Law school tends to attract smart motivated individuals who work hard to achieve results and make an impact. Combining internal pressures with external pressures from clients creates a stressful profession that I don’t think anyone can deny. In 2016, the profession began to publicly acknowledge problems in the legal community, highlighting data indicating that lawyers suffer from uniquely high rates of problem drinking, depression, and anxiety. Publishing the American Bar Association’s National Task Force Report on Lawyer Well-Being marked a commitment by the profession to take responsibility and action. As a result, we’ve witnessed attempts to create law firm policies aimed to promote lawyer well-being, law firm initiatives including remote work options, integration of wellness initiatives, offering events not centered on alcohol, and formation of judicially appointed committees focused on creating change in the profession.While the big picture seems to be heading in the right direction, in the spirit of change and the new year, what will you do personally to manage stress in a positive way so that you don’t become one of these statistics or burnout of the practice altogether? Let me see if I can help.It Starts with You.
First, let’s start by recognizing that you can’t help others until you first help yourself. This is difficult for us lawyers because we have a tendency to focus on others; we are helpers, that’s what we do. But, the more you let things go, the more the stress will accumulate and will not be able to help anyone.
Back to the Basics.
Once you can acknowledge that you need to make some changes (regardless of whether those changes are reactionary or preventative), start with the basics. Food, sleep, and exercise. We know from all too much data how important food, sleep, and exercise is to keep you healthy (even my kids can tell you that). Just like you track your time, try keeping a food, sleep, and exercise log. Keep track not only of your diet, sleep habits, and exercise but how you feel each day. Do this for a few weeks. What can you discern from the data? Do you see any patterns? Are you more productive after exercise? Less productive after eating certain meals? This should give you a sense of what changes you could make.
Beyond the basics, here are a few techniques you can use to help manage stress.
Take a Break and Just Breathe. Lawyers are terrible at this – taking breaks – despite the evidence that shows that occasional breaks will increase productivity and concentration, and reduce burnout. In fact, most people can only truly concentrate for fifteen to twenty-five minute periods of time. Lawyers should build breaks into their day; and no, not breaks to check email. During those breaks, consider practicing deep breathing. Loads of research shows that controlled deep breathing can help you relax, reduce stress, boost self-esteem, and increase overall health. Try using your calendar or a timer to notify you when it is time to take a break and then just breathe for a couple of minutes. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation. When I first learned this technique, I couldn’t believe how something so simple could have such profound impacts. Progressive muscle relaxation includes clenching your muscles and then slowly relaxing them. You can do this in certain areas of your body or start from your feet and work your way up. When you hold the tension, visualize it leaving your body as you release the tension. This will help you pinpoint where you carry tension and help your mind learn to release that tension.
Self Massage. Before you take time out of your day to invest in a professional massage (although, I’m not discouraging you to do so), try a few self-massage techniques that are known to release stress. Many people carry tension in their back and neck. You can use your fingers to apply pressure to points in your neck. For more pressure, you can use a golf, tennis, or lacrosse ball between your back and a wall, rolling over tender spots to help provide relief. The hands are another place to focus because massage in this area is known to reduce anxiety. Try kneading your palms with your knuckles and using your thumb to massage certain pressure points such as the solar plexus.
Mindfulness. Here’s another highly evidence-based strategy that has become quite popular as a way to reduce stress and stress-related problems. Mindfulness is centered around purposeful attention to the present moment. Increasing the quality of our awareness at a given moment has proven to have significant health benefits including increased resilience, self-regulation, focus, and more. Practicing mindfulness might occur multiple times a day for short periods of time and works something like this – stop, check in with yourself, and be fully aware of what you are doing.
Hopefully, the aforementioned tips will jumpstart your thinking about your own experiences and give you some simple methods to use to enhance your individual well-being. While these little and simple changes have the potential to make a major impact on your well-being and in turn, your practice, they are easier said than implemented. Meditating once every couple of months will unlikely lead to the benefits described in the research. Stay tuned for my second post in this series, where we are going to talk about habits and how to turn them into reality.