(How to Stop the Chatter in your Brain that Keeps One at Work When the Body is at the Beach)
Warning: Trying too hard to relax can Kill You!
As an attorney, married to an attorney, I know how irritating it can be when someone sarcastically comments:
“Relax! Take a chill pill!”
They don’t know that my husband and I both are hard -wired to work at all times and in all places. The worst case of not knowing when to stop occurred on April Fool’s day, 1999, when it was no joke to see my husband prepare to go through quadruple bypass surgery at age forty.
The morning before surgery, my husband was busy working. He felt obligated to give his cases to other lawyers to work on or continue for him, so his clients would not suffer due to his illness, and to make sure all deadlines were met. This sometimes required reviewing the cases files so Glenda, his administrative assistant, kept bringing in file after file to him. Soon the hospital room became an office away from the office. That afternoon, he allowed an interview with a local newspaper reporter. The remainder of the evening was spent preparing a handout for a sexual harassment seminar he was scheduled to teach at the Memphis Bar Conference in Destin, Florida, a mere month after surgery.While my husband’s addiction to work appeared somewhat drastic on the eve of surgery, some of it was understandable. My husband was trying to be responsible in the face of death. He had to make sure that his clients were covered and that the firm wouldn’t shut down while he recovered. Like an actor, attorneys know that no matter what happens, “the show must go on” and although not every attorney will have to face a surgical scalpel to be placed in a conflict about self over service, many attorneys face the same scenarios in various other ways. Recently my husband participated in a mediation in which opposing counsel was at the beach, yet still insisted on being put on a conference call so he could be silently present at the mediation. His reason’s were no doubt legitimate, it may have been that he wanted his client to know he was still participating, or to make sure his associate didn’t miss anything, but the undeniable truth is that the attorney’s body was at the beach, but his mind was at work!
The Fake Escape
To me, that well intentioned, conscientious lawyer represents the many lawyers that are in distress, even when they are sincerely making an attempt to de-stress. They sign up for yoga, join a gym, or buy a toy, like a boat, motorcycle or airplane. But from the looks on the worried faces I see on the joggers, weekend bikers and many attorneys in gyms, not all who exercise for their health are necessarily getting healthy! And having a boat only to be consuming alcohol under the hot sun may seem like a weekend of fun, but in the long run, can be counter-productive and debilitating. In an attempt to leave work and relax,these well-meaning lawyers created a “fake escape", converting their recreation into another form of work! In the long run, this attitude can actually succeed in killing the person, rather than saving them.
Death by Acupuncture?
I have personally experienced a "fake escape", and it was the worst failure at relaxing I have ever had. I was a young attorney and new mother , struggling to reconcile what appeared to be conflicting roles in my life. A friend of mine, concerned over my stress referred me to a highly recommended and popular Chinese acupuncturist in my area, and I agreed to give him a try. It started off well, I thought. I was placed in a dimly lit room with a soothing aroma. I began to relax and trust my source that assured me that after even one session with acupuncture my worries would start to melt like butter. I had allowed myself to be riddled with needles and anxiously waited for the moment of perfect peace. As the assistant left the room to allow me to be still and silent, I began to panic. I am not a hyperactive person, but on that day, the very notion of lying still for the session became almost a physical impossibility for me. It seemed that at one given moment or another a muscle in my face or back would begin to twitch, and the needles would shift slightly, causing me to bleed! I became increasingly more uncomfortable, and could think of a million things to do and places to be rather than there, looking like a porcupine. My face appeared as if I’d been attacked by hordes of bloodthirsty mosquitoes! The dismayed doctor informed me that I was the first adult he had ever met who found it impossible to meditate even twenty minutes!
My attempt to relax led me to almost physically injure myself with the relatively begnin needles the acupucturist use. I recently saw a portrait of a woman not unlike me when I saw a poignant depiction of a woman concentrating on relaxing, while feeling like a load of bricks were weighing down upon her head. I’ve included the picture above. This is a self portrait of mutimedia artist Debbie Mitchell, in an attitude of meditation. Take a moment to look at it, and tell me what you see: is it a peaceful reflection of a woman unloading her mind one brick at a time with each thought or vice-versa, a person adding one more brick (or problem) in her head, while attempting to relax? For me, at the acupuncturist, my thoughts were imposible to unload, indeed they began to build up, one brick at a time, crushing me emotionally.
The little devil in my brain that didn’t let me relax that day has a name. It's called: Rumination.
The Dangers of Rumination
Ruminating can be potentially a life threatening habit. People who ruminate obsessively constantly rehash problems or replay past injustices and never let their thoughts rest. At it’s best, ruminating might be considered a form of self-reflection, but it reality it can become akin to an addiction, especially when thoughts turn to excessively dark brooding. We all know clients that can’t stop re-living their cases long after their legal case has been closed. All attorneys at one time or another have replayed a scenario where they could have done something better on this case or that. But an obsessive review of problems, past regressions and or other’s transgressions can become a serious disorder associated with clinical depression. Companion symptoms such as hypertension, binge eating or other food disorders, alcoholism, and other self-sabotaging behavior can also accompany rumination. One clinical definition of Rumination includes the eating and regurgitating food, as the root word comes from the Latin ruminare, which describes a cow chewing it’s cud, and aptly depicts what could emotionally and physically happen when one ruminates.
Co -Ruminating, and Collusion
Co-rumination has been described as a form of rounding up friends and colleagues to talk so much about the problem that it becomes as stressful to them as it is to the ruminator! This type of behavior is described as “collusion”, in the groundbreaking book, Leadership and Self Deception, published by the Arbinger Institute. Collusion describes how an individual who spends a lot of time within an inner “theatre of the mind” that continuously role plays blaming others and justifying himself or herself. The actor finds himself so engaged in the self-deception to the point that he or she will rally around like minded people who will join in with them to continue festering the same negative thoughts and behavior over and over again.
There is Hope!
The good news is that rumination can be transformed into a more positive inner monologue. Psychologists believe that it makes a difference if one can determine if that inner voice has chosen a fatalistic life view or or more positive mindset. A fatalistic, or "fixed" mindset says “I can’t change, it's who I am!” A more productive frame of mind is one described by psychologist Carol Dweck, of Stanford University, as a malleable theory of thinking, wherein individuals believe they can improve themselves through effort and education. Her research indicates that such individuals are "more open to learning,willing to confront challenges, able to stick to difficult tasks, and capable of bouncing back from failures."This kind of approach is one in which says, “If I work at it, I can learn to be whomever I choose to be! and is that voice that helps us feel that life truly can be an adventure rather than a checklist for failure.
Attorneys can be a very vulnerable group who can easily view at themselves as failures in spite of their many accomplishments. Many attorneys confess that they allow the inner monologue in their head to whisper to them that hey are nothing but imposters acting like successes. Nothing could be further from the truth! Just graduating from law school and passing the bar is a sufficient accomplishment!
Multitasking and the Inner Monologue
Lawyers are under the gun to meet deadlines, satisfy customers, keep up with changing laws and deal with judges arbitrators and mediators. Attorneys rarely find closure to all they are doing because even when they have completed a case, there is usually another one right around the bend, screaming to be taken care of. In some cases, procrastination and multi-tasking can become so damaging that a lawyer can become overwhelmed by the demands that cients, judges and their family put on them. Law practice, for these attorneys becomes a battle where competing interests create false enemies and the inner monologue creates artificial scenarios where even unsuspecting family members become the enemy. These attorneys are so locked into this “them versus me” mentality that they are at war with everyone, and then, not surprisingly, their own minds and bodies turn against them and a new struggle ensues, this time for their very own lives.
So what are some suggested remedies to help control the damaging ruminating that plagues these good counselors?
- Clinical Therapy
Some rumination leads to self-destructive behavior that effectively sabotages all attempts at coping adequately with daily life. Often this behavior is a red flag for clinical depression or a physical pathology which requires medical attention. In those cases a psychologist or psychiatrist may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy coupled with medication. Indicators that the rumination has reached levels which require intervention may include but are not limited to alchoholism, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation. In these cases it is highly advisable to ask a medical professional for an evaluation. Some advocates of Positive Psychology such as Drs. Martin Seligman and Karen Reivich have created an ABCDE talking model which they feel is effective in retraining that inner monologue that plagues ruminators.
To find a local doctor or psychologist familiar with these techniques contact the International Positive Psychology Association.
To find a local doctor or psychologist familiar with these techniques contact the International Positive Psychology Association.
- Gratitude and Therapeutic Laughter
In many cities there are laughter clubs that meet regularly to engage in laughter. They are not joke induced sessions, and people laugh with each other, not at each other. Regardless of where they may be held, a genuine laughter club is non-discriminating, non-religious, non political and not a cult. In classes which adopt the World laughter tour methodology, in conjunction with the therapeutic laughter sessions participants incorporate principles of “Good Hearted Living” which can be woven into daily life to maintain, throughout the week , the same the elevated mood and joy that laughter can bring within an hour long session. According to Barbara Fredickson, a professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina-chapel Hill, to practice these positive emotions can expand awareness,while negative emotions can narrow our thinking. Although we cannot expect to live in a constant state of bliss, her research shows that a simple routine of experiencing at least three positive experiences of joy a day can alter our vision, both figuratively and literally, as our periferal vision actually expands while under the influence of positive emotions!
It is possible to stop ruminating! With effort, and a concentrated practice of gratitude the negative components of introspection can be converted to positive insights and healing thoughts. A daily regimen of appreciation may help to curb the onslaught of negative self-talk that overwhelms and destroys insight, an essential element in problem solving. Gratitude may be difficult to achieve when a mind is so clouded with negative self-talk that even finding something to be grateful for can be hard; but concentrated efforts on learning how to express and feel gratitude for simple things, sunshine, music, a rainbow, or our pets can pay off by lowering hypertension and soothing angst.
Of all of the above mentioned suggested remedies to cub rumination-- yoga, counseling, and therapeutic laughter, laughter is the one that is freely available and least expensive. Although therapeutic laughter cannot, nor does it claim to eliminate clinical depression, it can help elevate mood and that is a very good first step towards ending rumination. Laughing, in a nutshell, is good for everyone, especially attorneys who can't stop ruminating about work even when they are trying to relax. Some forms of relaxation, including drinking and strenuous exercize can actually kill you if the body can't reconcile the stress its under and actually considers de-stressing another form of work. Unlike these forms of "fake escape", laughter and gratitude are relatively risk free methods of training the body and mind to relax, and invite appreciation and joy in living, rather than rumination. Furthermore, in this day and age, to find a remedy that feels so good and costs so little is indeed something to be very grateful for!