As part of stress awareness month Chetna Bhatt explains how lawyers can thrive by rethinking stress
Eight years ago, in spite of the usual trappings of success as a lawyer, I could not find a way to work which did not compromise my wellbeing.
I suffered with mental stress for years, ultimately falling ill with chronic fatigue syndrome and taking a career break on a quest for a wellbeing solution. I qualified as an executive coach and studied an array of wellbeing options but remained unwell five years later.
I eventually brushed up against a new, cutting edge understanding of the principles behind how the mind works – with far-reaching implications.
This not only led to my recovery; but it enabled me to return to law and work in a sustainably productive, calmer and healthier way. I now thrive in a world in which I had previously struggled to survive.
Remarkably, nothing needed to change on the outside for this transformation to occur.
Psychiatrist Dr Bill Pettit, who shares this understanding of how the mind works, wrote that “chronic mental stress such as guilt, resentment, feeling driven, worry, over-analysis, investment in what others think about you, and frustration related to the inability to control the behaviour of others leads to the chronic activation of the body’s emergency stress response”.
In other words, we are built to have our healthy genes ‘on’; but when we innocently get caught in a chronic mental stress ‘fight or flight’ state, the body’s emergency stress response is activated – but it is only meant to be activated for up to 30 minutes to do something lifesaving.
If we think we are in danger, our bodies secrete the stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine into the bloodstream.
This stress response disrupts the normal bodily functions that keep us healthy. The secreted stress hormones produce a highly toxic effect including causing our blood vessels to constrict, elevating our heart rate and changing our digestive function.
In his book, Biology of Belief, Dr Bruce Lipton writes about every thought either poisoning the cells in our body, nourishing them or being neutral. After just three minutes of giving attention to upsetting thinking, our bodies trigger this stress response.
It was huge for me to realise I had been caught in a ‘fight or flight’ state for years and that this was the root cause of my illness. For me, it led to very real physiological symptoms in the form of a chronic illness. It manifests itself in different ways for us all but the root cause is the same.
Understanding the workings of the mind is not an intellectual-based learning, but rather an insightful, embodied learning. Until we have fresh realisations for ourselves, the teachings offer little impact.
As a lawyer, my ability to intellectually analyse was my horsepower, so this went against the grain of what I was used to. It took time for my busy mind to slow down and listen in a relaxed and open way to gain the value through personal insight.
I gained insights into how we, as human beings, create our experience of life and what was true for all of us.
Whatever our background, role and level of seniority, the human operating system is the equaliser placing us on a level playing field.
It reveals an innocent misunderstanding many of us have about stress, in the same way that we have uncovered misunderstandings over time.
For instance, there was a time when we thought the sun was revolving around the earth because it looks like the sun is rising and setting. Then we discovered that the earth rotates on its axis and that the sun is, in fact, stationary.
By the same token, it looks as though stress is caused by our external circumstances. But just as the sun looks like it’s moving when it’s not – this is not how stress is caused.
Cause of stress
When I deliver talks in law firms, I ask lawyers what they consider to be the main cause of their stress. The most common responses are a high workload, client demands and issues with colleagues.
I ask them if they see their state of mind (ie the quality of their thinking) as the cause and some see that as a contributor, though it invariably has the lowest response rate.
There is a big difference between what the true cause of the stress looks like and what the real and actual true cause is. Even though it really looks like all of these external factors and circumstances are the true causes of our stress (and everything we read reinforces this) it is an innocent misunderstanding about how the mind works.
And that is because the actual cause of stress is completely invisible to us, so every one of us gets hoodwinked by the impact of it and overlooks the power of it.
None of us are immune – and it can result in any one of us suffering in silence.
Our reality is created inside out, not outside-in as we believe it to be. It looks like we are victims of our external circumstances, when in reality we are only ever experiencing the effects of our state of mind.
We experience the world through our thinking and are only ever feeling our thinking in the moment. As our thoughts change, we feel different and we are designed to have every thought we think look real to us.
If we have stressful or agitated thinking about something, we will feel stressed and do not perform so well. We are able to notice when athletes get caught up in their head and see their game starts to suffer. It is exactly the same for us in business, even if it is not so visible to us.
If we have upsetting thoughts about a colleague, we will experience stress as a result of those thoughts – even if our colleague has not said or done anything to upset us.
Similarly, if we are unwell with physical symptoms (the ‘situation’) and then innocently over think or over-analyse other people’s perceptions of us (the ‘problem’), we experience the physical symptoms – and experience the stress of our extraneous thinking.
We inadvertently turn a situation into a problem. Firm leaders concerned about employees who are quieter than usual will also respond based on their own thinking, so if they think the employee is being cold towards them, they may be less compassionate. But if they think the employee is not being themselves, they might take time to ask them how they are.
As leaders, the more we can understand how stress works, the better equipped we become to help others.
Stress is an intrinsic part of the human condition. At the same time, the more we see for ourselves the truth of the actual cause of stress, the closer we move to tackling the root cause of stress when it arises.
The knock-on effect of understanding this appears to be (for me and my clients at least) that we take the noise of our thinking less seriously, and let it come and go without attending to it.
This, in turn, alleviates stress. That ‘noise’ starts to sound more like a dog barking in the background that we can happily ignore.
As employees and leaders, the more we can illuminate this hidden variable called ‘our state of mind’, the less of a hold stress has on us.
What we then uncover is that when we’re not caught up in our unhelpful thinking, we experience a natural state of wellbeing – with all the common sense, peace of mind and clarity we need to do what makes sense in the moment in terms of looking after ourselves and each other.
Chetna Bhatt is the founder and CEO of Being Lawyers www.beinglawyers.com