Being a lawyer means worrying. Endless case lists, erratic clients, unpredictable judges, overloaded counsel, underdone reports and expectant billing all vye for attention as you race to keep every ball in the air. Your lawyer’s pride would never let a single one drop.
Now throw in the typical challenges of life: stressed relationships, anxious kids, the current global health and financial (not to mention existential) crises and its no wonder you toss and turn in your bed, hyper-vigilant and struggling to reign in your overtaxed mind. We talk incessantly about resilience and how to build it as though it’s another thing you need to ‘do’. But true resilience stems rather from how you are being, mostly with yourself.
When you’re lost in worry, you tend to ruminate and catastrophise, imagining worst possible scenarios. Your body then reacts to these thoughts as though they are real and before you know it, your heart’s racing, your stomach tightens and your breathing becomes shallow and gasped. Your thoughts create biochemical reactions in the brain that make you feel the way you were just thinking and these feelings generate more thoughts that make you feel the same way.
In a previous article, I described how you can use your breath to switch from the sympathetic nervous system (stress mode) to the parasympathetic nervous system (rest mode), calming your body, steadying your emotions and clearing your mind. But how do you manage those unruly thoughts?
We know that the brain is a complex network of 100 billion neutrons or brain cells and that at the end of every neuron is a connector called a synapse which connects it to some 10,000 other neurons. Thoughts travel like electrical impulses through this immense network of neurons and synapses and as we have different thoughts and feelings, these synapses are constantly changing their connections.
The more you have a particular thought, the stronger that synaptic connection becomes and you’re more likely to have that thought again. Great if the thoughts are positive but very often they’re self- critical or unkind. There’s no problem if you’re able to stand back and allow the thought to pass by, understanding its just a thought passing through the mind. But if you believe that thought, it can start to undermine your self-confidence and make you feel more anxious and stressed. Believing these thoughts allows them to take you for a ride into rumination and incessant worry. Not great if it’s past 1 am on a school night and you’ve got to be up at first light.
So what can you do?
Close your eyes for a moment and listen to the sounds around you, from nearby as well as more distant sounds, like the hum of traffic or the sound of the wind. Notice how these sounds arise, stay for a while and then go, including the sound of your own quiet breathing. Another thing that comes and goes are your thoughts, like buses pulling up at a bus stop for a moment and then leaving again.
Here’s the thing: You don’t have to get on the bus!
Practice staying by the roadside of your busy mind, by focusing on your breathing, the sounds around you or the sensations in your body (the body scan practice). As thoughts come along, simply notice them and let them pass by as you sit on the grass by the side of the road, where it’s calm and peaceful. When you realise that a thought has carried you away, you can say to yourself “I’m having the thought that I’m not clever enough. It’s just a thought. Thoughts come and thoughts go.” The more often you practice doing this, the easier it becomes to see your thoughts for what they are: just thoughts.
You also begin to notice the recurring patterns of your thoughts, and which roads you travel down frequently. As you become aware of them, you can even label them “Ah there I go, down the ‘What if I’m wrong?’ road again!”. Slowly, you realise that you are not your thoughts and you can begin to relate to them differently, choosing not to get on the bus, or hopping off when you notice you’re being taken for a ride. As you practice, you strengthen these connections and it becomes much easier.
A healthy dose of self-compassion may also be just what the doctor ordered. Studies on veterans returning from war have shown that being kind to ourselves, rather than judging or criticising ourselves when we feel inadequate or worry that we’ve failed, can go a long way to building our resilience and helping us recover from hardship faster. Kristin Neff, a leading researcher on self- compassions explains that we all have a common or shared humanity. That when we suffer or make mistakes, we’re not alone. Being human means that we are mortal, vulnerable and imperfect and suffering and feeling inadequate is part of our shared human experience.
As a lawyer, that’s a hard thing to admit, given the emphasis on always having your game face on. But what if you could play it strong from the inside? Mindfulness teaches you to watch your thoughts and feelings as they arise, being aware of them at the moment without letting them carry you away. By breathing consciously, and being kind to yourself in those moments of challenge, you can be genuinely resilient. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t want that?
About the author:
Jodie Gien is a human rights lawyer, mediator and experienced mindfulness consultant. Jodie works with legal and corporate organisations, not for profits and schools to teach the skills of mindfulness and develop the mindsets underpinning successful leadership, innovation and resilience.