3 Ways Lawyers Can Become More Resilient

Resilience refers to one’s ability to survive adversities and thrive in life. Surprisingly, lawyers aren’t very resilient. According to Dr. Larry Richard:

On a percentile scale which ranges from zero to 100%, the average for this [resilience] trait among the public is the 50th percentile; among lawyers, the average is the 30th percentile. Even more telling is the distribution–90% of the lawyers we test score below the 50th percentile!

In recent years, there has been increased interest and growth in the area of positive psychology. Positive psychology is the study of the “strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” Law firms are understandably taking an interest in this area of study with the hopes of training their lawyers to not only survive difficult situations but also thrive.

Unfortunately, resilience isn’t something you are born with. It can both be taught, learned, and practiced.

In this post, I’ll offer three simple strategies for exercising your resiliency muscle.

1. Change Your Relationship With Stress

When I teach “stress management” workshops, often, the participants will express a desire to simply eliminate stress. They view stress as a problem and highly undesirable. However, stress is just your body’s natural response to a stimulus. In fact, research indicates some amount of stress is necessary to keep us sharp, to pay attention, and to remain engaged.

Interestingly, it’s not stress that’s harmful, but how we perceive stress. In a Harvard research study, participants were put into stress-inducing situations. One group was given no instructions, and the other group was told that the stress response was in fact helpful. By changing the participants’ view of stress from being negative/harmful to something that is desirable/helpful, the participants were able to avoid the negative impact of stress on the body and mind.

Often, when we are faced with a difficult or challenging situations, we add additional and unnecessary stress by the way we view and think about that circumstance. We engage in negative self-talk, and anticipate the worst-case scenario.

Recognize that stress is a natural part of life and view it as an ally.

2. Tools For Surviving Stressful Situations

As I said above, resiliency is about surviving difficult situations. When faced with difficult situations, the body can activate a chain of reactions that is part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. The amygdala (an ancient part of the brain that’s in charge of keeping us safe) activates a chain of reactions and our body gets ready for reacting to danger.

The amygdala’s fight-or-flight response is very useful if, let’s say, a saber-tooth tiger is chasing you. However, it’s not very helpful when you need to engage in a civilized conversation with the opposing counsel.

If you find yourself in these high-stress, triggering situations, your best ally is your breath. When you notice yourself reacting, gently remind yourself that this is your natural body’s response to this situation and to breathe.

Another crucial mechanism for surviving stressful situations is meditation.Neuroimaging shows that with sustained meditation practice, the amygdala shrinks and the prefrontal cortex, responsible for higher levels of cognitive functioning, thickens.

In neuroscience, there is a common phrase: neurons that fire together, wire together. The more you engage in negative thinking, rumination, and unhelpful/unproductive thinking patterns, the more likely your mind will engage in these thoughts. The reverse is also true. The more you are able to nudge your mind towards positive thoughts, for example, thinking about things you are grateful for, looking for the positive, the stronger these thought patterns will become.

3. Increase Your Ability To Thrive

Resiliency is more than surviving negative experiences, but also about thriving.

Thriving is about enhancing and optimizing your well-being. You can cultivate the ability to thrive (even in difficult circumstances) by engaging in intentional practices, routines, and habits that optimize how you feel. The more you can live a reflected life and make it satisfying, fulfilling, and meaningful, the more resilient you will become.

You can do this by clarifying your values. Use the exercise described in this study by Professor Tobias Lundgren to help you think through your values and align your actions towards those values.

In summary, lawyers score poorly on the resiliency scale because we habitually engage in negative thinking. We can increase our resiliency by regularly practicing the skills described in this article.

This article was originally posted on Above The Law on February 29, 2016.