On Well-Being

Rethinking Reactions to Stress: You can’t control the sources of your anxiety—only your response

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Mindfulness is the practice of bringing clear-minded attention to what is happening in the present moment. This seemingly simple practice has been shown to have a wide range of benefits, including decreasing stress and anxiety. Meditation is the primary tool for practicing mindfulness on a regular basis.

I started practicing mindfulness and meditation to overcome social anxiety disorder and overwhelming stress. The practice has given me relief from negative thinking and constant feelings of anxiety and worry. My own lived experience has shaped my deep desire to help lawyers interested in incorporating mindfulness and meditation into their daily lives. When I teach well-being and mindfulness workshops to lawyers, one common theme emerges: Most lawyers will readily admit to feeling almost constant stress and anxiety, yet few possess strategies for managing these struggles.

Here’s the thing about law practice: Many of us are in the human suffering business, where clients come to see us with complicated problems, both legal and emotional. It’s a stressful profession where we necessarily place the client’s needs first. The stakes are often high, and there are many demands. Many times we’re asked to deliver nearly impossible results. The litigious nature of our legal system leads to incivility. Yet there’s little discussion about the toll this work takes on our well-being. Lawyers are often taught to ignore their emotional well-being, but that is a mistake both for the lawyer as a person and as an advocate for the client.

Stress is defined as a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs one’s physical or mental equilibrium. Often when I teach stress management workshops, the lawyers talk about the various stimuli but rarely talk about their own reactions. They talk about wanting to force opposing counsel to change, to get her to stop acting like a jerk or stop engaging in other irritating behaviors. This is often a fruitless effort and likely wasted cognitive energy.

In looking at the definition of stress, it is clear that the only part of stress that one has complete control over is his or her own reaction. This is where a mindfulness practice helps. By getting to know our own knee-jerk reactions, we can open the door to changing our automatic thoughts and behaviors.


I used to get overwhelming anxiety before every court appearance. Weeks before the hearing, I would start rehearsing and thinking of all the things that could go wrong. It was like a broken record that I could not stop playing in my head. Every scenario led to the absolute worst-case results. I would regularly fall asleep thinking about the hearing, wake up in the middle of the night in a panic and think about the case as soon as I opened my eyes in the morning. My mind would replay every negative experience I’ve ever had in the courtroom. Soon, I would experience panic, tension headaches and tightness in the chest.

What I learned was that by paying attention to the moment-to-moment experience of this anxiety cycle, I can interrupt the familiar pattern and engage in more helpful reactions. For example, when my mind produces the thought: “You’re going to lose this hearing, and your client is going to lose her house,” it would lead to a physiological reaction such as shallow breathing. Rather than allow my mind to automatically continue and produce more catastrophic thoughts, I learned to add a moment of pause between the stimulus and the reaction. If I can slow down, I can see that the thought is only one of the many possibilities and outcomes. I can learn to question my thoughts, and for example, ask: What evidence do I have this thought is true? Are there any alternative outcomes? What if the opposite is true? What is the best-case scenario? Other times, I found the thought to be so compelling that it was impossible to interrupt it. Again, using mindfulness, I could recognize that I was having difficulty unhooking from this upsetting thought, but I could still ease the anxiety by paying attention to what is happening in the body. I can notice how quickly and shallowly I am breathing and intentionally slow my breath by practicing diaphragmatic breathing.


Rather than allow myself to sit at my desk for hours, feeling the endlessness of anxiety and stress, I could go for a walk—the fresh air and movement would help me to reduce or even let go of the destructive thought pattern. Over time, I became more skillful at not allowing myself to fall into a full panic mode. I was able to interrupt the patterns of negative thoughts followed by feelings of stress and panic in the body much earlier on.

It was surprising to recognize that while the external stimulus (the hearing) was the triggering event to the stress and anxiety response, it was changing my own reaction (the negative thought loops) that was truly the key to liberating myself from the constant worries that kept me up at night.

The other important lesson I learned was avoiding what is sometimes referred to as the second arrow. The first arrow is the initial distressing thought, in this case: “I am going to lose this hearing.” But often, I would load up on additional negative self-talk: “You’re so nervous. Everyone will be able to see how nervous you are. Who are you to think you have any chance of winning?” I was able to identify these self-defeating thoughts as impostor syndrome. It was not based on reality or facts, but simply a psychological phenomenon that many other lawyers struggle with.

In addition to mindfulness, the other key to managing stress and anxiety more effectively has been regularly engaging in self-care activities. You can bring mindfulness into everything that you do, including self-care. What I do for self-care changes daily by paying attention to how I am feeling, being flexible depending on my schedule and focusing on activities that boost my sense of happiness. Self-care allows me to let go of stress and anxiety on a regular basis and return to homeostasis.

Stress and anxiety are a natural part of law practice, but learning that I can engage in intentional practices to conquer it was truly liberating. The beauty of mindfulness and meditation practices is that it doesn’t have to take a lot of time: A few minutes of practice is enough to see its many benefits, so give it a try. What do you have to lose except perhaps that consistent, nagging worry?

Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms, focusing on strategies for stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She

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