Managing stress is a constant struggle for many of us. The relentless pressure to satisfy work and personal responsibilities can be immense and taxing. Long hours, complex work, obligations to satisfy professional mandates of conduct, volunteer commitments, and taking care of our family and ourselves all take time and a toll on us. Although we may not recognize it, we each have a relationship with stress that cannot simply be eliminated or avoided.
Psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen believed that life includes an inherent “chronic anxiety,” which he describes as the way we habitually or automatically respond to a threat; in other words, stress. We learn to work with stress, yet, at times, we may do so in a way that is no longer useful to us. Many of us know this from experience. We have seen that while stress can be a catalyst for action, constant or long-term stress eventually leads to burnout.
Science sheds a lot of light on the impact of stress and our reaction to it. From a neuroscience perspective, chronic stress is detrimental to the functioning of our brain. For example, too much cortisol (commonly known as the stress hormone) can diminish the size of our hippocampus – the part of our brain responsible for memory and emotion. In another branch of science known as epigenetics (the study of heritable changes in gene expression), there are studies that show the way we experience or respond to stress may be inherited.
Understanding how stress affects us and creating a lifestyle that allows for balance between work and life demands are all helpful steps to managing stress. There are many different ways we can make our work and personal life fit together (“work-life fit”) and avoid chronic stress, whether it is restructuring our schedule to be home more often, reducing our workload and commitments, or finding more space for rest and relaxation. The art of mindfulness is one approach that often gets overlooked, yet it can have a profound impact in allowing us to better manage our relationship with stress.
Mindfulness has substantially gained popularity in use and reference in the West since the late 1970s. It has been a long-standing practice in the traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. According to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading researcher and teacher of mindfulness, it is the state of purposefully paying attention to the present moment in a nonjudgmental way. “Purposefully” paying attention to the present moment means being intentional about directing one’s attention to the here and now. The term “nonjudgmental” refers to the act of not placing a value on the occurrence of a thought, emotion, or bodily sensation. One form of mindfulness that is often recognized is meditation. In meditation, a person uses a certain technique to train the mind to focus its attention and affect the functioning of the body.
Regularly practicing mindfulness can be extremely helpful for regulating our emotions and restructuring our cognitive function in a positive way. It does so by allowing us to increase our ability to hold awareness without judgment while retaining a positive state of mind. In their research on effective therapies to recover from substance use disorders, Drs. Marianne Marcus and Aleksandra Zgierska describe mindfulness as encouraging awareness and acceptance of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as they arise, and recognizing their impermanence. As a result, individuals change the way they relate to, or view, their experience in the present moment, and they can choose to act with purpose rather than respond reactively. Mindfulness has also been shown in clinical work to be helpful for reducing or managing stress, anxiety, or symptoms of depression; boosting the immune system; and improving one’s ability to make decisions or to solve problems. In a study led by Dr. John Minda and his colleagues, lawyers who participated in an eight-week mindfulness program reported lower levels of depression, anxiety, stress, and negative mood, as well as increased levels of positive mood, resilience, and workplace effectiveness.
Mindfulness is at the core of Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which was originally developed to help patients with chronic physical and mental health challenges. MBSR is now a well-known, empirically supported technique that involves body and sensory awareness meditation, breathing awareness, thought awareness, and yoga movements. Studies of MBSR document its success in reducing stress and depression.
Mindfulness is also used to support recovery. In a study of Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP), Marcus and Zgierska found that those who participated experienced a greater “decrease in craving, and greater increases in acceptance and acting with awareness” than those who followed the customary treatment.
The culmination of the above research and many other studies support the conclusion that Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention, and other approaches that incorporate mindfulness can be effective in assisting individuals to manage or reduce their stress, increase their nonjudgmental awareness, foster a positive effect, and achieve a healthier state of being.
If you have not yet considered a mindfulness practice, why not start now?
The skills of mindfulness can be learned or taught regardless of one’s religious or cultural background. You don’t need prior experience, and you can incorporate the practice into your daily life.
Below are five practical tips to help you get started:
- Tune into your breath. Pay attention to the air filling your lungs as you breathe in and the air leaving your body as you breathe out. Sense the rise and fall of your belly as you allow your breath to flow through you.
- While walking, turn your attention toward the steps you are taking. Notice each step. Feel the weight of your shoes. Experience the sensation of bringing one foot down, then the other.
- The next time you have a meal, take a mindful bite. Pay attention to each movement you make as you gather your food with your hand or a utensil, and draw it closer to your mouth for a bite. Notice the shape of the food. Smell the deliciousness. Can you imagine it as if you had already tasted it?
- While driving, turn off your radio, music, podcast, or other sound source. Bring awareness to the moment by paying attention to the quietness in the air. What do you notice?
- Take a moment to pause and spend some time simply being instead of doing. Let go and let things be. Allow things to unfold on their own, at their own time, and in their own way. See if you can find a bit of stillness in this space of non-doing.
Each time you use the mindfulness methods, you develop and strengthen your ability to use it as a stress management tool.
For additional information and resources, see page 2 of this issue and contact the OAAP at 503.226.1057.
Karen A. Neri, JD
OAAP Attorney Counselor
- The Anxious Lawyer, Cho, J., & Gifford, K. (2016), ABA Publishing.
- Meditation Is Not What You Think: Mindfulness and Why It Is So Important, Kabat-Zinn, J. (2018), Hachette Books
- Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009), Hachette Books.
- Mindfulness for Law Students: Using the Power of Mindful Awareness to Achieve Balance and Success in Law School, Rogers, S. (2009), Mindful Living Press.
- The Mindful Parenting Collection, Siegel, D. & McCarty, M. (2012), Penguin Random House.
- Mindfulness and Legal Practice: A Preliminary Study of the Effects of Mindfulness Meditation and Stress Reduction in Lawyers, Minda, J. P., Cho, J., Nielsen, E., & Zhang, M. (2017).