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Preventative Wellness Strategies for the Legal Community

Jennifer C. Zampogna, M.D., Director of Operations, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Pennsylvania

Thoughts and emotions are internal and subjective, part of the way we habitually respond to stimuli. Fortunately, they are also changeable; otherwise, everyone would react in the same manner to a given situation or stressor. If we cannot interrupt or change the stimulus which is causing our stress, then we must interrupt or change our appraisal of it and how we respond. Modifying and improving one’s reaction to stress is a fundamental keystone of burnout prevention. This process starts with assessing one’s current response to stress and how that habitual reaction either serves or hampers one’s well-being. Some simple but effective and realistic techniques to boost mental health and prevent burnout include the following:

1. On a personal level, burnout prevention begins with assessing and establishing one’s personal boundaries, which include purposefully disconnecting from your phone, computer, and other devices whenever possible (during workouts, meals, sleep, time outside of work, etc.). While this is simple advice, it is often incredibly challenging to establish and maintain the discipline to adhere to this boundary for most legal professionals, who tend to be excessively dependent on their devices beyond their normal work commitments. Many people tend to use their devices as a self-soothing tool, mindlessly scrolling through social media, news sites, and other ‘busywork’ apps, which can cause overstimulation, increased stress, agitation, anxiety, and fatigue. Limit your use of social media and news outlets to a quantifiable time period you can reasonably adhere to. These changes can yield remarkable improvements in mood, attitude, relationships, physical, and mental health.

2. Developing and fostering a strong sense of purpose, self-efficacy, and autonomy both in work and our personal lives is very important to prevent or reduce symptoms of burnout.

3. Practicing mindfulness (which includes focusing on the present rather than reliving the past or stressing about the future) and meditation (even if it’s only for a few scheduled minutes each day). Healthy eating, exercise, proper sleep, and avoidance of overuse of alcohol or prescription drugs to ‘take the edge off’ are remarkably effective at preventing and reducing burnout. Mindfulness-based stress reduction has been scientifically proven to improve well-being, reduce stress, burnout, pain, and symptoms of many chronic conditions, and has been implemented by many Fortune 500 companies and professional sports teams to successfully promote wellness and improve performance.

4. Find someone that you trust with whom you can chat to process your day, your stressors, and your emotions on a regular basis. Many times, the act of simply vocalizing your concerns and frustrations to a trusted friend or colleague can help mitigate our burden. When we keep our emotions stuffed inside, ignore them, or isolate ourselves, we are cultivating fertile ground for the development of burnout, substance misuse, and mental health disorders.

5. The simple discipline of writing down three things that you are grateful for each morning can quickly improve your day and reduce stress. Conclusive scientific data has indicated that practicing gratitude improves well-being and overall health.

6. Regularly practicing breath work of any kind (for e.g., focusing solely on your slow and steady breathing for three to five minutes each morning, during self-scheduled ‘mini’ work breaks during the day, and again before bed) can also have a positive impact. By focusing on your breath, imagining it flowing into your nose and lungs and back out, or even simply silently counting with each inhale and exhale while breathing deeply and properly (your stomach should expand or ‘inflate’ with proper deep breaths) will modify your stress response. There are many other practical and viable breath work options that you can learn about with a simple browser search. Find one you like and can easily practice. A common breath technique developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, an Integrative Medicine specialist, can be practiced in your chair at home or at work or even while lying in bed:

  • Count to 4 while breathing in deeply through your nose
  • Note that your belly should expand
  • Count to 7 while holding that deep breath
  • Count to 8 slowly while exhaling through your mouth
  • Repeat four more times

All these simple activities require a minimal time commitment but can yield extraordinary results including decreased levels of stress hormones immediately and in the long term, reduction of heart rate and even blood pressure, stress reduction, and notable improvement in your sense of well-being. With work from home and hybrid schedules seemingly here to stay, these small, but effective efforts are more important than ever as the boundaries between work and home are increasingly blurred.

Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) is a confidential and safe resource for Pennsylvania attorneys and their family members who may be struggling with their mental health or substance use. Since 1988, LCL has confidentially assisted and supported thousands of individuals who have faced a myriad of challenges (including grief, stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, gambling problems, problematic alcohol or prescription drug use, etc.), helping them navigate through dark and difficult times. If you or someone you know is struggling, please call LCL’s 24/7 confidential hotline, call 1-888-999-1941. You may save a life. There is help, and there is hope.

This article is part of a month-long series exploring lawyer well-being as misconduct prevention. Topics include challenges to mental health, stress and burnout, preventative strategies, employer support, and seeking support through LCL.

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