Finding Calm in the Storm

Cultivating mindfulness to cope with stress in the legal profession.

By Jan L. Jacobowitz

Torrential rainstorms, tremendous snowstorms, and terrifying hurricanes are weather patterns diagrammed with twists, turns, and periods of calm. We cannot control the weather; we can examine its ebb and flow to determine how to respond to the forecast with rain gear, warm clothes, and warning systems.

You may be wondering how stormy weather patterns relate to cultivating lawyers’ wellness—they provide a compelling metaphor for exploring the inevitable internal storms in life. The legal profession is by its nature frequented by adverse internal weather patterns. For lawyers, those may include an aggressive opposing counsel, a demanding client, and an oppressive work environment. The list varies, but everyone has one.

Many lawyers suffer internal storms of the deadliest nature: stress. Thoughts of impending doom; feelings of fear and anger; and bodily sensations that may include a racing heart, clenched jaw, or upset stomach are all symptoms of internal stormy conditions and are how we generally experience stress. And when it lingers, serious health issues can take hold. Chronically stressed lawyers can develop significant physical and mental health issues. The legal profession ranks near the top of career fields for depression, substance abuse, and suicide.

Lawyers need additional gear to better protect them from professional stormy weather. However, we generally cannot control conditions anymore than we can determine the weather. In fact, the catalyst for an internal storm is often another person’s conduct. So, perhaps just as we attend to the weather forecast, we should be aware of the dynamics that may trigger an internal storm. Awareness allows for the use of mindful “protective gear” to avoid the unnecessary impact of human nature’s harsher elements.

As Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “Anger is like a storm rising up from the bottom of your consciousness. When you feel it coming, turn your focus to your breath.” Emotional reactivity or how we relate to stress causes the greatest damage. In other words, does the hostile opposing counsel cause extreme stress or is it your reaction to the conduct that is so damaging to your well-being? Examining your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations reveals the answer. What did you experience and for how long?

Enhanced self-awareness lies at the heart of mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the highly regarded mindfulness-based stress reduction program, explains, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” This state of being creates the opportunity to explore your thoughts and feelings to mitigate stress and provide greater clarity in the moment.

Rooted in ancient Buddhist tradition but secularized for the Western world, mindfulness has grown in popularity and been embraced everywhere from the elementary school classroom to the corporate boardroom. It has become “more relevant than ever as an effective and dependable counterbalance to strengthen our health and well-being, and perhaps our very sanity.” In fact, anecdotal evidence of the positive impact of a mindfulness practice abounds.

The practice has intrigued the legal profession, which is skeptical by nature, as the scientific evidence has grown. There are studies to support the theory that mindfulness reduces cortisol, the stress hormone. Evidence has also emerged indicating that a mindfulness meditation practice can change the prefrontal cortex, the decision-making area of the brain. Recent research, while not entirely conclusive, has found that mindfulness facilitates both the reduction of stress and the creation of new neural pathways in the brain.

Practically speaking, being present in the moment enhances both self-awareness and appreciation of the subtle space or pause that exists between action and response. The mental break allows an individual to consciously formulate a decision rather than to emotionally react. This provides perspective, increases clear thinking, and reduces stress. However, this practice is not a panacea for removing all stress. In fact, our stress response is innate and critical to our survival. (Think running from a burning building or other modern day manifestations of being chased in the wild.) Instead, mindfulness assists with how we relate to stress. 

“Creating space in the day to stop, come down from the worried mind, and get back into the present moment has been shown to be enormously helpful in mitigating the negative effects of our stress response,” psychologist and author Elisha Goldstein explains. “When we drop into the present, we’re more likely to gain perspective and see that we have the power to regulate our response to pressure.” As our relationship with stress is refined, we are more able to embrace the uncertainties of life knowing that we can cope and survive the challenging moments in our daily lives.

If there is a chance (and there is) that a mindfulness practice might reduce your stress and improve your decision-making, isn’t it worth a closer look? In the words of Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness as a practice provides endless opportunities to cultivate greater intimacy with your own mind and to tap into and develop your deep interior resources for learning, growing, healing, and potentially for transforming your understanding of who you are and how you might live more wisely and with greater well-being, meaning, and happiness in this world.”

So consider moving beyond reading about it and try it! Mindfulness meditation takes various forms, but the basic components involve sitting in an upright and stable position and focusing your attention on your breath as you lower or close your eyes. When your mind begins to wander, notice the thought that is distracting you. Then decide to let it go for the moment and return your focus to your breath.

It takes patience and practice, but the good news is that the meditation may be done virtually anywhere, individually or in a group, and there are a lot of apps for your smartphone and other devices that provide guided meditations. Experiment to find the type of mindfulness meditation that resonates for you. Once you discover the method that works best, stay with the practice. You will find the calm in the storm.

Jan L. Jacobowitz is the director of the Professional Responsibility & Ethics Program at the University of Miami School of Law, where she also teaches Mindful Ethics: Professional Responsibility for Lawyers in the Digital Age and Social Media and the Law. She is a mindfulness devotee, a social media and legal ethics expert, and nationally known speaker and author.

Elisha Goldstein, Stressing Out? S.T.O.P. , Mindful (2013) http://www.mindful.org/stressing-out-stop/.

Leslie A. Gordon, How Lawyers Can Avoid Burnout and Debilitating Anxiety, ABA Journal (July 2015).
http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/how_lawyers_can_avoid_burnout_and_debilitating_anxiety; Elizabeth Olsen, High Rate of Problem Drinking Reported Among Lawyers, New York Times (February 4, 2016) http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/05/business/dealbook/high-rate-of-problem-drinking-reported-among-lawyers.html?_r=0.                          

3 Id.                     

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are, Hachett Books (2005, originally published in 1994).

Paul Haskins, Editor, The Essential Qualities of the Professional Lawyer, American Bar Association (2014); Jan L. Jacobowitz, Chapter 18, Mindfulness and Professionalism, 235, American Bar Association (2013)(internal citations omitted); Mindful Magazine staff, Research Round-Up: Mindfulness in Schools, Mindful (2013) http://www.mindful.org/research-round-up-mindfulness-in-schools/; Stephany Tlalka, Middle-Schoolers Tame Anxiety in “Release” Short Film, Mindful (September 30, 2016) http://www.mindful.org/middleschoolers-tame-anxiety-release-short-film/.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, Sounds True (Revised Edition 2011).

Elisha Goldstein, Stressing Out? S.T.O.P., Mindful (2013) http://www.mindful.org/stressing-out-stop/.

Daniel Siegel, The Science of Mindfulness, Mindful (2010) http://www.mindful.org/the-science-of-mindfulness/; T.L. Jacobs, et al., Self-reported Mindfulness and Cortisol During a Shamatha Meditation Retreat, 10 Health Psychology (October 2013). See also, Mindfulness From Meditation Associated With Lower Stress Hormone, Science Daily (March 28, 2013) https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130328142313.htm.

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10 Jan L. Jacobowitz, The Benefits of Mindfulness for Litigators, Litigation, Spring 2013 Vol. 39 No. 2; Paul Haskins, The Essential Qualities of the Professional Lawyer, American Bar Association; Jan L. Jacobowitz, Chapter 18, Mindfulness and Professionalism, 235, American Bar Association (2013)(internal citations omitted).

11 Id.

12 Elisha Goldstein, Stressing Out? S.T.O.P., Mindful (2013) http://www.mindful.org/stressing-out-stop/.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment—And Your Life, Sounds True (2011).

14 Interestingly, the process of letting distracting thoughts go is sometimes described in a guided meditation as seeing thoughts float by on clouds. I have found that a different metaphor provides greater assistance for some lawyers; that is, placing the distracting thought in an imaginary file folder to be reviewed at a later time. Regardless, the idea is to be aware of the thought momentarily and then refocus your mind on your breath.

15 See, Marlynn Wei, What Mindfulness App Is Right for You?, Huffington Post(August 24, 2015) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marlynn-wei-md-jd/what-mindfulness-app-is-right-for-you_b_8026010.html; Mayo Clinic staff, Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress, (July 19, 2014)http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/meditation/in-depth/meditation/art-20045858?pg=1; Getting Started with Mindfulness, Mindful  http://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/.

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