How to be a Happier, Healthier, more Efficient and Ever Youthful Workaholic!
That is not just a gimmicky title. I am trying to address immediately the suspicion that people may have that stress management or Well-being will involve doing less work. Some judges have kindly suggested just that. Sadly, most of us find that is simply not possible.
So the point about this paper and the workshop is how we can maintain a very high level of work without becoming unhealthy, burning out or becoming cut off from the better things in life – including family and friends.
New Hopes: For last year’s conference of the Association of Lawyers for Children I wrote a paper which was in the pack and it included this sentence: “ just maybe the cultural tide is turning now?” And the change in just the 12 months has been astonishing – there has been a massive increase in awareness and action about stress. More and more people have signed up for yoga. Mindfulness is on the agenda in many places. Well-being has become a universal meme. Conscious Breathing is now highly fashionable.
So this paper and the workshop attempts to draw these threads together and to show how they connect into one evidence-based and quite moderate, practical program that each of us can follow. And in doing so I attempt to make it relevant and palatable to lawyers in particular.
This paper and the associated workshop will mix practical and immediate experiences together with discussion about three main ideas. Because people actually remember experiences far more than words. And ideas, thinking – indeed overthinking – is both a symptom and a cause of stress and anxiety.
So let’s start with an immediate experience to make the whole thing real:
So right now, as you read this:
Hold your hand up to your face and breathe onto your palm. As hot as you can make it. Pretending to steam up a mirror. Really open the mouth – and the throat. Do this for three long slow breaths out. If you start yawning – that’s fine, go with it.
How does that feel? Some people say dizzy. Most people say weirdly relaxed. I think of it as a magical sweet moment. Instant stress reduction. We will come back to this.
First idea: what stress anxiety does to us and how to counteract it.
The basic point of this note is this: as soon as we become anxious, there are at least three consequences: the first two are in the body’s reaction, which reflects and expresses this:
- By holding the breath
- By tensing the muscles, altering our body language.
At the same time – 3. Our brains are racing, seeking solutions.
I will try to address all three in just eight pages….
The major point about these body reactions is that it is not just the one-way traffic of the brain sending messages to the body. It is a loop: the body sends messages back to the brain.
The body’s breath holding and muscular tension send powerful negative messages back to the brain. Imagine for us as for an animal it says : “Threats. Danger. Freeze. Because it’s too dangerous or not possible for fight or flight. Be hyper alert, hyper-vigilant, look for the dangers, look ahead, see them before they get to us. Emphasise the negatives, assume the worst, exaggerate the problems.”
Obviously this is a perfect recipe for more anxiety. It is experienced as at least a loss of confidence. Maybe frantic overthinking. Even – dare one admit – Panic? (Is this by any chance at all familiar to you?)
So we have this vicious circle:
Anxiety >> tense breath holding >> hyper-alertness >> seeing threats >> more anxiety and overthinking.
This is all fine in a crisis, a real immediate threat or need to cope with a client or appear in court. The problem lies in the ongoing, long-term state of tension that keeps a person in that state of anxiety for longer than they need to be. Hormonally we are keeping cortisol, the fear hormone, sustained. The logic of the circle is very powerful.
But by the very same logic we have a magic answer: If the logic of the vicious circle is very powerful, this gives us a marvelous opportunity to interrupt that circle and start an equally very powerful ‘benign circle’.
If we can achieve less physical stress symptoms – ie less bodily tension and breath holding – we can achieve less anxious messages being sent to the brain which leads to less hyper-alertness and therefore less anxiety which leading to less tense breath holding etc. We can escape the trap.
So the immediate solution to immediate stress is physical – to do with breath and with physical muscular tensing. Unobvious point – this is a challenge for those of us totally used to solving external problems with brains and words. Is that true of you?
Next experience: More Breathing
The solution is not deep breathing. It is open throat breathing. Breathing in the right way is not about driving large amounts of air in and out of the lungs. It is about the state of the muscles of the throat.
This is because the actual holding of the breath is not done by chest or lung muscles; it is done by closing the throat. This may sound surprising but it is very easy to check. Right now – as you read this. Breathe in. Hold the breath for a moment and then release the breath sharply and watch which bit of the body is mainly involved. It is the epiglottis and the vocal chords. You may need to do this several times before it is clear. Make a noise and it is more obvious. The chest moves but the control comes from the throat.
The fact that the vocal chords are involved is fairly clear from the fact that in certain stressful situations we speak with a higher pitched voice (which does not exactly assist in sounding like a relaxed, convincing advocate) or even lose our voice entirely.
Now consider the opposite – the moment when the throat is opened. Laughing, crying openly, howling, shouting in a confident way (strong anger), singing for joy. Saying ‘phew’. Sighing. These are all situation of uninhibited emotional expression.
Exercises to try – anytime – now and on the way to court, at court, in court….
- Here we go again – Breathe onto your palm. That gives the experience of open throat breathing.
- Now breathe very slowly and as silently as possible with the mouth wide open.
- Breathe out fully. Then breathe out some more. There is always more to come. Then some more! It is quite surprising – and it can perhaps make us realise how the bottom of the lungs are never fully used. I like to think that I am expelling old stale air that’s been there for weeks! Then hold it there – throat open, lungs empty. Peaceful. Strange.
- One you cannot do at court: Experiment with different sounds as you breathe out – A, E, I, O, U, – the classic ‘Om’. Watch how the throat changes with the different noises.
- I find the best are: AAAAH (in) then HAAAAA (out). Try that? You can do them silently.
You may like to Google: Breathing – Autonomic nervous system – or look at the fuller version of these notes on the website. Breathing has a major impact on hormonal levels and can very quickly alter our feelings generally and our reaction to objectively stressful or demanding situations.
As soon as you do that hot breath on the hand or any of the other exercises, you can feel the cortisol reduce and the pleasant hormones come thorough. And this can be done at any time – it doesn’t take you away from that urgent work that so needs to be done. In fact you will work far better for doing this.
Next experience: Belly breathing – v – Chest breathing
This is the other aspect of holding back the breath. The five exercises or techniques mentioned above focus on opening the throat – but one aspect of tension is that stressed breathing becomes shallow and confined to the top of the lungs.
Closed throat goes with chest breathing. What is needed is to open the throat and then also breathe with the belly. Try this now: Breathe in – extend the stomach. What is happening is that the diaphragm is drawing down. Breathe out – flatten the stomach. The diaphragm is coming up to expel the air from the bottom of the lungs.
This belly breathing with an open throat sends powerful messages of reassurance to the mind. This is not surprising given the emphasis on breathing techniques in almost every meditation or Yoga tradition. This releases serotonin – the feel good hormone and oxytocin – which triggers sociability and affection. Subjectively it feels lovely and peaceful.
Next experience – Mindfulness. First some information:
Because it is uber-fashionable, some people might just be a bit cynical or dismissive. So, to offer the actual scientific explanation…
The racing mind mentioned above refers to the part of the mind that is highly focused on future planning – (dorsolateral frontal cortex) – and possibly chewing over and regretting the past. Some traditional meditation tries directly to clear the mind, turn down the activity of that centre. But it is very hard to control that “Wild Horse”. It does not seem directly to feed into a calming effect on the limbic system, the deeper, older emotional centres of the brain where anxiety, anger etc live.
Mindfulness attempts to increase the activity of the medial frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible to keeping tabs on the body: “interoception”. (Internal perception if you like.) And that seems to be the best way to calm the limbic system.
So the essence of mindfulness is focusing on the present, the here and now, most obviously the bodily experience – and that really is effective in calming the limbic system and the anxiety. Strong Awareness reduces Overthinking and Anxiety. If anxiety is about the future, then an intense focus on the present switches off anxiety.
One of the best forms of mindfulness therefore is a close focus on the self, starting with your breathing. Strong awareness of that displaces the overthinking. Really be aware of the flow of air, how open your throat is, the sound of your breathing, the rise of the belly and chest. Try it again now? Then focus on the rest of the body. How you are sitting, your weight on the seat or the floor. Check through the body carefully.
Other forms of mindfulness recommend you can focus on an object; a flower or candle or a piece of fruit. Touch, smell, taste. There’s no room here for details of lots of techniques – there are plenty online. My advice: Keep it simple. Start with breathing. Let it grow out to the next stage… about the body. And then maybe engage the sensory aspect – and the sensual with music, dance, food etc – really relishing the present experience.
Two minute mindfulness. This is quite practical. I do it on the train as well as at home. Do the breathing as suggested and count the out breaths. And visualise the numbers: One, Two etc. Really focus on them. Maybe zoom in on one letter. The n, the w etc.
Notice how you may lose the thread as the brain rushes off to worry about something else. Start again. And then again. And after a bit you will do ten counted outbreaths.
I time myself doing that – not artificially pausing, just slowing up the breathing. And at the start ten breaths takes about 90 seconds. After a few rounds it takes two minutes. And then more.
Final Experience: Very Simple Practical Yoga – 10 minutes standing postures
Explore the body language of stress because yoga is about working with the whole of the body’s reaction to stress ie anxiety.
“Body language” is a well-worn phrase. We may not notice that it says the body is speaking, expressing something from inside. And for me yoga is not about physical fitness – it is about noticing what the body is trying to say, but often being inhibited –and letting it speak more clearly; going beyond the expression of tension, to undo the Stress Body, the Anxiety Body.
Notice how holding back the breath is not the only physical bodily expression of stress, fear and self–control. We may also draw our shoulders up; go generally rigid and tense in the neck, shoulders, spine, especially the lower back.
It is worthwhile listening to this message: acting this out: deliberately act stressed for a few moments. Hold the breath and do all the physical holdings mentioned above. Then tighten it up even more. Then slowly release it. Do this a few times. We will practice all of these in the workshop. You could do them now reading this.
Really become aware of what is happening. Become aware that this in fact is a body that we hold for hours at a time. And maybe it’s the body that some of us never really come out of?
This can be something you try gradually all day long but it is also good to try and get a hold of the idea and method with a session for a few minutes breathing and stretching.
Yoga classes are great for motivation but a short spell of yoga every day at home might be just as good. Or maybe in fact better. Because, it avoids the possible self-consciousness of a class and rather than following a standard routine set for everyone else in the class, you can do what your body needs – really listening to it and doing as much of each exercise as feels right. So there is a connection here with mindfulness.
Every morning I do the following exercises for just 10 – 15 minutes – or more at weekends:
First I open my mouth wide and feel the challenge to the muscles which normally keep it clamped shut. If you want external authority for this – it’s called the lion pose in Yoga. Mouth wide open, tongue stuck out. I also move the jaw from side to side and break up the brittle tension that is in the joints. Try it now?
Then I move on to the neck. Turning my head from side to side, tipping it sideways each way, head back and especially important – the head forward. Hold that position.
Head angle is really important. Dogs display their feelings, their confidence or fear by the position of their tails. Humans do so by the angle of their heads. Bowed down in surrender or sadness and held up tightly in defiance or anxiety. Try that now?
But any instinct we might have to bow the head in the face of stress is overruled by pride. Or that deeply unhealthy old commend “Chin up!”.
So the head is often carried in a curious tortoise pose. Half bowed, then cocked up. Mixed messages go to the neck muscles so they can go into chronic spasm. Also in doing so, we unhealthily repress our emotions. (That last sentence goes a bit deeper.. more later.)
Answer: Bow the head to give that impulse its due. Hands behind the head, pushing gently forward – stretching out those neck muscles which have been in spasm. Try it?
Then later you will be able to raise the head in a clearer, more confident way. Look the world in the eye calmly and assertively.
Impulse to bow the head. Resisted “Chin up” > tortoise. Go with Bowing. The assertive, looking the world in the eye.
The shoulders express a lot of stress: Try lifting them up even higher round your ears, then dropping them down. Rolling the shoulders and the arms, just like the old PE exercises. Sometimes doing the crawl, swimming stroke. Maybe hear those joints crackle?! Mine do.
Then the back. “You are as young as your spine” The upper spine, twisting, looking behind you. The top of the trunk and then the whole body. The forward bend. Bend the knees to get a good bend. Don’t let hamstrings limit that. Hold it there. Collapsed, surrendering, breathing. Feeling peaceful.
Then the pelvis – maybe a difficult thing to read about because it is sexual. Stress and tension are anti-sex, freezing up. The pelvis is hugely expressive of sexuality. The English are notorious for having ‘frozen pelvises’. So do hula hoop exercises, ‘obscene’ pelvic thrusts and even more embarrassing (for a man?) ‘shaking that ass’ movements. (Twerking Yoga? You saw it here first.)
And all the time breathing. In fact I find the exercises, particularly the pelvic ones, trigger off breathing – strongly. As if the body at least sees the connection between the two practices.
Do give it a go. And then after only a few minutes, it can lead to stopping and practicing mindfulness – sitting down or still standing.
Time for a Second Idea: As I have said, there is an explosion of interest in wellbeing etc, and we seem to be pushing at an open door on this – but the door keeps on getting stuck!
In my discussions with people:. “Yes your paper looks very interesting and I’m sure I will read it one day“ and six months later they have not. Or, if they have read it and are enthusiastic about it, they admit they are not actually doing anything suggested. So what is happening to motivation?
Now if we can identify that stuckness and reduce it, then we can have much easier progress.
Stuckness – or Resistance. So let’s address the whole question of resistance but do so in that thrilling, fun way so beloved of cheesy magazines – A Quiz.
I hope that just by making these explicit – “bringing them into consciousness” to use a psychological phrase which is more than a mere cliché – it may help people to free themselves from the restraint that they represent.
So please choose from the following comments and see which resonates with you. You could go through this ticking the ones that do. Measuring your resistance.
“I don’t have time to do anything about stress” _ “I am too busy and stressed doing the work, meeting my targets and looking after others”. _ “You’re going to make me work less and I can’t afford to.” _ “I’m too distracted eg by Fear of Missing Out vital information on line and social media.” _ ”You’re going to make me go to yoga classes and I can’t do those.” _ “So I don’t accept that there is an issue in the first place.”_
One person actually said “I want to keep my head in the sand”._ If I’m not tense, then I am collapsed” _ Others have said “I’ve got to keep running.. If I relax at all I will lose my cutting edge.” Going deeper: “I need to work flat out for self-value. Because I feel guilty if I am not working.” __ “If I’m not useful, then I am useless.”
Linked to this there is an element of stress as status. Through a craving for a sense of public value, workaholic becomes stressaholic “I don’t have time to do all this” which basically means “I don’t have time and I am too stressed, too busy – i.e much too important. (To counteract that it might be good to have a touch of self-cynicism – I am too self-important?)
Maybe some of us suffer from Perfectionism? That can be harnessed very successfully but how healthy is it to feel never good enough? An imposter? That people are watching and judging all the time? Feeling anxiety, fear and dread sometimes. I offer clients the acronyms FOBIT – Fear of Being in Trouble. And FOBAF – Fear of Being a Failure. They seem to resonate for many of them. Do they for you? If so, to deal with that, we’d be going a bit deeper. See the end of this note.
Isolated? Do we believe we are the only ones feeling this? If so – does it feel best to keep up the façade of being on top of things, coping? Superman or Superwoman? “Don’t even ask questions about stress. That would be a sign of weakness.”
So – maybe we come to a very simple conclusion – “keep up the breathless rush!“
So you will see why I have emphasised the whole issue of breathing.
Maybe it helps to realise that things like breathing in a healthier way does not take any more time than breathing in an unhealthy way. That a healthier body posture does not use up time or require special gym kit. Even the very simple exercises that I offer take five or 10 minutes time and they are totally not compulsory anyway.
And if one resisting thought is: “I don’t want to be told what to do by someone who probably thinks they are a perfect Guru figure“. Then the answer is “I’ve been a perfectly ordinary child care solicitor for 30+ years (as well as a psychotherapist for 15) who is plagued by almost all the stress problems raised in this paper but who has managed to survive using the techniques which are offered here and which I have found useful. A fellow sufferer and fellow survivor.”
Third Idea – “Stress” is a really confused and unhelpful word.
Now – if we think carefully about “Stress”, we can see it is a very confused and unhelpful word and it is really helpful to clarify it:
“Stress” is used both to refer to the objectively challenging situation and also to the subjective impact in the individual. They are different. Rolling them in together gives the very unhelpful message that certain challenges are inevitably “stressful”.
But an objective challenge which causes subjective stress or anxiety in one person may be just exhilarating to another person. For example public speaking: Some of us love it; for some of us, it is hugely stressful. The same can be said about mountaineering, horror movies or looking after a demanding baby!
So there are two approaches to the issue and both are very necessary:
Firstly we can focus on objectively demanding (potentially stressful) situations or events and try to moderate those.
This is obviously extremely important and includes the aspects of work that are demanding. In our world: the pressure to meet court deadlines, to meet billing targets, fear of making mistakes, IT hassles – as well as the often distressing or traumatic content of our work. We may underestimate this from sheer familiarity. At the same time, we may have private demands from health, career and money worries or family issues.
They would be the subject of another debate at another time – and in fact they should be the subject of discussions within each organisation with a survey of people’s experiences of their challenges and what can be done to ameliorate at least the work based demands.
Secondly, the other approach to stress is to focus on the impact on the individual and see what can be done to help each of us deal with those demands.
That has been the subject of this note. And it requires us to think in this different way and perhaps a more embarrassingly honest way – to talk not just about stress but about what that actually means – our feelings, our anxieties – even our fear – and how we can be more honest, skilful and healthy.
-I have put a list of the little mini-yoga routine on one sheet at the end of this note. Some clients tell me they print this out and put it up on the fridge door etc to encourage themselves.
Going a bit deeper: You may find there also articles in which I try and understand why so many of us do experience this workaholic, stressaholic compulsions and the Fear of Being in Trouble – or Being a Failure… The extent to which individually we may be reacting to High Functioning Adverse Childhood Experiences and why as a society we seem to be stuck in an enduring, anxious, exaggerated Adolescence: “The Culture of Permanent Adolescence”. And how the anxious body is a self-repressing body which inhibits the healing we all need. So the techniques I suggest for undoing the anxiety body can open up emotional healing. Deeper waters indeed.
You may also like to look at the excellent book – The Body Keeps the Score by Van de Kolk for the science behind some of this.
I welcome feedback on these notes and your experiences of using the techniques. firstname.lastname@example.org
David Jockelson MBACP Accred.
|Action: Breathing||Comment:||Because in stress…|
|Open throat||Yawn, steam up a mirror.||We close our throats to hold our breath. Squeaky voice|
|Breath from belly||Stick it out. Pull it in.||We only use top of lungs|
|Really empty lungs||Breathe out. Hah. Then more. Hahhhhh||We hold back|
|Hold it there||Still small point of calm||We are usually in a hurry|
|10 times||Focus||We are often distracted|
|Then use top of lungs||Shoulder back. Proud.||We are too frightened to|
|Put them all together||New habit||We have damaging habits|
|Then explore powerful body language|
|Hang head||Surrender||We are too proud to do so|
|Tilt, rotate head||Loosen up, stretch||We are tight and stiff|
|Open mouth wide||Yoga Lion face||We are tight lipped, controlled|
|Loosen, flex jaw||Loosen up, wiggle||We clench our teeth|
|Pull faces||Puzzled, angry etc||We overcontrol our faces|
|Raise then lower shoulders||Exaggerate. Fast then slow||We both display and suppress our fear in our shoulders|
|Rotate shoulders||Windmill, swim, punch||Ditto. And anger|
|Twist trunk||Look behind you||We are rigid|
|Touch the ground||With bent knees and then straight||We get very bad lower back problems|
|Pelvis||Dirty dancing – Pelvic thrusts, shake that ass||We are too embarrassed about sexual display|
|Do it slow and long: First for 5 minutes, later for 10 minutes.
Keep breathing all the time.
I.e. put the two things together: breathing and movement.
|Think of Nelson Mandela who did 20 mins every day.
Note how hard to keep motivation.
Left brain snobbery.
Use a clock.
|In stress we produce hormones and our bodies express emotions/impulses: Freeze, Fight, Flight, Flirt, Surrender. But we are ashamed and suppress them. We lock the emotions/impulses in. Our bodies then feed back stress to our minds.
This is a vicious circle. It can be reversed and made into a virtuous circle: Release stress. Clean up the blood.
New messages to the mind. Quick, free, safe anti-anxiety treatment.