It’s paradoxical that even though most lawyers would say they would like to lessen the impact of stress and anxiety, only a small percentage of us utilize concrete strategies for doing so. As lawyers, we’re conditioned to work hard, putting our well-being second to our clients. And we tend to hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. We can falsely believe that every minute not spent billing is time being unproductive, therefore wasted. We can discount the importance of resting the mind and the body.
WHAT IS STRESS?
Simply defined, stress is a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs the body’s equilibrium. The stimulus can be anything from someone cutting you off on the highway to an unpleasant exchange with an opposing counsel. Often we place the blame for the stress on others or external circumstances, trying to change what we cannot control. We try to get others to see things from our perspective, act differently and change their behavior.
When we talk about managing stress, there are two obvious strategies. First, get rid of or change the stimulus; two, change our reaction. But there is a third way, which is to become more resilient so that the stimulus becomes less disruptive. Resilience is one’s ability to not only survive the many challenges in life but also learn and grow from the experience.
It’s important to recognize that each of us reacts to stimulus differently. One person may recover very quickly from an unexpected car cutting into their lane, whereas another may stew and continue to experience stress long after the danger has passed. Also, we may react to a stimulus differently based on how we’re feeling physically or emotionally. For example, you may react more strongly to an unpleasant conversation with your client if you’re sleep-deprived or already under a lot of stress.
WHAT IS ANXIETY?
Anxiety is the subjectively unpleasant feeling of dread over anticipated events. It’s similar to stress in that it’s also a reaction to a stimulus; but with anxiety, the stimulus is the anticipation of some future event. Anxiety can trigger rumination and persistent worrying, which can disturb one’s equilibrium.
With both stress and anxiety, we can get better at coping and lessen the impact through deliberate practices.
SELF-CARE, NOT SELFISH
Self-care is any activity or behavior you do to take care of your mental, emotional and physical well-being.
Consider these questions: What do you do on a regular basis to care for your own well-being? What activities do you engage in to give yourself a sense of joy? How do you reconnect with yourself?
The cornerstone of self-care is cultivating a friendly attitude toward yourself and treating yourself as you would someone you care about. Self-care need not take a lot of time or money. But it does take commitment and persistent effort. It’s also about drawing boundaries and putting your well-being ahead of the needs of others.
You may be thinking, “I can’t afford ‘me time.’ That’s being selfish.” Even though the words self-care and selfish sound similar, they are opposite in meaning. If I am being selfish, I am deliberately taking something away from others for my own profit or gain. If I am practicing self-care, I am engaging in behaviors that help charge my own battery. In other words, I am securing my own oxygen mask before helping others.
Here are some examples of self-care activities:
- Enjoying your lunch away from your computer.
- Engaging in a conversation with a loved one.
- Listening to your favorite song.
- Enjoying time in nature.
- Treating yourself kindly.
- Going to the doctor for a physical.
- Drinking more water.
When it comes to self-care, it’s not so much the activity itself that matters but the attitude you bring to the activity. Even a simple activity like washing your hands can be a practice in self-care. Rather than rushing and washing your hands on autopilot, you can slow down, pay attention to the sensation of the soap, the water, and take a moment to reconnect with yourself.
One common objection I get to self-care is the excuse of not having enough time. I too have felt this way, but over time I recognized it for what it was—a narrative created in the mind.
I realized the belief stemmed from thinking that if I am very busy, I must be doing something important—therefore I must in fact be very important. However, keeping constantly busy was also a defense mechanism for not confronting what is painful or not working in my life.
Mindfulness means paying attention to the moment-to-moment experience with presence and compassion.
You may feel both stress and anxiety when you have to deliver bad news to a client. This is natural. You can approach the situation (and yourself) with compassion by recognizing that this is a difficult moment. You can also approach the situation with negative self-talk: “I am a bad lawyer” or “I am a failure.” These thoughts only heighten the stress and anxiety response. This is called the second arrow.
There is an oft-repeated saying: “Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
With the increased connectivity and immediacy required in this digital age, it is becoming more crucial that we as lawyers learn to respond rather than react. Instead of immediately reacting and sending an angry email, we can slow down the reaction process so that we can show up as our best selves and respond wisely.
Finally, changing any behavior starts with awareness. You can’t change your reaction if you do not recognize the habitual behavior.
The first step I had to take in choosing to get better at managing stress and anxiety was to make it a priority. Rather than just complain about stress and anxiety, I decided to be proactive and take deliberate steps to increase my resiliency. Also, I learned that ultimately the only thing I have control over is my own reaction.
You can access a short guided meditation on letting go of stress at jeenacho.com/wellbeing.
Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms, focusing on strategies for stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She is the co-author of The Anxious Lawyer and practices bankruptcy law with her husband at the JC Law Group in San Francisco.
This article was published in the August 2018 ABA Journal magazine with the title “Taking Care: Self-care is the key to stress and anxiety management.”