Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. And today? Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.—Eleanor Roosevelt
Maintaining attorney wellness is paramount, especially given the professional stressors and personal challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 3, 2021, ALM Media released the findings of its 2021 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey, in which 70 percent of 3,200 legal professionals surveyed reported that the pandemic had adversely affected their mental health. Of these attorneys, 37 percent reported suffering from depression, and 64 percent disclosed anxiety. While isolation was the key factor, the lockdown, working remotely, and fear of job loss were also cited as contributing to the decline in personal well-being.
We are heartened that bar associations, lawyer assistance programs, and law firms have implemented a variety of ongoing mental health initiatives. However, only a small percentage of lawyers who could benefit take advantage of these resources. According to the landmark 2016 report by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns among American Attorneys, 63 percent of attorneys did not receive support for their mental health concerns, and 93 percent did not seek any help or services for alcohol or drug abuse. Moreover, calls to some attorney helplines actually declined during the height of the pandemic in 2020. For example, calls to Minnesota Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers fell by 25 percent that year.
We encourage all legal professionals—even if not currently facing a crisis—to investigate and take advantage of available resources. We further recommend that everyone lay a foundation for sound health by prioritizing self-care. While there are a variety of effective tools, the co-authors strongly believe that incorporating mindfulness into our day-to-day lives is an essential ingredient for healthy living. Our mission in writing this article is to share perspectives about mindfulness that will equip you to begin living a mindful lifestyle right now.
Mindfulness as a Lifestyle
Many are confused about what mindfulness really is—most likely because of myths and misconceptions that have spread throughout popular media over the last few years. For example, some believe that mindfulness means emptying your mind of all thoughts. Then, they become quickly discouraged when unable to achieve this unattainable standard. After all, it is not possible to stop your brain from thinking because that is what it was built to do!
Another common misconception is that mindfulness is meditation. Instead, mindfulness is simply a way of life. While formal meditation certainly supports a mindful lifestyle, the ultimate objective is to incorporate mindfulness into our day-to-day activities.
Those living mindfully pay attention to the present moment without judgment. They live in awareness and acceptance instead of being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on and learn to give themselves space that allows for more rational and constructive decisions.
By contrast, those who live without mindfulness constantly judge each and every experience and then react based on that judgment. They often live on autopilot and misinterpret situations.
Living in awareness. Have you ever driven home from work, walked into the house, and not remembered the trip home? That is an example of a habit or operating on autopilot. While habitual behavior provides a necessary shortcut for completing repetitive and mundane tasks (even perhaps driving home), it deprives the person of experiencing the present moment fully and can lead to faulty decision-making. An example is stress eating. Consider the person who habitually eats a bag of chips while mindlessly scrolling through social media as a way to cope with stress. A mindful approach would be to think about alternative healthy ways to manage emotions and to interrupt the unhealthy, automatic habit at the time the initial thought arises.
Interpreting situations. How often do we misinterpret situations based on thoughts that randomly pop into our minds? By the way, people have between 50,000 to 90,000 thoughts per day. The following illustration of misinterpretation was provided by an attorney in our mindfulness community:
I was arguing an important case in front of a judge that I sought to impress. Throughout the entire appearance, the judge continuously looked at me, scowled, and made furious notes. When I left the courtroom, I felt really down; I was convinced that they would rule against me and worried until receiving a favorable ruling three weeks later. If only I would have suspended judgment—which is the mindful response—I could have viewed their scowling/writing behavior neutrally and saved myself weeks of worry.
The psychiatrist and philosopher Victor Frankl teaches us, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” The key is to be aware of this space.
Staying in the present moment. Even veteran mindfulness practitioners drift away from the present moment, but they are able to snap back quickly to what is happening right now instead of ruminating about what may have happened in the past or worrying about what may happen in the future. As an example, Cindy was recently watching a movie with her husband when she began worrying about an upcoming IRS deadline. Because of the gift of mindfulness, she immediately became aware of her drifting thoughts, dismissed them, and resumed an enjoyable evening. One technique is to observe thoughts as if they were clouds. When a thought arises, instead of making a judgment about the thought, you simply notice it and let it pass by.
While mindfulness is not a panacea for all that ails you, it will certainly yield surprising and positive results—if you give it time.
Exploring Mindfulness Practices
Mindfulness is a simple, evidence-based tool that attorneys can use to help improve our cognitive abilities, manage stress, and promote our overall well-being. While there is more than one way to cultivate mindfulness, the most effective way is by implementing a formal mindfulness meditation practice.
As we will explore, mindfulness meditation is a scientifically proven means to cope with the inevitable stressors of practicing law, as well as prevent cognitive dysfunction associated with mismanaged stress and exposure to trauma. The neuroprotective effects of mindfulness are cumulative, so the more we practice, the easier it becomes to train our bodies and minds to be in a state of relaxation, calm, and focus.
Practicing mindfulness meditation—especially consistently over time—enhances and amplifies positive changes within our bodies and minds. For example, as our mindful awareness increases, our perceived stress levels go down. Meditation is neuroprotective, meaning it can actually protect against and prevent the negative impacts of stress and aging. Among its many benefits, regular meditation can reduce anxiety and depression, as well as improve mental clarity and focus. Meditation also positively impacts our physical health, including strengthening our immune function, improving sleep quality, and reducing chronic pain.
If you are new to mindfulness meditation and don’t know where to begin, you’re in luck! At the outset, keep an open mind and remember that there is no singular “right” way to meditate. Rather, the myriad available mindfulness meditation methods are all vehicles to get you to the same destination. Remind yourself that cultivating mindfulness is a skill set that takes time, dedication, and consistency to develop. Especially if you don’t have much prior experience working with contemplative practices, initial attempts to practice mindful awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations may be challenging or even feel uncomfortable. Be gentle with yourself, have compassion, and stick with it!
Below we outline a few of our tried-and-true mindfulness tools to help relieve stress, heal from trauma, and spark joy.
Gratitude. Reframe your perspective by actively practicing gratitude. It’s estimated that 80 to 85 percent of our thoughts are negative, and 90 percent are recurring. Through gratitude we can train our brains to adopt a positive state of mind. Begin and end each day by reflecting on and/or writing down three things that you’re grateful or thankful for in general or something that went well that day.
Breathwork. If we can connect to our breath, we connect with the present moment. Taking slow deep breaths for even 30 seconds to a minute can turn off our “fight or flight” response and kick on our relaxation response. For example, in moments of stress or anxiety, remind yourself to breathe. Bring awareness to your breath, and take three long breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. We have compiled an array of mindfulness resources for attorneys, including demonstrations of simple breathing techniques such as cleansing breath and box breathing.
Positive affirmations. Rational self-talk can help cut through recurring negative thought patterns and ease symptoms of depression. Take time to reflect and create affirmations that are meaningful to your life. If that doesn’t speak to you, there are countless positive affirmations online to choose from. Make it a habit to listen to or repeat these positive affirmations aloud or mentally every day. You may want to write down your affirmations and put them in places you’ll regularly see, such as your mirror or desk. You may also find power in singing or chanting mantras, even in other languages.
Grounding. Take a few moments and use your five senses to connect to your body and your surroundings. Observe and notice what you see, feel, hear, smell, and taste in the present moment. Try this meditation with eyes open or closed. You can even do it while walking. Of course, remember to breathe deeply throughout your practice.
Bodywork. Cultivating bodily awareness in our day-to-day life can help us maintain our overall health and well-being. Indeed, mindful movement is a powerful way to cope with the negative effects of stress and trauma. For example, gentle yoga practices enable us to release physical tension and slowly get in touch with unresolved emotions or feelings related to past traumas. Consciously check on your posture and sit up straight with your shoulders back and down. Set regular reminders on your phone or computer to get up from your desk and walk around, stretch, or give yourself a quick massage to your ears, neck, shoulders, hands, etc. These small steps can really add up.
Journaling. We can further cultivate mindful awareness and access our inner feelings through writing. Journaling enables us to express ourselves openly and honestly without fear of judgment and also gives us the opportunity to reflect on those thoughts and feelings. You may also find it helpful to try a “free writing” or “stream of consciousness” exercise in which you simply write the first thing that comes to mind without stopping, rereading, or editing. When we write in such a way, we can often discover information about ourselves and our innermost feelings that we didn’t even know were there.
Connecting with community. One of the best protections against traumatization is having a strong support system. Become involved (or more deeply involved) in a supportive community that allows you to meaningfully connect with others. You may find it useful to explore fun-filled activities centering on play or movement, such as martial arts, choral singing, or dancing. Such practices can not only deepen your sense of connection but further strengthen your bodily attunement as well.
We recommend that you experiment with different mindfulness meditation methods to find what resonates with you. Ultimately, finding a practice that you enjoy and look forward to is the cornerstone of forming a sustainable habit for years to come. Take advantage of free mindfulness resources, including guided meditation apps such as InsightTimer.
If you are interested in learning more about how mindfulness can improve your well-being, why not start today? The Legal Burnout Solution has compiled a Mindfulness Resources Guide with simple strategies designed to relieve stress and promote resilience among attorneys. Email us at email@example.com, and we will forward it to you. What have you got to lose other than stress and anxiety?
Originally published in the September/October 2022 full issue of GPSolo Magazine by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.