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4 techniques for lawyers to find instant relief from stress

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James Gray Robinson

James Gray Robinson.

It’s well known that many in the legal profession experience stress and anxiety. For some people, the inevitable uncertainty and unpredictability that come with legal work can make life more exciting and invigorating. For others, it causes depression and burnout.

The symptoms of stress and anxiety are generally negative and unhealthy. So wouldn’t it be great if you could just flip 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 think negative thoughts regularly, your brain will begin to connect neural pathways to continue and support those negative thoughts. When we become overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, the brain creates neural connections to focus on those thoughts.

To alter these negative neural patterns, certain techniques can interrupt the negative neural pathways and create positive thought patterns. This is done by stimulating different areas of the brain to create new neural pathways, also known as neuroplasticity.

Here are some techniques for reprogramming 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 mindedness to allow the brain to create new neural pathways. It involves using peripheral vision to create new thought patterns.

Hakalau is extremely simple to achieve. Sit with your spine upright and looking 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 as you continue to wiggle your fingers.

You will notice an almost instant change in your mood and stress level. You will feel calm and relaxed. Continue to move 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 great deal to do with how we feel. It runs from our internal organs to our brain. When we are stressed or anxious, this reduces the energy flowing back and forth between our brain and organs and we feel bad. When we activate the vagus nerve, we can create a feeling of relaxation and calmness.

Several techniques can activate the vagus nerve. The easiest method is to activate our cranial nerves, which connect the vagus nerve to our brains. To do this, take a seated position like the Hakalau activation, with your eyes looking straight ahead and hands shoulder high 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 calmness and relaxation. It should only take a couple of cycles.

3. Fight the fight, flight or freeze response

When we are triggered and feeling overwhelmed by anxiety or stress, that is because we are experiencing a fight, flight or freeze response to our environment (external) or a 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 operating. For attorneys who have suffered trauma in their past, or are chronically overworked, this can be a real problem.

There’s a twofold approach one can take to escape an FFF response. First, we must breathe deeply. Breathe in 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 are breathing, close your eyes and imagine where you are feeling 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 the fear, anxiety or stress is placed in a red balloon, and let the balloon float off into space.

By asking yourself these questions about the feeling, you disassociate from it and are released from its effect. You have eliminated the emotional attachment to the memory or circumstances that caused the emotion. You will no longer be triggered by it.

4. Climb your inner stairs

Otherwise known as self-hypnosis, we can climb out of stress, anxiety or fear. Sit with your eyes closed. (Do not do this while driving or operating 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 that you are at the bottom of the most amazing stairway you have ever seen.

Imagine you begin to walk up the stairs. On the first stair, you start to feel more relaxed. On the second stair, you start to experience a feeling of well-being. On the third stair, you start to realize that you are successful and creative. On the fourth stair, you begin to see that your past experiences made you stronger.

On the fifth stair, you start feel more and more powerful and in control of your career. On the sixth stair, you begin to appreciate all the challenges that you have experienced. On the seventh stair, you begin to realize all the positive things you have learned from your experiences. On the eighth stair, you feel more and more connected to your intuition and creativity, allowing you to solve all problems that you are facing. On the ninth stair, you feel confident and resilient. At the tenth stair, you realize that you are successful with the support of the dozens of people who are your supporters.

In conclusion

The more you practice these techniques, the more effective they will be. The effects are cumulative, meaning that your levels of anxiety and stress will keep dropping until they are manageable. Your feeling of relaxation, calmness and confidence will go through the roof.

The great thing about 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 state of mind, everything becomes easier.

See also:

ABA Journal: “How pandemic practice left lawyer-moms facing burnout”

James Gray Robinson was a third-generation trial attorney specializing in family law for 27 years in his native North Carolina. Burned out and emotionally spent practicing law, he quit in 2004 and spent the next 16 years doing extensive research and innovative training to help others facing burnout and personal crises to heal. 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 or email him at [email protected]. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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