Opinion: Meditation is your secret weapon against stress

When I started articling three years ago, I was overwhelmed and constantly on edge. Frustrated, I decided to try meditation. At first, I would spend five minutes a day, using the timer on my phone, inhaling “let,” exhaling “go.” After two weeks, it made a real difference. I was less reactive and more focused — I was hooked. Since then, daily meditation has kept me happy as I meet the demands of the profession. And I’m not the only one.

Mindfulness has reached its tipping point. Once a mysterious, fringe practice, it simply means becoming more attuned to the present moment, often through meditation. Top achievers — from financier Ray Dalio to media magnate Arianna Huffington — have raved about its benefits. And a recent feature story in Time magazine argued that we are in the midst of a “Mindful Revolution.”

It’s easy to see why. A team of researchers from Harvard recently found that consistent meditation can actually decrease the size of the amygdalae, the area of the brain that processes emotional responses. (When the amygdalae are activated, your heart beats fasts, your hands shake or your cheeks go red.) As a result, those who meditated were less prone to stress. Better still, meditation can increase the size of the hippocampus, thereby growing our capacity to make rational decisions.

As this research has gone on, lawyers continue to feel stressed. Studies continue to proliferate that show how lawyers flounder when it comes to managing anxiety. And what do people do when they are unable to cope?

For some, it means they drink in excess or use drugs to escape. For others, it means they completely shut down on their partner and alienate the people in their lives who are their best support. This, in turn, can cause them to neglect their work and fail their clients. And sadly, some will become downright hopeless, slipping into depression. Stats are hard to come by, but a well-known study on the mental health of people from across 28 professions, published by Johns Hopkins University in 1990, found that lawyers were the most likely group to suffer from depression.

Mindfulness and meditation offers a better option. They can alter the way our brains process stress, and make us better at managing the pressure points of our jobs.

Even that low-grade, buzzing feeling we get before a deadline gets the stress receptors in our amygdalae going. And when that happens, the pre-frontal cortex essentially goes offline, meaning our brains cannot think in a completely logical, rational way. This makes us stressed and, as lawyers, bad at our jobs.

One of the fastest ways to calm down the amygdalae is through deep breathing — a key part of meditation. Over time, through consistent meditation, I’ve even found that I am more aware of my own breath and can control it when not meditating. This helps calm down my amygdalae (easing stress), and bring my hippocampus back online (helping me think more clearly).

Meditation can do a lot more, too. Research has found that it can significantly increase empathy, improve how the immune system functions and boost cardiovascular health.

The benefits are so astounding that the profession has taken notice. Several law schools — such as those at Dalhousie University, Berkeley and UC Davis — now offer courses that show how mindfulness can make lawyers healthier and better at work. And this February, the Ontario Bar Association launched, for the first time, a professional development series called The Mindful Lawyer. The mindfulness revolution is here. It is helping all sorts of professionals. And it can help lawyers too.

mindfulness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Catie Fenn is a third-year associate at Brown & Burnes. Since taking it up as an articling student, she now teaches meditation in her spare time.

 

 


Illustration by Jeannie Phan

Making It Work: The four ways your job is killing you

Between the food courts, long hours, all that sitting and the stress — practising law can be dangerous. But staying healthy doesn’t have to be hard. Here, some of the city’s top health experts reveal how to overcome the health hazards lawyers face every day.

HamburgerHazard #1: Eating out all the time

Make smarter choices at food courts
“I could eat out seven days a week — for breakfast, lunch and dinner — and never gain a pound,” proclaims Rose Reisman, a nutritionist and owner of Rose Reisman Catering. The first step, she says, is to stop ordering these common foods: cream-heavy Caesar salads (“a heart attack on a plate”), anything with crust (“the eggs in a quiche aren’t going to kill you, but the lard or shortening in the pastry will”), Thai dishes with mounds of white noodles and any menu item with the word “smothered” in the title. The next step is learning which foods you can order. For Reisman, open-faced sandwiches on whole-wheat bread are a good choice. So are salads with light dressing, a whole grain (brown rice or quinoa) and a lean protein (fish, chicken or tofu).

Boss your chefs around
At restaurants, always tell the chef to grill, rather than fry or sauté, any meat, advises Leslie Beck, a registered Toronto dietician. And always ask for sauce on the side.

Eat breakfast
Otherwise, your brain will release wave after wave of appetite-inducing hormones hours later, says Beck. “That sets the stage for cravings” — and overeating — “later on in the day.”

CellphoneHazard #2: A serious lack of sleep

Turn your gadgets off an hour before you want to sleep
To prepare your body for rest, you need to disconnect from the world, says Jaan Reitav, a Toronto psychologist certified in behavioural sleep medicine. So if you get home late, shut down all devices — phones, tablets and laptops — right away. If you read a stressful (i.e. work-related) email or answer a phone call, he explains, don’t expect to nod off minutes after.

No more late-night Netflix
“Think about it: the job of a television producer is to engage the audience with a captivating narrative,” says Reitav. Watching television at night is more likely to rile you up than calm you down. Instead, Reitav recommends reading a book or listening to music. “Putting on beautiful music and listening quietly while practising deep breathing is an incredible way to relax the mind.”

Listen to your body
“We all know people who can sleep for four hours, get up and have no trouble,” says Reitav. But those people are outliers — that is, genetic mutants to whom the normal rules of biology don’t apply. Most of us need about seven hours of sleep each night for our bodies and minds to properly recover.

ChairHazard #3: Not enough exercise

Stand up
Sitting at your desk for hours on end is truly terrible for you, says Meg Sharp, executive director of personal training at the Cambridge Group of Clubs. It causes your blood sugar levels to spike and triglycerides — better known as fat — to clog your arteries. Standing up to stretch or move around at least once an hour stimulates your blood flow and flushes out your arteries. As Sharp puts it, “It’s incredibly powerful.”

Work out in small doses
“Everyone says they’re short on time,” says Mark Hendricks, regional group fitness manager at Equinox Fitness Clubs. “I believe that is a bit lazy.” Especially, he adds, when a 20-minute workout — or jog, or squash game, or bike ride — three times a week can make a huge difference in overall health.

Get a gym buddy
“It’s incredibly easy to let ourselves down,” says Hendricks. “But it’s not so easy to let others down.” And so, if you want to make exercise a regular habit, make that commitment with a friend — or even a client. (How’s that for motivation?)

HourglassHazard #4: Maximum stress levels

Get a hobby
“It sounds kind of lame,” says Dr. James Aw, chief medical officer of the Medcan Clinic, a health centre in Toronto. “But it’s important to remember who you were before life got so serious as a lawyer. Otherwise you’ll start to lose connection with old friends and communities.” Whether it’s playing an instrument, joining a sports team or writing poetry, Aw says it’s important to give yourself “permission to have fun and to play.”

Work fewer hours
If you’re working more than 60 hours a week, and you know it’s hurting your health or relationships, then you need to work less, says Dr. David Posen, author of Is Work Killing You? Maybe that means working late three nights a week, rather than five. Or working Saturday, but not Sunday. And, as a bonus, Posen says you’ll likely be more productive when you are working. “In close to 30 years, I’ve never met an over-worked patient who couldn’t get the same amount of work done in less time once they took better care of themselves.”

Spend more time with family and close friends
Your social calendar should not be crammed full with cocktail parties and outings with colleagues, says Aw. Even if you enjoy work events, he notes, an agenda hovers over each social encounter. Over time, that leads to higher levels of stress. Hanging out with family, he insists, is actually good for you. Make it a priority to have dinner with your spouse or catch up with your friends a few times each week. Aw says that those interactions give your mind a break: “There’s no agenda except that you love each other.”


This story is part of The Precedent guide to getting it all done, from our Spring 2015 issue.

 

 


Illustrations by Naila Medjidova