Learn to deal with—and not hide—excessive worry
According to the 2016 Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation/ABA study, 19 percent of lawyers suffer from anxiety. In my experience from working with lawyers, anxiety is the unwanted roommate inside the mind that you can’t get rid of. We may learn to live with it, like a bad skin rash or perhaps an incurable tumor.
Sometimes, when I offer workshops on stress and anxiety management, I’ll distribute the symptoms of anxiety disorders, the most common being generalized anxiety disorder.
According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the manual therapists refer to for diagnosing mental health conditions, GAD is defined as “excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least six months, about a number of events or activities (such as work or school performance).
Common symptoms include:
- Restlessness, feeling keyed up or on edge.
- Being easily fatigued.
- Difficulty with concentration or your mind going blank.
- Muscle tension.
- Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep; restless, unsatisfying sleep).
The stigma our profession has against seeking mental health treatment is unfortunate. I’ve had more than one lawyer share that they are paying for therapy out of pocket rather than go through the firm’s insurance plan for fear that they may be found out.
Here’s the thing: Often, regardless of how well we do our jobs, our ability to effect any particular outcome is highly constrained.
This is where mindfulness and meditation can be an incredibly powerful tool. When we are being mindful, we get to know ourselves better and build the ability to deal with mental reactions such as anxiety.
When I was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, I was in a hurry to get rid of it. I was surprised to find that even after 10 weeks of intensive cognitive behavioral therapy, I still experienced anxiety. I shared this frustration with my therapist and she gently inquired, “Do you remember when you started experiencing anxiety?” I paused, reflected and said, “For as long as I can remember, but certainly since law school.”
She reminded me that it took many years for the anxiety to get this bad, and that it’s going to take some time to work through it. It turns out that having an anxiety disorder is similar to any other illness. No matter how hard we demand it, the body and the mind have their own timelines for healing.
What I have learned is that anxiety actually serves an important function. It’s the body’s way of letting me know there is a reason for concern. It’s like a smoke detector. The trouble is that my smoke detector was hyperactive.
The challenge was to figure out how to recalibrate the smoke detector. The first step, surprisingly, was to become more familiar with the anxiety.
This sounds terrible, I know. Why would you want to pay attention to the anxiety? It’s an awful feeling.
However, by understanding it—getting to know the reaction—you can achieve more autonomy from your anxiety. Over time, I was able to detect when the mind and body were going down the spiral of anxiety. I started to notice, as I sat in the courtroom waiting for my case to be called, the tightness in the pit of my stomach, the fluttering heartbeat, the sweaty palms. What used to happen was that these physiological responses would be interpreted as anxiety and the mind would go into catastrophe mode.
“Maybe you should’ve attached that affidavit from the witness (even though his statement wasn’t entirely relevant),” the anxiety would suggest.
This, of course, only makes the anxiety worse. Rather than focusing on calming the anxiety, I’d let the anxiety sit in the driver’s seat and go through 150 ways in which this hearing will lead to disaster. I would also have anxiety about the fact that I was so anxious.
Having a regular mindfulness and meditation practice, carving out time every day to simply sit in silence and observe the mind, has been incredibly useful in not only managing anxiety but also retooling it as helpful fuel. Anxiety can be a powerful motivator. Yet I also learned that using anxiety as fuel only attracts more anxiety.
Anxiety also zaps creativity and joy. The regular meditation practice helped me to see that I’ve been using the whip to drive myself and becoming curious about what using a carrot might look like.
Learning to be a good friend to ourselves is key in discovering how to work with anxiety.
Meditate with the awareness that there is a center of deep contentment and even joy within you. Should feelings of defeat or self-doubt arise while you are meditating, permit yourself the confidence to know these feelings aren’t real—they’re just something your mind is creating in the moment. Let them pass.
- Sit with a straight spine in a comfortable position you can hold for the time you will be meditating. Commit to that posture.
- Notice the internal and external landscape: sounds in the room, sensations of the body, emotions you may be feeling, the quality of your thoughts. Allow these to be exactly as they are.
- Turn your attention to your breath. You may want to take a couple of deeper breaths to help yourself settle, breathing in deeply and breathing out completely through the nose. Allow your breath to return to normal.
- Now add a mantra to your breathing. If you have a mantra you’d like to work with, you can use that. Otherwise, use the mantra “Let go.” Repeat “let” on the in-breath and “go” on the out-breath.
- Meditate, repeating the mantra in coordination with the breath. You may find, after some time, the mantra naturally falls away—and that’s fine. If you feel you are distracted or are getting caught up in thoughts, return to the mantra.
You can hear an audio version of this meditation at jeenacho.com/wellbeing.
Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms, focusing on strategies for stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She is the co-author of
Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms, focusing on strategies for stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She is the co-author ofThe Anxious Lawyer and practices bankruptcy law with her husband at the JC Law Group in San Francisco.
This article was published in the April 2018 issue of the ABA Journal with the title “Soothing the anxious mind: Learn to deal with—and not hide—excessive worry.”