For some lawyers, the uncertainty and unpredictability of law practice make life more exciting. They thrive under pressure — or seem to. For a lot of others, the pressures of law practice lead to depression and burnout. What can you do if you begin spiraling into negativity? Try practicing these simple techniques for stress relief.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could just flip a switch to make all the stress and anxiety you’re feeling go away — quickly and easily?
Ways to Flip the Switch on Stress
Psychologists, psychiatrists and physiologists have discovered that the brain is extremely flexible and malleable. Habitual thinking strengthens the neural pathways that engage those thoughts and results in continued habitual thinking. In other words, if you think negative thoughts regularly, your brain will begin to connect neural pathways to continue and support those negative thoughts.
For example, when you become overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, your brain creates neural connections to focus on those thoughts. So, altering these negative neural patterns requires interrupting the negative neural pathways and creating positive thought patterns. This is done by stimulating different areas of the brain to create new neural pathways, which is known as neuroplasticity.
Here are five techniques for stress relief to try when you feel yourself beginning to spiral.
1. Pass the Buck
One of the simplest ways to interrupt habitual thinking is to stimulate different areas of the brain. Different areas of the brain control the voluntary motor skills of different parts of the body. For example, the part of the brain that controls the movement of your left hand is different from the part that controls the movement of your right hand.
To interrupt pattern (habitual) thinking, focus on a movement requiring dexterity of your left hand, and then focus on the movement on the right hand. For example, if you take a dollar bill in your left hand and wave your hand around on the left side of your body, and then pass it to your right hand and wave the right hand around on the right side of your body, you will interrupt your negative thinking. It is like hitting the reboot button on your computer. You will probably think, “Now what was I so worried about?”
2. Achieve Hakulau
Hakalau is a Hawaiian term that refers to expanded vision. It is a technique Huna healers developed to refocus the mind and create an “open-mindedness” that allows the brain to create new neural pathways. It involves using peripheral vision to create new thought patterns.
Hakalau is extremely simple to achieve. Simply sit with your spine upright and look straight ahead. Raise your hands with palms facing forward above your head. As you continue to look straight ahead, wiggle your fingers, and separate your hands until they are at the edge of your peripheral vision. Then raise and lower your hands along the edge of your peripheral vision as you continue to wiggle your fingers. You will notice an almost instant change in your mood and stress level. You will feel calm and relaxed.
Continue to move your hands along the edge of your peripheral vision until you are free from anxiety and stress.
3. Activate Your Vagus Nerve
Research has shown that the vagus nerve, which runs from our internal organs to our brain, has a great deal to do with how we feel. When we are stressed or anxious, this reduces the energy flowing back and forth between our brain and organs, and we feel “bad.” Activating the vagus nerve can create a feeling of relaxation and calm.
There are several techniques to activate the Vagus nerve. The easiest is to activate the cranial nerves, which connect the vagus nerve to our brains. To do this, take a position similar to the Hakalau activation above. Sit with eyes looking straight ahead and hands shoulder-high at the edge of your peripheral vision. Look to your left as far as you can and count to 60. Then look to your right as far as you can, and count to 60. Repeat this until you feel a sense of calmness and relaxation. It should only take a couple of cycles.
4. Practice Disassociation
When you are triggered and feeling overwhelmed by anxiety or stress, that is because you are experiencing a Fight, Flight or Freeze (FFF) response to your environment (external) or a memory (internal). This FFF response is a survival mechanism hardwired into our brains.
The problem is the FFF response can be triggered by fear of the future or shame of the past. Your rational mind shuts down and stops operating. For lawyers who have suffered trauma in their past, or are chronically overworked, this can be a real problem.
Here’s a disassociation technique to quickly escape an FFF response:
- Breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and hold for a count of four. As you are breathing, close your eyes and imagine where you are feeling the fear, anxiety or stress in your body. What shape is it (circle, sphere, square, box)? What color is it? Is it hot, warm, cool or cold? Is it moving or stationary?
- Then imagine placing your fear, anxiety or stress in a red balloon and let the balloon float off into space.
By asking yourself these questions about the feeling, you disassociate from it and are released from its effect. You have eliminated the emotional attachment to the memory or circumstances that caused the emotion and, hopefully, you will no longer be triggered by it.
5. Take the Stairway to Heaven
Otherwise known as self-hypnosis, this technique allows you to climb out of stress, anxiety or fear. Sit with your eyes closed. (Do not do this while driving or operating dangerous machinery!)
Breathe deeply and slowly. Imagine your feet relaxing, then your ankles, calves, knees, thighs, hips, abdomen, ribs, chest, shoulders, arms, wrists, hands, fingers, neck, ears, jaw, face, eyes, forehead and scalp.
You are completely relaxed. Imagine you are at the bottom of the most amazing stairway you have ever seen.
Now, begin to walk up the stairs. On the first stair, you start to feel more relaxed. On the second stair, you start to experience a feeling of well-being. On the third stair, you start to realize that you are successful and creative. On the fourth stair, you are feeling more progress. On the fifth stair, you start to feel more and more powerful and in control of your career.
On the sixth stair, you begin to appreciate all the challenges you have experienced. On the seventh stair, you begin to realize all the positive things you have learned from your experiences. On the eighth stair, you feel more and more connected to your intuition and creativity, allowing you to solve all problems you are facing. On the ninth stair, you feel confident and resilient.
At the 10th stair, you realize that you are successful with the support of dozens of supporters.
The more you practice these stress relief techniques, the more effective they will be.
The effects are cumulative, meaning that the level of anxiety and stress will keep dropping until they are manageable. Your feeling of relaxation, calmness and confidence will go through the roof!
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