It is well known that many members of the legal profession experience stress and anxiety. For some people, the inevitable uncertainty and unpredictability that comes with legal work can make life more exciting and invigorating. For others, it causes depression and burnout.
Symptoms of stress and anxiety are usually negative and unhealthy. So wouldn’t it be great if you could just flick a switch to make stress and anxiety go away?
As former President Abraham Lincoln once said, “People are as happy as they make up their minds to be.
Psychologists, psychiatrists and physiologists have discovered that the brain is extremely malleable and flexible. Habitual thinking strengthens the neural pathways that engage those thoughts and results in continued habitual thinking. In other words, if you regularly think negative thoughts, your brain will start connecting neural pathways to continue and sustain those negative thoughts. When we are overwhelmed with stress and anxiety, the brain creates neural connections to focus on those thoughts.
To alter these negative neural patterns, certain techniques can interrupt negative neural pathways and create positive thought patterns. This is done by stimulating different areas of the brain to create new neural pathways, also called neuroplasticity.
Here are some techniques for reprogramming the negative patterns in your brain.
1. Practice Hakalau meditation
Hakalau is a Hawaiian term that refers to expanded vision. It is a technique developed by Huna healers in Hawaii to refocus the mind and create an open mind allowing the brain to create new neural pathways. It involves using peripheral vision to create new thought patterns.
Hakalau is extremely simple to make. Sit with your spine straight and look straight ahead. Raise your hands with palms facing forward above your head. As you continue to look straight ahead, wiggle your fingers and separate your hands until they are at the edge of your peripheral vision. Then raise and lower your hands along the edge of your peripheral vision while continuing to wiggle your fingers.
You will notice an almost instant change in your mood and stress levels. You will feel calm and relaxed. Keep moving your hands along the edge of your peripheral vision until you are free from anxiety and stress.
2. Activate the vagus nerve
Research has shown that the vagus nerve has a lot to do with how we feel. It goes from our internal organs to our brain. When we are stressed or anxious, it reduces the energy flowing between our brain and our organs and we feel bad. When we activate the vagus nerve, we can create a feeling of relaxation and calm.
Several techniques can activate the vagus nerve. The simplest method is to activate our cranial nerves, which connect the vagus nerve to our brain. To do this, adopt a seated position like the Hakalau activation, with your eyes looking straight ahead and your hands up at the edge of your peripheral vision. Look to your left as far as you can and count to 60. Then look to your right as far as you can and count to 60. Repeat this until you feel a sense of calm and relaxation. It should only take a few cycles.
3. Fight fight, flight or freeze response
When we are triggered and feel overwhelmed with anxiety or stress, it is because we are experiencing a fight, flight, or freeze response to our environment (external) or memory (internal). This FFF response is hardwired into our brains and is a survival mechanism. The FFF response can be triggered by fear of the future or shame of the past. Our rational mind literally shuts down and stops working. For lawyers who have suffered trauma in their past or who are chronically overworked, this can be a real problem.
There is a dual approach one can take to escape an FFF response. First, we must breathe deeply. Inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and hold for a count of four. As you breathe, close your eyes and imagine where you feel the fear, anxiety, or stress in your body. What shape is it (circle, sphere, square, box, etc.)? What color is it? Is it hot, warm, cool or cold? Is it moving or stationary? Then imagine that fear, anxiety or stress is placed in a red balloon and let the balloon float in space.
By asking yourself these questions about the feeling, you dissociate yourself from it and free yourself from its effect. You have eliminated the emotional attachment to the memory or the circumstances that caused the emotion. You will no longer be triggered by this.
4. Climb your interior stairs
Otherwise known as self-hypnosis, we can get out of stress, anxiety or fear. Sit down with your eyes closed. (Don’t do this while driving or using dangerous machinery.) Breathe deeply and slowly. Imagine your feet relaxing, then your ankles, calves, knees, thighs, hips, abdomen, ribs, chest, shoulders, arms, wrists, hands, fingers, neck, ears, jaw, face, eyes, forehead, and scalp. You are completely relaxed. Imagine you are at the bottom of the most incredible staircase you have ever seen.
Imagine that you are starting to climb the stairs. From the first step, you start to feel more relaxed. From the second step, you begin to feel a sense of well-being. On the third stair, you begin to realize that you are successful and creative. On the fourth stair, you begin to see that your past experiences have made you stronger.
At the fifth rung, you begin to feel more and more powerful and in control of your career. At the sixth stairway, you begin to appreciate all the challenges you have encountered. On the seventh stair you begin to realize all the positive things you have learned from your experiences. On the eighth staircase, you feel more and more connected to your intuition and your creativity, allowing you to solve all the problems you face. At the ninth staircase, you feel confident and resilient. At the tenth staircase, you realize that you are succeeding thanks to the support of the dozens of people who support you.
The more you practice these techniques, the more effective they will be. The effects are cumulative, meaning your anxiety and stress levels will continue to drop until they are manageable. Your sense of relaxation, calm and confidence will go through the roof.
The advantage of these techniques is that they only take a few minutes and can instantly change your mood. A lot of lawyers talk to me about feeling out of control. The first place to start taking control of your life is your emotional state. If you can have a positive mindset, everything becomes easier.
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James Gray Robinson was a third-generation family law attorney for 27 years in his native North Carolina. Exhausted and emotionally drained from the practice of law, he resigned in 2004 and spent the next 16 years doing extensive research and innovative training to help others recover from burnout and personal crises. In 2017, at age 64, using the tools and strategies he learned, Robinson passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. Learn more about his work at lawyerlifeline.net or email him at [email protected]
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