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Coping with covid 19

05 Jun 2020 / Wellbeing Print

Under pressure

A positive aspect of the pandemic is that it has given us the opportunity to talk more freely about our mental wellbeing than ever before.

It is hard to name one industry, community, or individual unaffected by COVID-19. The pandemic has created vulnerabilities in our physical and mental – as well as financial –health.

However, vulnerabilities can often shine a light on what has long needed to be changed. For solicitors, this can be a silver lining in a very dark cloud – the opportunity to become more resilient in the face of crisis and challenge.

It is important to understand how we define the concepts of disruption, resilience, and wellbeing. ‘Disruption’ has two meanings: ‘to interrupt by causing a disturbance or problem’ or ‘to drastically destroy the structure of something’.

The pandemic is an interruption at best, and destruction at worst. How we adapt to it and learn from it has the ability to increase our wellbeing and resilience.

Wellbeing consists in autonomy (being in control of your own life), self-efficacy (being competent and capable to succeed and thrive), and relatedness (being in close personal relationships).

Resilience is a set of skills and traits that work together to increase our wellbeing. If wellbeing is what we are trying to achieve, resilience is the ‘how’.

Stress testing

When stress affects the brain, cognition, motivation, collaboration and creativity can be stunted.

Evolution has trained the brain to focus on surviving – not thriving – when it believes it is under attack. This less resilient mind will take the stimulus created by the disruption and allow the so-called ‘lizard brain’ to take over – fight, flight, or freeze.

A resilient mind will form new synapses and pathways to address the new information. It allows the mind to be self-nurturing, adaptable and innovative.

How do we cultivate this skill? First, understand what makes up our resilience. There are six different domains that make up human resilience: connection, calm, health, reasoning, optimism, and integrity.

Generally speaking, legal professionals tend to be stronger in some of these areas, and need growth in others. These different domains can be thought of as books in a library. Some are well used and committed to memory, while others require us to take them off the shelf to sharpen our knowledge.

Connection

Our need for connection is hardwired in each of us from the time of birth. We need it in both our personal and professional lives. It is in professional life that this can sometimes be a challenge.

Speaking in general terms, the legal profession can be a lonely one. Solicitors and barristers work in silos, where collaboration is often undervalued.

Combined with naturally solitary work, the culture of perfectionism, fear of failure, and stigma around looking ‘weak’ disconnects us from our colleagues. It requires people to be less authentic and, therefore, less ‘seen’.

How does this affect wellbeing? Legal professionals (everyone from solicitors, barristers, judges, to marketers and business development professionals) describe the work-pace as exhausting. Studies show us that when we feel alone in the face of crisis, challenge or change, we experience mental and physical fatigue much more acutely.

Connection skill builder – take a sticky note and make a list of those in your personal and professional life with whom you can be fully authentic – those you can go to when you feel overwhelmed or frustrated, whose opinions and help you trust. It only takes meaningful connection with a few people to have a dramatic impact on your wellbeing.

Keeping calm

The ability to calm ourselves and self-soothe is one of our earliest skills. In babies and young children, this looks like sucking on a soother and cuddling with a special blanket. As we age, however, those calming techniques are not socially acceptable.

We learn to calm and self-soothe in other ways. Some of those ways are healthy, while others are maladaptive. It can be easy for people to mistake numbing discomfort for calming discomfort. This is a primary cause of substance abuse or other addictive behaviour, like shopping, sex, gambling or internet use.

The problem is that we cannot selectively numb mental and emotional discomfort. When we numb stress, sadness, or loneliness with a bottle of wine or hours on the internet, we are also numbing joy, peace and true connection.

The ability to calm rather than numb requires us to feel the emotion we are experiencing, while not allowing it to knock us off our feet. This can be done through mindfulness, meditation, and simple breathing techniques.

Calm skill builder – try ‘triangle’ breathing, which is completely invisible to anyone else:

  • Inhale for a count of four,
  • Hold for a count of four,
  • Exhale for a count of eight.

Optimism

Lawyers have a tendency toward scepticism, cynicism and pessimism, because the legal profession rewards such traits. It is what makes solicitors good at their jobs. They are able to see the flaw in the contract that could cost a client millions. They can discern when a witness is not being forthcoming. These are useful tools.

But these tools, when applied in the wrong context or incorrectly, can lead to poor wellbeing. When our larger world view is seen only through the lens of scepticism, much remains out of focus. Still, it can be difficult to feel optimistic when we are overburdened and dealing with grim realities.

It should be remembered that optimism is not cheerfulness, rose-tinted glass or unchecked naiveté: grounded optimism takes reality into account, while believing that challenges can be met with grit, gratitude and grace.

Optimism skill builder – remember, optimism is the belief that the current crisis, challenge or change is not permanent, pervasive, or personal.

Reasoning

Reasoning is often the strongest resilience skill for lawyers. Reasoning is the ability to anticipate and plan, be adaptable, and to recognise opportunity.

When our reasoning ability is honed, we are able to use stress as an opportunity to grow and reach goals that were previously unattainable. In order to do this, we need to be able to maintain our cognitive functioning and think through the stress. This requires us to regain composure, ask for help, expand our knowledge, and be willing to take risks.

Reason skill builder – what kind of thinker are you? Knowing what kind of thinker you are will help you identify your reasoning strengths during crisis, challenge, or change:

  • Intuitive thinkers leap from one idea to the next. They are good at quick problem solving.
  • Systematic thinkers plan each move, step by step. They are very thorough in problem solving and are forward thinking.

Integrity

Our values and integrity are put to the test when we are experiencing crisis, challenge, or change. This is true for both individual integrity and organisational integrity.

In how it relates to resilience, integrity is defined as congruence between our stated intrinsic values and our external behaviours.

When we live outside of our own integrity, it has a caustic impact on our wellbeing. It creates added stress and strain to an already demanding situation.

Unfortunately, during times of disruption and crisis, there is a strong temptation to do what is quick or easy instead of courageously choosing what is right.

Integrity skill builder – in moments of crisis, challenge and change, ask:

  • What value is most important to uphold right now?
  • Do my behaviours, decisions, and actions reflect the values I am professing?
  • If not, what needs to change or be put in order for those to be congruent?

Health

Our bodies are our ‘truth tellers’. How we support our physical health affects our mental health, and vice versa. Listen to your body for warnings of emotional distress. Depression and anxiety can manifest as chronic headaches, insomnia, gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure, and more.

Even mild stress can be felt through a tightening of the muscles, sweating palms, rapid heart rate, and shallow breathing.

These are signs of the need to return to calming and self-soothing techniques. Conversely, how we treat our bodies can proactively combat stress and strain.

Proper rest not only helps us manage stress, but also increases our cognitive functioning, so we are better at finding solutions and being adaptive. Moderate exercise (just 20 minutes, four times a week) has been shown to ease symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Health skill builder – when you are feeling particularly stressed, overwhelmed, or burned out, take notice of the following things:

  • How much sleep and rest did you get the day before?
  • Did you eat breakfast?
  • When was the last time you took a walk, exercised – or simply spent time outside?

We live in a time of unprecedented disruption in a profession that is notoriously full of stress and strain.

When we proactively increase our resilience as a means of improving our mental wellbeing, not only do we bounce forward from crisis, challenge and change, but we are better prepared for a healthier, happier life in the future.

Renee Branson
Renee Branson is the founder of RB Consulting. She can be contacted at: rb@reneebranson.blog