Resilience: we wouldn’t be where we are in our careers without it. Some believe that one of the causes of the current mental health struggles in the legal profession is a breakdown in resilience caused by the pandemic, but this crisis began long before we started wearing masks and social distancing.
The workload and intensity of legal work can be crushing, but the stress and unpredictability of the last two years has taken an additional toll. In fact, recent surveys of attorneys show that problem drinking is worse in the legal profession than it is in others, and mental distress, anxiety, and depression are also alarmingly high.
Given the myriad challenges of today’s legal world, resilience alone is not enough.
Resilience is the innate capacity we all have to face challenges—to keep going when things are hard and get back up again, even if we’ve been brought to our knees. While it’s true that some people are much more resilient than others, an individual’s resilience actually falls within a continuum, and where they are on that continuum can change. An individual’s level of resilience is determined by three main factors: genetics; current stressors; and early childhood experiences.
Our work and studies have made clear that resilience is not the only thing you can or have to rely on. You don’t have to just hang on and power through whatever life throws your way. While we can’t change our genes or what happened in our childhood, we can learn to respond more skillfully to our stressors. Despite our challenges, it’s possible to thrive, flourish, and get joy out of your work.
Why settle for less?
Neuroscience and related fields have brought forward new insights on the brain and offer strategies that can change our lives based on how we relate to our thinking mind and respond to life’s challenges.
Neuroscience: The Science of Hope
Third-wave cognitive-behavioral therapy, positive psychology, and the science of mindfulness are branches on the tree of neuroscience: the study of the mind and brain. All offer powerful reasons as well as ways to help get ourselves out of this crisis of stress and poor mental health. This article focuses on the findings from laboratory research and neuro-imaging studies that point to how to not just restore our resilience, but to thrive.
Studies in the field of epigenetics are positing a new understanding of our genetic code. While fairly stable throughout our lives, our genetic code can be influenced by a number of factors. For example, if we have inherited the genes for a certain illness (including depression or anxiety), those genes can be activated if we endure certain adverse conditions. But they can also be deactivated, and we can experience a return to health. Long-term stress seems to be one of the strongest activators of such genes, but cultivating positive emotions seems to help turn those same genes off again.
One of the best-known areas within neuroscience is neuroplasticity. As its name suggests, we can think of our brain as malleable, “plastic-like.” The brain can be changed through the creation of new neural pathways.
Neurogenesis refers to the brain’s ability to heal itself by creating new neurons from stem cells. Our existing neural pathways were established largely through repetition. The more we take an action or think a thought, the stronger the neural pathway becomes. It’s been said that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Some of our pathways serve us well, others don’t. Repeatedly thinking, for example, that you are overwhelmed and unable to complete your work creates an inner state resembling a crisis. That can accelerate a negative spiral of stress, dysphoria, and distractibility.
Negative self-talk, judgment, and criticism directly correlate to depression and anxiety: lawyers seem more susceptible to negative thought patterns, as the “lawyer brain” is trained to look for issues, problems, and what’s wrong rather than what’s right.
However, through practices like mindfulness, it’s possible to create new neural pathways that serve us better. For example, instead of telling ourselves how overwhelmed we are, we could think: “Yes, I have a lot to do, but I’m fully capable and can ask for help if needed. I’ve got this.” With practice, with repetition, we can learn how to rewire our negative-thinking minds and create a more positive mindset instead.
In our work with legal professionals, we weave these and other understandings from neuroscience into a set of accessible, replicable practices that anyone can learn.
Here are a few skills and tactics you can start using today:
Self-Regulate Your Mind and Body
We humans naturally move through the three branches of autonomic nervous system—parasympathetic, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal—all day, every day. When we become dysregulated, we move into the “fight, flight, or freeze” stress response (sympathetic), but we can learn how to regulate our nervous system, stimulate our vagus nerve, and calm our mind and body. Possible techniques include breathing, meditating, havening, and alternate tapping.
Try this alternate shoulder tapping exercise:
Cross your arms over your chest so your hands rest on the opposite shoulders—right hand on left shoulder, left hand on right shoulder. Keeping your hands on your shoulders, alternately tap each shoulder for a few minutes. Just breathe normally throughout. Then stop and notice how you feel when you have finished.
If you have chronic stress, you can use this exercise daily: try doing it throughout your day for a few minutes at a time for seven days. At the end of the seven days, notice whether you feel calmer and more relaxed during the day.
Witness Your Thoughts
This exercise helps us learn to neutrally notice and witness our thoughts, rather than getting caught up in them. From that calm place, we can regulate ourselves, think more clearly, and act more intentionally.
Sit in a comfortable position. Focus on your breath, breathing in and breathing out.
Notice what is arising in your mind and body. Whatever is arising in this moment, just be with it.
Can you observe your mind, being a witnessing presence, rather than a judge or commentator? Can you watch the thoughts come and then watch them go, as if they were just clouds drifting across the sky?
If your mind goes to a thought from the past or future, consciously come back to your breath: focus just on breathing in and breathing out, feeling the air move in and out of your nose and body.
Let your body soften and relax, breathing in and breathing out.
You can spend as much time as you wish witnessing your thoughts and feelings as they arise and dissipate. If you are new to doing an exercise like this, start by practicing for just five minutes a day or at a time. When you’re ready to stop, bring your focus back to your breath, breathing in and breathing out.
Shake to Release Fear
This qigong shaking exercise is a great way to feel into fear, or any other difficult emotion, and release it.
The next time you are feeling fear, nervousness, or anxiety, first allow yourself to feel it in your body.
Now, stand with your legs hip width distance apart. Bend your knees slightly so they are relaxed, not locked. Let your arms dangle at your sides.
Start shaking your arms and then your torso.
Imagine any fear or unrest leaving your body as you shake.
Now start shaking your legs and the rest of your body until you are shaking your whole body. See your body releasing fear as you keep shaking.
When you are ready to stop, slow down the shaking until your body is still. It may feel good to you to place your hands over your abdomen for a few moments at the end before moving on with your day.
Develop An Attitude of Gratitude
Practicing gratitude is one of the most powerful and accessible ways to grow self-love and compassion. Feeling gratitude and noticing where you feel it in your body—perhaps you feel it in your gut or in your chest—for even a few minutes a day supports your immune system and uplifts your body, mind, and spirit. With gratitude, your heart opens, as does your mind and your ability to connect with others, new ideas, and the opportunities and possibilities in front of you.
This next practice will help set a positive tone for your day and help you be more present in your relationships with others:
- Take a few minutes in the morning, even before you get out of bed, to hold gratitude in your heart.
- Bring to mind all the things you are grateful for in your life. Feel the thankfulness in your heart and in your body. Savor this feeling in your body for a few minutes.
- Feel the weight of your body being held by whatever surface you’re lying, sitting, or standing on—you don’t have to hold yourself up. Feel your breath come in and out of your body.
Caring for your emotional, spiritual, and social well-being is not something you can set on autopilot. Connecting with what is beautiful and sacred in yourself and others is both a daily practice and a lifelong journey; self-care isn’t simply a “feel good activity.”
We are all doing the best we can at any given time: try to see the goodness in yourself and practice self-compassion. The ability to recognize your own goodness and uniqueness, even when you feel lousy, sends a message to your brain: you are fundamentally whole, and you are going to be okay. Catching and flipping negative self-talk strengthens new neural pathways, and the science shows that positive-focused neural pathways support long-term health, well-being, and thriving.
About the Authors
Kendra Brodin is founder and CEO of EsquireWell, a legal well-being and professional development company providing speaking, consulting, coaching, and the online EsquireWell Academy.
Catherine Duncan helps people who are struggling with chronic illness, life transitions, and grief and loss in her private practice, LearningtoLive.org.