Another way to fight burnout | Legal assistance in the United States
[author: Chelsy Castro]
Many of us assume that burnout is just stress, but it’s not that simple. Burnout is different from simple stress and requires a multi-pronged approach to treating and preventing it.
Stress is a survival mechanism.
It performs a bio-evolutionary function that was essential to our survival as a species for millennia. Although we consider ourselves quite advanced, much of our brain is still wired like that of our prehistoric ancestors. As in the brain of our ancestors, the limbic system is the site of the experience of stress (fight or flight) in our brain. The experience of stress from the limbic systems of our ancestors was occasional. What we would nowadays call optimal stress. Our ancestors only needed to rely on this stress response occasionally, maybe once or twice a week. You’ve probably experienced this in the courtroom or during a presentation or negotiation. You are alert, punctual and very present. It can feel good in short bursts. Our bodies can handle and even benefit from this occasional stress response.
Burnout is stress on overdrive.
The problem is not the existence of stress, but the frequency and duration of stress. When we regularly experience a stress reaction, we lose the focus and energy we feel due to occasional optimal stress. We start to feel lazy, unfocused and even apathetic. That’s because we didn’t evolve to deal with an almost constant stress response. That unpleasant email, to-do list, phone call, or meeting is not an occasional stressor like the predator was to our ancestors. Instead, it poses a daily threat to which our limbic systems react repeatedly every day and every week.
As amazing as our brains are, unfortunately they can’t tell the difference between a threat posed by a saber-toothed tiger and one posed by an unpleasant task. Thus, the optimal stress that our ancestors felt when occasionally fighting off a predator, or that we feel during occasional presentations or negotiations, turns into chronic stress simply by an increase in frequency. This chronic stress is burnout.
What you can do differently to treat and prevent Burnout.
Typical burnout prevention and mitigation recommendations for lawyers generally focus on what we as a culture already know. However, knowing does not necessarily translate into doing. While science unequivocally backs recommendations like getting better and more sleep, using vacations to disconnect, exercising and eating better, many advocates find these goals unrealistic. There are ways to make these goals more attainable for lawyers, but there are also other things you can do to prepare yourself to prevent, mitigate, and recover from burnout. You have more control than you think.
RECOMMENDATION: Know your stress cycle.
Knowing when intense stressors arise for you and how you react to them is an important part of mitigating the negative side effects of stress. It allows you to observe otherwise indistinguishable patterns of stressors and stress responses. When you can anticipate typically more stressful times of the year, you can adapt in advance by eliminating unnecessary obligations and adjusting expectations. Know how you tend to react to stress and what your main stressors are so you can learn your own warning signs of burnout. Sitting down with your calendar and reviewing your stressors over the past year is an easy way to identify these trends.
RECOMMENDATION: Thinking Follow your brain.
Our thoughts and feelings greatly influence our behaviors. The ability to choose the impact of our thoughts and feelings on what we do is a powerful tool. This allows logic to play a role in situations where feelings like fear and doubt often take control. The more aware you are of your thought patterns, the better prepared you are to reduce existing stress and alleviate future stress. Check out this free quiz to identify the type of thought patterns that sabotage you most often: https://bit.ly/LawyerMindsetQuiz
Like stress, labeling and categorization is a survival tactic we are hardwired with: “friend or foe”; “food or poison”; “prey or predator”. Using labels for our thoughts is an easy way to classify them as “useful or useless” or “evidence-based or not-evidence-based”. The more equipped we are to identify thoughts as thought errors rather than facts, the less likely those thoughts are to prolong stress.
When you’re feeling stressed, write down what you’re worried about (no, really, write it down). What is this thought? Does it match one of the categories in your quiz results (see above)? If so, is there an explanation or an alternative solution?
RECOMMENDATION: Build your resources
As a lawyer, it’s easy to lose sight of the resources you already have or could develop around you that could help you prevent, mitigate, and/or recover from burnout. Our goal is generally to secure and/or conserve resources for others while we solve their problems, not to prepare ourselves to take care of our own. The four main resources that we as lawyers need to maintain to prevent and mitigate burnout are: social, physical, emotional and intellectual.
Social resources consist of interpersonal connections. Studies have shown that social connection is a significant predictor of an individual’s performance in times of stress. Resources in this category can be family, friends and/or colleagues. The critical factors are that they are people you can trust, rely on, and have fun with. Who in your life helps you feel like yourself, is it someone you can share the details of your life with, or someone you can rely on, or who makes you laugh?
Your physical health is essential to your mental health. A body that is unsupported is often treated by the brain as a stressed body. Further fueling the cycle of chronic stress. This is where Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes into play. You must meet your basic physical needs to thrive intellectually, socially, spiritually, etc. Physical resources consist of everything that takes care of your physical person. This includes being up to date with your annual physical, vision, dental and other exams. It also includes planned and realistic physical activity and basic self-care such as showering, eating nutritious foods, and brushing your teeth. What basic physical resources and reserves do you need to build? After sitting down with your calendar and getting a feel for your stress cycle, take some time to plan your checkups over the next year.
Emotional resources consist of your internal tools for coping with stress. Studies have shown that people who are aware of stressful thought patterns are better equipped to succeed in stressful situations and thus reduce the frequency and duration of stress responses. Resources in this category can include mindfulness practice, thought tracking, and other awareness tools.
Intellectual resources are those that help you to have more confidence in your abilities. They include building skills in your area of practice as well as deepening your knowledge in areas outside the law, such as a hobby. Studies have shown that developing a sense of competence or “mastery” in work and/or a hobby significantly increases the likelihood of career satisfaction and increases an individual’s resilience. This results in a reduction in the frequency and duration of a stress response.
Preventing and mitigating burnout requires more than one approach. Common recommendations on sleep, vacation, exercise, and diet are helpful, but we can do more. How we think about stress and approach its presence in our lives is key to managing stressors so that occasional or optimal stress does not turn into chronic stress or burnout. Starting with a critical look at your calendar and thought patterns to get a clearer picture of stress in your past, present, and is an easy and accessible way to prevent burnout in the future.
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