Self-Help Strategies for Stress Management
October brought two important milestones at Assist. First, I was able to deliver two presentations in person! While Zoom has been essential in our interactions during the long lockdown period, speaking to people in person is much better because it allows for two-way communications. As a presenter, you can read how your audience is reacting. You can tell if they are confused or if they are agreeing with you, and you modify your presentation in response, not to mention that you learn whether your jokes are funny. I thoroughly enjoyed these two engagements.
And the second milestone is that Assist completed its 2021 fiscal year (November 1, 2020 to October 31, 2021.) This means that we will have year-end reporting on our counselling program usage which can give us all better insight into how we are doing as a profession. But I can tell you that our Peer Support Program has set another record for usage, with 56 matches, more than doubling program usage over a three-year period. Thank you to our wonderful peer support volunteers!
I hope that some of you are experiencing increased in-person interaction, if that is something that you have missed during the pandemic.
One of the advantages of Zoom is that organizations can line up multiple speakers to give short presentations that are really an overview of a talk. I did one of these this week—the idea being to provide information about Assist’s services in addition to other programs the organization offers. In order to normalize seeking help, I laid the foundation about rates of mental health challenges for lawyers and how many lawyers and students Assist sees. I then covered our different programs.
But what I did not get to cover is strategies for building resilience and stress management. I feel like I delivered bad news (the rates of lawyer depression, anxiety, substance use and stress), and only offered one type of help, the help that Assist provides through professional counselling, peer support and community.
So, I thought I would cover some strategies in today’s blog, for the benefit of people who are aware of the increased risk of well-being challenges in our profession and who know about Assist’s programs, but perhaps not simple day-to-day actions we can take to fortify ourselves.
If you visit Assist’s website, you will discover a large collection of resources in our Knowledge Hub. Scroll down the list in the indigo band on the right side and click on “Strategies,” then check out the materials under the headings “General Strategies for Lawyers,” “Resiliency” and “Stress Management.”
Today, I want to focus on one article in that collection, written by a former lawyer who now works as a stress management consultant (https://www.forbes.com/sites/pauladavislaack/2017/09/26/what-resilient-lawyers-do-differently/?sh=6ab3f9633495). In addition to working with lawyers, a challenging and highly stressed population, she also taught resiliency skills to the US Army!
So, here are her four top resiliency-building strategies, along gratuitous comments from me.
Developing Self-Efficacy—believing in your own ability to perform your work at an acceptable level, essentially. When you have a sense of confidence in yourself and the skills that you bring to your legal practice, you are better able to weather the inevitable storms. It is important to track your “wins”—however small—because these experiences help you realize that you are having successes when all you can see are the negatives.
Tracking your wins or successes doesn’t have to be complicated. I used to have a manila folder in my file drawer where I would keep thank-you notes and atta-girls. As we moved increasingly electronic, I now have a subfolder for emails and positive comments. Filing these messages takes seconds out of your day.
If you worry that this promotes arrogance, I beg to differ. If you are a person who does not want to become arrogant, saving these messages is not going to derail your commitment to modesty. But they may help you avoid a crisis of confidence when the negative voice in your head tells you that you aren’t good enough.
You can also develop self-efficacy by observing how other people around you rebound from adversity and seek feedback from individuals with whom you work.
One word of warning about asking for feedback—screen for people with bullying or toxic tendencies as some people will misuse requests for feedback for their own purposes. While feedback should provide you with information about what you are doing well so you can continue in that direction and information about where and how you can improve, mean-spirited and nasty feedback may erode your self-efficacy and may in fact undermine your well-being.
Cultivate relational energy—spending time with people who motivate and energize us as opposed to people who drain us of energy. My vernacular for this is ditch the boat anchors—the people who drag you down-- (as much as possible) and spend time with supportive friends.
In a work environment, we do not get to choose our co-workers. If you find that certain co-workers suck the life out of you, try to counterbalance—or even outweigh-- their negative impact with positive influences. If you do not have energizing colleagues, you may want to consider how healthy your work environment is.
Cross-examine your own pessimistic thinking—As lawyers, we view situations through a pessimistic lens, striving to identify all potential negative outcomes almost like a law school exam. But thinking pessimistically at work can extend into other aspects of our lives and can limit leadership opportunities. When you experience negative or all-or-nothing thinking, question the evidence for these conclusions—is there specific or measurable support for these thoughts? If they are merely generalized pessimistic conclusions, you can counter them by recalling your successes.
This is one example of how you can use the messages of support we talked about saving. As lawyers, we are hard on ourselves (often on the basis that it will be easier if we are hard on ourselves before anyone else has the chance!) We have turned the volume on the little negative voice up to 11. When the negative voice says “I am not surprised that you lost that application/had a mistake on a file/missed an opportunity. You are not a very good lawyer and you are lucky that you haven’t been fired already,” contrast the negative conclusions with accurate information about your efficacy—“I may have lost one application/made a mistake/missed an opportunity, but I am very effective in court/my work is actually high quality/I am a qualified candidate because” and list what you know you have done well with, or look at your thank you and positive affirmation file.
One other specific tactic is to react to these thoughts the way you would react to a friend who expressed similar negativity about themselves. If a friend or colleague said that they were thinking about quitting law because they don’t think they are good enough, most of us would respond by saying “No, that’s not true. You do an excellent job for your clients!” And we would list examples of why we believe in them and their abilities. So, treat yourself as you would treat a friend (a variation on the golden rule