According to the statistics, lawyers exhibit more signs of stress and distress–expressed in depression, suicide, substance abuse, divorce, etc.– than any other profession. Lawyer leaders may be even more stressed. The Center for Creative Leadership’s 2013 White Paper on “The Surprising Truth about What Drives Stress and How Leaders Build Resilience” names stress and burnout as one of the top two issues leaders wrestle with.
Research by Dr. Derek Roger, author of “Managing Stress: The Challenge of Change” and one of the world’s leading researchers on stress and resilience, notes that stress lies in a person’s attitude and response to pressure, not in the situation itself. “[T]he major factor that determines your stress levels is not what exists ‘out there’ in the environment, but what is happening ‘in here’ in your thinking. Your boss is not stressful; your reaction to him/her is… Stress is what people do with that pressure in their minds.”
Dr. Roger’s 30 years of research pinpointed one factor above all others as being the key driver of a person’s stress — rumination. “Rumination is the mental process of thinking over and over about something, which happened either in the past or could happen in the future, and attaching negative emotion to it.” The word “ruminate” comes from the term used to describe cows who chew on their cud, swallow, then regurgitate, chew and swallow again six times. Ruminations about the future are filled with fearful “what if” scenarios, and replays of the past often end with “if only.”
Rumination has a host of negative impacts on us physically and mentally. Ruminators have chronically elevated levels of the fight-or-flight hormones adrenaline and cortisol in response to the anxiety they are conjuring, making them constantly over-activated physically and emotionally. Their heart rate and blood flow increases, often damaging and eventually blocking vessel walls. And in order to produce cortisol, white blood cell production and therefore immune functioning is impaired, making them more at risk for physical illness. Ruminators also tend to be less productive because they are mentally trapped in endless loops. “There is,” as CCL points out, “no benefit to rumination.”
On the other hand, according to CCL, “planning for the future, or reviewing the past without negative emotion, is what we call reflection. It is a positive and important thing to do.” Resilience lies in the ability to reflect on pressures without generating the debilitating physical and mental effects of stress, making us fit to tackle the next day’s pressures. The key is eliminating the negative emotional aspects associated with rumination. It is the negative emotional aspects that put us physically and emotionally into fight-or-flight hormonal overdrive, and that ruminators marinate in.
Lawyers are particularly susceptible to rumination. Our introverted analytical bent coupled with high levels of pessimism, which generates plenty of “what if” and “if only” anxiety, may well account for the well-documented low resilience that we exhibit.
What can we do to rachet back the rumination and stress and improve our resilience? CCL recommends four steps to become less stressed and more resilient:
Wake up (and stay awake)—Becoming present in the immediate moment snaps you out of the half conscious/half unconscious state that according to Dr. Roger people spend 70% of their daytime hours in. It is during that state that all (stress-inducing) rumination occurs. “Being present” involves consciously listening and engaging in each moment.
Control your attention—Learning to control your attention involves practicing putting it where you want it and holding it there. Modern workers are distracted from a task an average of once every three minutes, after which it takes an average of 25 minutes to return their attention. And 44% of the distractions are caused by “internal” rather than “external” sources—meaning that our minds simply wander. Meditating is the best training for focusing attention. Through repetition, you learn to acknowledge ruminating thoughts and then bring your mind back to the present. “Flow,” a psychological term for achieving intensely focused attention which produces great productivity, satisfaction and calm, is the goal.
Detach—By gaining an appropriate emotional distance from the situations you are facing, particularly those over which you have no control, you are more likely to be able to shed unuseful negative emotions. Empathy and caring are always appropriate; negative anxiety less so. “Resilient people are very clear about the difference between care and worry. They see caring as essential to high performance and worry as a waste of time.”
Let go—Only keep in your thoughts what promises to be helpful. “A classic example of letting go is Nelson Mandela, who when asked why he was not angrier about spending half his life in jail replied, ‘If I thought it would be useful, I would be.’”