When you’re a lawyer, stress is a cultural badge of honour. It offers a perverse kind of pleasure, a sense of undeniable satisfaction that you’re working hard at a hard job.
But how do you maintain your edge in an environment where the demands are ceaseless? How do you stay sane when the anxiety and workload takeover? Learning to manage your stress may not just make your life more manageable, but also improve outcomes for your clients and you personally..
Natural stress is an important part of any job. It’s what motivates you to get that work done and to hit those deadlines. But if you’re experiencing natural stress every day, and that everyday turns into every week, and then every month may mean you are operating in a state of chronic stress and so wiring your brain for stress. Enter feelings of overwhelming frustration, and eventually, burn-out. This isn’t the recipe for the promotion you’re after.
So how do you manage your stress to deliver the best outcomes for your clients and yourself? It’s a tough one, but as an ex-lawyer turned mindfulness consultant, I’ll take a crack at it.
Firstly, the stressful aspects of your job are not likely to change. And secondly, you can’t expect that things will necessarily get easier. What you can do, is choose how you respond to the stress. If you can learn how to manage your stress or anxiety, you can really step up the quality of your work, your health and your happiness.
Chronic stress may be what’s preventing you from making more considered decisions. Stress shuts down the part of our brain that thinks things through. If you’re under pressure to meet a deadline (or ten), facing a snarky opposing counsel, or an irascible judge- your amygdala is activated. An activated amygdala is what sends you into a state of panic. Your heart races, you break into a sweat and you might even start struggling to breathe. Your ability to remember cases, argue and negotiate effectively flies out the window.
So, what do you do?
It might sound basic, but deep breathing is what activates the Vagus Nerve. This nerve runs from your brain down into your diaphragm, and is responsible for flicking the switch over from stress mode to calm mode. When activated, this nerve will not only reverse the physical symptoms of anxiety and panic, but will re-engage the parts of your brain responsible for clear thinking and logical thought. You calm right down, declutter, and focus your mind to solve the problems at hand.
Here are 3 quick ways to manage stress and anxiety in the moment through your breath:
This is one of the best ways to calm yourself down.
Direct your attention into your feet and let them anchor you. Feel the weight of your body in your feet, and feel the sensation of your feet on the ground. Pay attention to how your feet feel. Are they heavy or light? Warm or cool? Tingly or numb?
Now shift the focus to your breathing. Relax as you breathe out. Practice this at your desk, at the photocopier, or in your car. Anchor yourself and breathe.
2. 7/11 Breathing
Stress and anxiety can really work against you. If you’re in court, negotiating with a difficult client, or delivering an important presentation- 7/11 breathing can help shift your mindset.
Firstly, anchor yourself. On your next breath in, breathe deeply into your belly and count to 7, remembering to breath as deeply as you can. Pause for a second, then slowly breathe all the way out, counting to 11. This technique will slow your breathing and force you to release more carbon dioxide, which will steady your heart rate and clear your thinking.
Fit the numbers to your breath, and not the other way around. If 7 and 11 doesn’t work for you, find another ratio that does. Just ensure the out-breath is at least two counts longer than the in-breath.
Repeat for at least ten breaths or one minute, however long it takes for the panic to subside.
3. Breath Counting and Finger Breathing
If your life is anything like mine, then you probably start your work day feeling overwhelmed or stressed. 60 seconds of breath counting can turn this around.
Before you fire up your laptop or rush to your next meeting, re-set yourself with breath counting. Breath counting will help you to stay calm, clear and focused, meaning that you’ll be fully present with each client and matter you attend to. It will also help you to approach things with a fresh perspective and greater insight. An innovative perspective and increased insight are what will help you gain the edge over your colleagues.
As you breathe in, notice the feeling of your breath as it moves through your body. Focus on the point where you feel it the most. Usually that’s your nose, your chest, or in your stomach. Then count each breath as you breathe in. Breathe in, breath out, that’s one. Breathe in breathe out, that’s two…
Finger breathing is another version of breath counting. Hold one hand in front of you, with your palm facing towards you. With your other hand, use your index finger to trace up the outside of your thumb as you breath in. Pause at the top, and then trace your finger down the other side as you breath out. That’s one breath.
Continue tracing along each finger as you count each breath. When you get the end of the last finger, do it in reverse. This practice gives you something visual to focus on and something to do with your hands. This is useful for dividing your attention when your mind and body are screaming for a break.
These techniques can be used to physically change the structure of your brain. Through doing so, you will remain calm in the face of storms and perform at a higher level even when you’re under pressure.
Lawyers around the world are now are using mindfulness to keep their head above water during the day. Mindfulness allows you to get a better quality of sleep at night, stay sharp in court, negotiate more effectively, overcome negative thinking, and learn how to switch off during down time.
Breathing is just the beginning. Let me know if you want to hear more.
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.