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IT SOUNDS SIMPLE: JUST BREATHE. But frustrated by an issue, pressed against a hard five o’clock filing deadline, even the most obvious can be elusive. It takes awareness, being mindful of your thoughts and circumstances, to implement even the simplest tools.
Stress is related to the body’s fight or flight response. When a person is stressed, the brain’s hypothalamus makes the corticotropin-releasing hormone, or CRH. That hormone helps increase the body’s heart rate, direct blood to the body’s muscles, constrict the pupils, and convert energy stored in the liver for fuel. Basically, stress - in small doses - helps us outrun, overpower, and outsmart a predator; it helps us survive.
But prolonged stress can impair the immune system and makes the adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol - an anti-inflammatory agent. Esther Sternberg, a physician and stress specialist, explains that when you're stressed “your own body is giving itself multiple shots of that anti-inflammatory hormone, and so that tunes down your immune system's ability to do its job to fight infection." Studies link increased, prolonged stress and CRH production to Alzheimer's disease and depression.
On the other hand, slow, deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the system that calms a person down. Deep breathing is relaxing, and scientifically proven to positively affect the heart, the brain, and the human body’s immune system. A deep breath stimulates the Vagus nerve (the main nerve of the parasympathetic system), which reduces the body’s stress response.
That an attorney’s job is stressful is an understatement: people entrust attorneys with their well-being and, in some cases, their lives. And yet attorneys often disregard and fail to protect their own mental and physical health. The profession creates the stressful expectation that an attorney (especially newer associates) overturn every rock in every instance, cover all the bases all the time, and get the job done no matter the cost - even if if the price is your mental health.
One way attorneys can help reduce stress is with deep breathing. Harvard Medical School suggests that you breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Let your abdomen expand fully. Now breathe out slowly through your mouth (or your nose, if that feels more natural).
Next time you undertake or are in the throes of a stressful situation, remember this: just breathe. It could save your life and your career. Also, check out the CLE course Get Wise: Mindfulness for Attorneys for more ways to improve an attorney's life and practice.
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