Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Staying Sane in a Crazy World

Staying Sane in A Crazy World—
Avoiding the Caffè Mocha Vodka Valium Latte To Go!

My sister is visiting for two weeks. We get along really well, and have always been extremely considerate of each other’s feelings—one good consequence from growing up in a domestic war zone, I suppose. We are attempting to deal with elderly parent issues and each day feels like ten steps forwards, nine steps backward and one step sideways. Sigh.

We stopped to pick up coffee at my favourite coffee spot and we took a picture of one of their signs. It reads: “I’ll have a coffee mocha vodka Valium latte to go.” We laughed. Had that actually been on the menu, we might have considered ordering it—it had been that kind of a day.

When we are stressed and want a healthy solution to feeling overwhelmed and out of control, there are options. Today, we are going to talk about several alternatives to the Caffè mocha vodka Valium latte!

Music. You may have noticed that we had a music theme in our newsletter last week, including the discussion topic for our Red Mug Coffee Circle. We started out by talking about the first album (or other musical product) that we had each purchased as a young person. For once, I wasn’t the only Beach Boys superfan in the crowd, although I suspect I may have been one of the only participants that knew that the song 409 was about cars. You could definitely tell a bit about our ages from our music—the person whose first album was the Spice Girls was clearly younger than the person whose first album featured John, Paul, George and Ringo! Four of our participants talked about gospel music, and four referred to Nigerian pop music. Great diversity!

Music has a calming influence. Many Canadians are familiar with the phrase ”music has charms that soothe the savage beast.” It may have been on a poster in an elementary school music classroom. In my imagination, there is a tiger sleeping blissfully in a meadow while music notes gently cavort overhead. I don’t know if this is an authentic memory or something I conjured up myself. But when I hear that phrase, that is the image that pops into my head.

But there is a problem: this is a misquote. The original phrase is from a poem by Cosgrove in 1697 and reads:

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

Somehow, somewhere, in the last four hundred centuries, the second line was dropped and the word “beast” was substituted for “breast”—perhaps those Victorians who wanted to refer to piano limbs rather than legs! But “breast” in the context of a late seventeenth century English poem likely meant “heart” or “core”. So no snoozing tiger listening to tunes—this goes to the nature of humankind having, at times, a savage core which can soften, and be soothed by, music.

This little digression was to show that humans have known that music has calming properties for hundreds of years. But we also have current research indicating that music improves well-being (Health-Related Quality of Life). The Journal of the American Medical Association published a review and meta-analysis of 26 studies which found that musical interventions were associated with clinically meaningful improvements to well-being.

So when stress creeps up and you wish you could reach for a Caffè mocha vodka Valium latte, please consider turning on tunes that you enjoy!

Yoga and Quiet Contemplation—Assist has been holding a free weekly yoga class for several years now, taught by lawyers (and a judge) who are also trained yoga instructors. Why yoga? Research shows that yoga practice:

  • Improves strength, balance and flexibility
  • Eases back pain
  • Eases arthritis symptoms
  • Benefits heart health
  • Relaxes you and improves your sleep
  • Increases energy and brightens mood
  • Helps you manages stress
  • Connects you with a supportive community
  • Promotes self-care.

This week, a lawyer asked if they could come to yoga to experience quiet time but not do physical exercises. Provided that this doesn’t make class participants uncomfortable, we are happy to host people who would like a place to come for quiet contemplation. As much as Assist loves the coffee circle model and chatting, we will be resisting our urge to interact and will role-model contemplation.

Sometimes we want to do a quiet activity but know that being alone can give anxiety a foothold, undermining the restoration we need. This is why we are extending the invitation to sit quietly with us during weekly yoga.  You can bring a book, follow a guided mediation using headphones or just sit and think.

I remember a day when I was on medical leave from work where I felt overwhelmed by being alone in my house until my kids came home. I called a friend who worked part-time to see if she was free, but she was attending a lecture in her professional discipline. She saw my need so she invited me to come with her, and I spent a couple of hours just watching and listening, but not being alone. Sometimes, we need a way to alone with our thoughts but not physically alone.

Humour—One of our Red Mug Coffee Circle friends shared that she watches stand-up comedy as an anti-anxiety strategy. This one has a research basis, too—laughing helps us relax, boosts our immune system, triggers the release of endorphins (our feel-good chemicals), diffuses anger and conflict, and improves heart health.

Laughing with friends and loved ones helps strengthen relationships, but we can laugh alone, say as a strategy for getting to sleep after an anxiety-inducing incident. Even if you don’t have access to material that may make you laugh, you can “fake it until you make it.” By simulating laughter, you get many of the same benefits. There are yoga laughter groups (but not our Wednesday yoga class!) and laughter therapy groups.

Allow yourself to seek out humour. Ask people to share a funny story in a meeting as an ice-breaker or learn to see the humour in situations you find yourself in. And, of course, the internet has more humorous content than most of us could watch in our lifetimes!

When I was a young lawyer, much of our humour came from lawyer lore—or more likely urban myths. But as much as I liked being on the in-side of these stories, I began to realize that a lot of lawyer humour was steeped in meanness and actually contributed to feelings of imposter syndrome. I remember hearing the story about the articling student who, when asked by a partner if the partner could give the student a file, said “No thank you. I already have one.” Everyone guffawed and I probably guffawed too, but at the same time I was imagining saying something equally naïve and becoming the butt of jokes for generations of articling students. This made me question my reactions to requests, and I learned that offering to take on more and more work was usually the best response.

My challenge for all the truly funny lawyers out there is to help build a repository of funny lawyer stories that do not cut down the perpetrator and which do not build paranoia in articling students and new lawyers!

Audio/Podcasts—Many of our community shared podcasts and mindfulness resources. Many for-profit providers offer sample products free of charge (like Calm and Insight Timer)—so affordable mindfulness apps are easy to find. Since we use our eyes so intently as lawyers, giving our eyes a break while we take in interesting material can be a good strategy.

One lawyer shared listening to audio recording of cases, as a wind-down strategy. You could listen as you commute or while doing mundane tasks like folding laundry. Legal Listening offers cases but also the entire Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report as a reconciliation activity.

Audio supports and podcasts are great transitions for our work to home (and home to work) travels—sort of a sorbet for our brains. As we put our work stresses behind us physically, we engage in an activity that uses a different part of our brain, which helps reinforce that our work stresses are in the rear-view mirror. And at the end of the auditory journey, we are (relatively) fresh for our home interactions.

If you have a challenging Monday morning and want to reach for the Caffè mocha vodka Valium latte to go, please remember that coming to our Red Mug Coffee Circle on Mondays at noon is a viable option.  Everyone is welcome at Red Mug Coffee Circles. While their original purpose was to connect articling students and junior lawyers with senior peer support volunteers with whom they could discuss challenges, creating community is equally important. We know that loneliness and isolation are harbingers of depression so please remember that no lawyer or student in Alberta has to be alone over Monday noon hours. Just click on the registration link at the top of the newsletter, and you will be welcomed warmly on Monday!