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."
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.
Do you have a pre-conceived notion that mindfulness involves a hippie way of life, like tuning out the world and living in a temple at the top of a mountain? Do you think it’s a fad with no supporting evidence of its benefits? Or, like many people, do you think mindfulness can only be found in shavasana?
Although I hope to inspire you to practice mindfulness (as the benefits far outweigh the investment), I know many of you may take a quick glance at this article and simply continue on with your busy, stressful and demanding day.
Before moving on though, I encourage you to take a moment to see if you can relate to any of the following statements: Do you find yourself wasting precious time thinking about the past or worrying about the future? Are you often multitasking, but unable to focus? Is stress or anxiety keeping you from performing at your optimal level? Are you constantly on overdrive? Do you feel depleted by the end of the day but unable to sleep?
That was me the first five years of my career as a lawyer, and in all honesty, I loved it. I lived for the adrenaline rush; I wanted to help as many clients as possible; I wanted to move up the corporate ladder to partnership as quickly as my mind and body would allow; I absolutely did not want to slow down—I was Wonder Woman. My mind was constantly going 180 miles per hour with no end in sight, but I thought this was the life of a lawyer and that I had to accept it. It was not until year six, when I realized that a career in law would not be sustainable at this pace, that I found a way to stay focused, calm, and controlled: I discovered “mindfulness.”
Yes, it may still be viewed by some as a bunch of people seeking spiritual growth, but the undeniable benefits of mindfulness have led to its adoption by businesses such as Google, Facebook, Target and many others. Today’s professionals are busier than ever. With increased client demands and workloads, technology at our fingertips, industry pressures, and distractions abounding, lawyers must be capable of focusing on the task at hand to better serve their clients and themselves.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness. This buzz word is found everywhere but what does it actually mean? Well, it can have many different meanings and can be practiced in many different ways. This is probably why, as lawyers, we find it so difficult to grasp, practice and implement. When I tell friends and colleagues about it, they often ask questions like: Show me how. Where do I start? It sounds complicated. I can’t. And, my favourite: I have no time.
Mindfulness, simply stated, is a full awareness of precisely what is happening in the present moment. It involves stilling the internal chatter of the mind and concentrating on what’s happening in the moment, without dwelling, judging or trying to change anything. In other words, no over-thinking (which can be extremely difficult for lawyers but a nice change)—or the opposite, banishing all thoughts.
Mindfulness to me means “self-awareness.” Being aware of your thought patterns, your breath, your body, your surroundings, etc.—what is happening at this very moment in time. Self-awareness can truly be as simple as focusing on your breathing (slow down your breath) while you are standing in line to file a motion versus worrying about the motion you must argue, panicking that you may not have enough time, followed by the negative self-talk. Which of these scenarios would actually be beneficial to you?
The Benefits to the Body, Mind, and Work Performance
Research has shown that when we stay focused on the past or the future it can cause unnecessary stress, which activates our sympathetic nervous system, the driving force behind the body’s fight-or-flight response (aka the adrenaline rush). Working continuously in high gear can have serious negative effects on our mind and body. Physical symptoms of stress include low energy; headaches; upset stomach and nausea; aches, pains, and tense muscles; and insomnia, to name a few. Serious mental health risks include depression, anxiety, and burn-out.
Although it is highly unrealistic to live stress-free, we can “dial down a prolonged fight-or-flight impulse” by activating our parasympathetic nervous system (our relaxation response) through mindfulness/self-awareness. We are training our minds to reduce the activities in the part of the brain responsible for fight-or-flight response and activate the parts of our brain responsible for “executive functioning” so that we can respond appropriately in difficult situations.
Self-awareness has been shown to cultivate many attitudes of joy, peace, and calmness that contribute to a more satisfied life. Being aware makes it easier to savor the pleasures in life as they occur, easier to be fully engaged in activities and creates a greater capacity to deal with adverse events as they may arise. By focusing on the present, many people who practice self-awareness find that they are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or the regrets over the past, and have deeper connections with others.
On top of greater well-being, research has shown that mindfulness/self-awareness can also help reduce psychosomatic symptoms and improve physical health in a number of ways, such as reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, improving sleep and alleviating gastrointestinal difficulties. Further, in recent years, psychotherapists have turned to mindfulness as an important element in the treatment of a number of problems, including depression, substance abuse and anxiety disorders.
But how can it really improve your performance at work? Given that self-awareness has an impact on your attention, it has been shown to improve focus – meaning you are less distracted and can complete tasks more efficiently. Mindfulness also improves listening skills, as you are present in the moment, attentive, and focussed on the conversation and the flow of information instead of thinking of your response, your to-do list, or even what you will have for dinner later. An article in the Harvard Business Review noted, “Neuroscientists have shown that practicing mindfulness affects brain areas related to perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, emotion regulation, introspection, complex thinking and sense of self. While more research is needed to document these changes over time and to understand underlying mechanisms, the converging evidence has been compelling.”
Tips for Lawyers to Practice Self-Awareness
Let’s face it, lawyering is difficult. We all have days where it feels as though the ground beneath us is about to give and we’re spiraling out of control. When you feel this way, what coping mechanism do you use to feel grounded again? Practicing self-awareness allows us to pause, reflect and respond from a place of calm rather than reacting.
To start, try to set aside a few minutes each day: when you are brewing your first pot of coffee in the morning, on your commute to work, while waiting in line. It is important to remember that you will likely not spend much time in a true state of self-awareness, as the mind tends to wander, which is entirely expected given its true nature. Mindfulness is not about “controlling” the mind, it’s about being aware.
Here are a few tips that may help:
1. Breathe: The very thing that makes mindfulness so accessible is that it can be practiced anywhere. The simplest way to begin is with your breath. Sit or stand in a comfortable position and breathe naturally. No need to count inhalations or exhalations: simply relax, focus on the sensations in your throat, chest and abdominal wall as the air enters and leaves your body. If your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your breath.
2. Use what you enjoy: Try bringing the present “here and now” awareness to everyday activities. For example, when walking to work, notice the warmth of the sun on your face, observe the leaves, grass and smells around you (note to self: put your cellphone away for just a few minutes, the world will not end, I promise!). This can be done for any activity. When the mind starts a narrative, bring it back to the activity/pleasure of the moment. What brings you joy—hot showers in the morning, spending time with loved ones, a good meal, listening to music, working out, yoga, etc. Use the things you enjoy and practice full awareness in those moments.
3. Find your center: Start using the above self-awareness techniques in a variety of situations, especially when life becomes stressful. “Check in” throughout the day. If you notice you are, for example, stressed about an upcoming deadline, spend a few minutes in mindful breathing. Don’t try to push your anxious thoughts away, rather try observing your thoughts and acknowledge your stress and where it is stemming from. Calm your breath. After a few moments, return to the task.
5. Stay aware: You can try mindfulness in higher stakes scenarios as well—such as difficult conversations with opposing counsel, contentious mediations, in court, etc. Practice mindful breathing beforehand, and then, even in the thick of a conversation, stay aware of your breath, body and emotions. Remain in the moment rather than jumping ahead to how you’ll respond or fend off an argument. This will help you be a better listener and avoid saying something that will not help advance your client’s case.
STOP: In the midst of your day, a stressful situation, or a moment of bliss:
Take a deep breath;
Observe what is happening inside and around you at the moment; and then
Proceed with whatever you are doing.
Eventually, your default setting will be calmer—and your body and mind will thank you.
We as professionals must start valuing and making time for self-care, wellness and taking care of our emotional, psychological, and physical health. It is imperative, not only for a long and prosperous career in law, but also to provide our clients with the best and most efficient legal services possible.
I hope you will practice a little self-awareness, one breath at a time.
About the Author
Marie T. Clemens is an attorney with Moodie Mair Walker LLP in Toronto, and is a yoga instructor. Contact her at 416.340.6808 or firstname.lastname@example.org.