. If it doesn’t grow in the earth, don’t eat it regularly. How do you feel, not only immediately after eating your food, but the next day? Ask yourself, “If I loved myself and really wanted to be able to function as my best, would this food serve the purpose?” Aim for an 80/20 healthy eating plan (20% of the not-so-good stuff, if you can tolerate it and you still really want it).
Make time for rest and recovery.
We live in a society that encourages us to push ourselves, go faster, work harder, sleep less. Even high-level athletes know that their best performance happens when they take the time to allow their body to rest and recover. Even modest sleep deprivation of one or two hours negatively affects your physiology, especially stress physiology.
To do: As yourself why you might be tired. Are you rested when you wake up in the morning? Examine your food intake. Examine the stimulants you may be taking (caffeine, sugar, etc.). Examine the quality of your sleep—how comfortable is your bed? Do you have physical pain disturbing your sleep? When does your energy lower during the day? When do you lose your focus? Perhaps this is a time to take regular naps or practice a 10 to 20 minute mediation.
About the Author
Elva Selhub is a physician and an internationally recognized resiliency expert. She is the author of several books, including Your Health Destiny. Follow her on Twitter @DrEvaSelhub.