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Come On People - Well-Being Is Important

This is the First of 4 Articles
Where Rebecca and Mike Will
Share Wellness Advice to Better
Balance a Law Practice

By Rebecca Martin and Michael Martin

“If You Find Yourself Digging a Hole, Stop Digging.”  Will Rogers.

A 2016 study jointly funded by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association concluded that alcohol use disorders were much higher among lawyers than other populations.  Depression, anxiety, and stress were also found to be significant problems for lawyers at much higher rates than the population at large.

After considering the findings of the Hazelton / ABA Study, the ABA Practice Division, Attorney Well-Being Committee wrote: “Many U.S. lawyers find themselves in a profession drained of civility and compassion and plagued by chronic stress, poor self-care, high rates of depression and rampant alcohol abuse.  … It’s estimated that 40 – 70% of disciplinary and malpractice proceedings stem from lawyers’ stress-related mental illness, substance abuse, or both.”  Ann M. Brafford, Chairperson, Attorney Well-Being Committee, ABA Law Practice Division, letter of October 31, 2016.

We teach STOP as a device to get lawyers to pause when their world gets too stressful or chaotic.  STOP is an acronym for Stop, Take a breath, Observe, and then Proceed.  A mindful STOP practice can re-center you when you need it most.  STOP is a strategy to use during challenging situations.  It is a simple concept.  But, like many things that are simple and obvious, it is easy to overlook.  The goal is to create a gap between stimulus and response, and to breathe.  Before you respond to the angry email, STOP.  Before you respond to the emotional client, STOP.  Before you pick up the phone from opposing counsel, STOP.

The first step is simply to stop what you are doing and bring your awareness to the present moment.  It can be helpful to visualize a stop sign.  The next step is to take a deep breath and slowly exhale.  If you have time, this second step can include a minute or two minutes of deep breathing.  The third step is to observe what is happening around you and inside you.  Acknowledge what you can see, hear, sense and feel.  If you are feeling a strong emotion, such as anger or fear, don’t leap to a judgment.  You are not your thoughts or your emotions.  If you can create a gap between what is causing the emotion and your response, your response will be more thoughtful and less reactionary.  Finally, proceed positively and reconnect with your surroundings and activity, or if necessary, redirect to a different activity.

Consciously breathing has at least two benefits.  First, thinking about breathing and deciding to take a deep breath creates a pause and naturally establishes a gap between stimulus and response.  Viktor Frankl, a noted neurologist, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor said, “[b]etween stimulus and response, there is a space.  In that space lays our freedom and our power to choose our response.  In our response lays out growth and our happiness.”

When your mind is overloaded, if you can consciously pause, take a deep breath to collect yourself, and then proceed, you will find that you are calmer.  You might even make better decisions.  Do it often enough and it will become habit.  When you see someone else struggling, simply remind the person to breath.  This person may not directly understand the practice of STOP, but you have encouraged the person to STOP.

Secondly, when you are under stress, you tend to breathe more shallowly, reducing the oxygen that your brain needs.  Stating the obvious, our brains work better with more oxygen.

To get the greatest benefit, breathe deeply into your diaphragm and then slowly exhale.

The practice of STOP is also available to connect us more completely to the wonderful play of life rather than living our life in our heads.  STOP to smell the roses.  STOP to play with your child.  STOP to offer a helping hand.  Sometimes we get so caught up in the busyness of life that we forget to just live and enjoy the simple pleasures of a butterfly, a rainbow, the laughter of children, or even a small step forward in our lives.

The next time you are in a stressful situation, give STOP a try.  It is an easy, simple tool that can help reduce stress and may improve your decision making.

About the Authors

Rebecca D. Martin is a Kansas City attorney experienced in tax law, taxpayer representation, business planning and transactions, and estate planning and probate, and has practiced law over 30 years.  Since 2010, Ms. Martin has volunteered as a meditation leader at Unity Temple on the Plaza with its Serenity Pause group guided meditation program, and was certified to teach meditation in 2013.

Michael S. Martin has a solo practice in Westwood, Kansas, focusing in the areas of estate, probate, corporate and business representation, and related litigation and mediation.  He has volunteered with the Kansas Lawyers Assistance Program since 2001, serving as an attorney monitor and a practice supervising attorney.


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