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Volume 52, Issue 2
Mindfulness Meditation: Easing the grip of stress
Tracey Meyers, Psy.D., LCL MA
Tracey Meyers, Psy.D.
Lawyers Concerned For Lawyers, Massachusetts
Prior to becoming a meditation instructor, I enrolled in an 8-week meditation course to see if this program could help reduce my stress. I was a thirty-eight-year-old mother of three young children and worked full-time as a clinical psychologist. My stress level was almost always high, and I would frequently judge myself if I was not performing at my best as a parent or at my job. By the end of the program, my stress level was significantly lower. I was more patient with my children. I had more energy and found that I could manage my long days with more ease. My sense of humor returned as well, and I was able to laugh at things rather than get overwhelmed and dissolve in tears when something went wrong.
After my own personal experience, I became extremely curious. What was it about this meditation program that helped to lower my stress level? How could practicing meditation each day for eight weeks change my life so significantly? Do others have a similar response to this program? Would my clients benefit from this as well? I began exploring these questions over the past decade, namely by offering mindfulness programs to people in all different settings including law firms, law schools, hospitals, yoga studios, and other integrative health clinics. What I discovered was that mindfulness has a positive impact on reducing stress and increasing happiness in three main ways, which I have listed below.
1. Mindfulness can reduce negative thinking
Most of us end up spending a large number of times in our heads worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. Mark Twain famously said, “There has been much tragedy in my life; at least half of it actually happened.” Our thoughts can seem so real and they can play over and over again. I often call this “our top ten greatest hits”. Will I get bad news at the doctor’s office? What if my child gets sick? What if I get laid off at work? Why can’t I be more disciplined? Productive? Kind?
Mindfulness can help break this cycle of what psychologists call “discursive thinking”, or the background noise of endless negativity we play in our head. It teaches us to simply recognize we are engaged in this habitual pattern, note “thinking” whenever we realize a thought has come up, and then gently and non-judgmentally return to the breath, bringing us back to a place of calm. We are not getting rid of our thoughts, but instead we are allowing thoughts to be present without engaging or fueling them. These thoughts then become less potent as we are not lost in scary stories, worst-case scenarios, or endless loops of negativity.
2. Mindfulness can reduce cognitive and emotional reactivity
Mindfulness can help reduce the emotional reactivity by teaching us how to recognize early signs of stress in the body and utilize practices — including breath awareness, emotion-focused problem-solving strategies, and mindful communication — to cope more effectively with difficult situations.
When our nervous system is overwhelmed, activating the sympathetic nervous system response, our survival mechanisms of fight or flight kicks into over-drive. Many of my mindfulness participants shared similar stories of being overwhelmed by anxiety (flight) or having significant problems with anger management (fight). Even seemingly mild stress can activate negative thinking and our nervous system for many of us especially during difficult times, which can, in turn, significantly and negatively impact our day-to-day life.
During one of mindfulness classes I taught, one participant, a senior lawyer at a large firm stated he was in jeopardy of losing his job and his marriage due to his anger problems. He was desperate to find a way to better control his emotions. Week after week, he reported to the class how mindfulness helped him to decrease his emotional reactivity and how he was able to work through challenges with his partners and staff without flying off the handle. By the end of the course, he happily shared that his senior managing partner had given him a positive review and he was feeling more relaxed and at ease around his co-workers. He told me privately at the end of the course that “Mindfulness saved my life”.
3. Mindfulness trains us to be more self-compassionate
Many lawyers judge themselves harshly, are perfectionistic, and have difficulty forgiving themselves when they make mistakes.
One of the fundamental reasons why people have been practicing meditation for over 2,500 years is this very human predicament. We often create our own suffering by judging ourselves so harshly. Yoga sage Swami Kripalu wrote, “My beloved child, break your heart no longer. Each time you judge yourself, you break your own heart.” Mindfulness teaches us how to be in the present moment non-judgmentally. We learn to be gentler toward ourselves, using practices including loving-kindness meditation, yoga, and interpersonal mindfulness. Research shows that mindfulness can thicken the neural tissue in parts of the brain directly related to our ability to have empathy. These changes in the brain strengthen our capacity to be compassionate toward ourselves and others.
Many of my clients ask me how to start a meditation practice. There are a number of apps that I find helpful including Headspace, Insight Timer, Calm, The Mindfulness App, and iBreathe. Taking a course including Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for those who want a more immersive learning experience is another option. There are specific programs for legal professionals. I would highly recommend joining the Mindfulness in Law Society which offers meditations, seminars, and trainings for legal professionals (https://www.mindfulnessinlawsociety.org).
It has been over 15 years since I took my first mindfulness program as a stressed-out professional and mother struggling with time management. Since that time, I have experienced much more joy and peace in the midst of a very busy life with three teenagers and a full-time job. I am so grateful to teach mindfulness and regularly witness the transformation of many of my clients who have been able to reduce their stress and rediscover their capacity to be happy. These transformations remind me to stay deeply connected to my meditation practice and to take things one breath at a time.
Dr. Tracey Meyers joined LCL in August of 2020 following her work for the State of Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services where she spent over 15 years working as a clinical neuropsychologist and most recently as the director of behavioral intervention services for inpatient services. Tracey has a strong commitment to integrative medicine for mental health and wellness and leads mindfulness and yoga programs for groups, individuals, and professionals in the workplace. Tracey is a licensed clinical psychologist in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. In addition, she is an advanced yoga teacher, certified C-IAYT yoga therapist, MBSR, Breath-Body-Mind, and iRest teacher. Tracey has authored several publications including articles and book chapters around integrative medicine, positive behavioral support treatment for different mental health conditions, and developing collaborative relationships in healthcare settings.
Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Inc. (LCL) is an independent nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to helping with the many personal and professional challenges of life in the legal profession. https://www.lclma.org/
Barbara J. Bowe, LICSW joined Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Inc. (LCL) in 1996. Barbara handles client assessments, referrals, and case management. She also acts as a liaison with the Deans of Massachusetts’ nine law schools. Barbara has coordinated and been involved in training programs for a range of segments of the Bar: Judges, MBA, BBA Peer Support Program, Bar Advocate Programs, LCL Monitor Program, and Professional Responsibility Classes. Barbara can be reached at (617) 482-9600 or  barbarab@lclma.org.
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