A Different Way to Fight the Burnout Battle
Many of us assume that burnout is just stress, but it’s not that simple. Burnout is different from just stress and requires a multi-pronged approach to treat and prevent.
Stress is a survival mechanism.
It serves a bio-evolutionary function that was critical to our survival as a species for millennia. Despite thinking of ourselves as quite advanced, much of our brains are still wired like those of our prehistoric ancestors. Like in the brains of our ancestors, the limbic system is the location of the stress experience (a.k.a. fight or flight) in our brains. The stress experience of our ancestors’ limbic systems was occasional. What we in modern day would call optimal stress. Our ancestors only needed to rely on that stress response occasionally, maybe once or twice a week. You’ve probably experienced this in the courtroom or during a presentation or negotiation. You are alert, on point, and very present. It can feel good in short bursts. Our bodies can handle and even benefit from this occasional stress response.
Burnout is stress on overdrive.
The problem lies not in the existence of stress, but the frequency and duration of stress. When we experience a stress response on a regular basis, we lose that focus and energy we feel from the occasional optimum stress. We begin to feel sluggish, unfocused, and even apathetic. That’s because we did not evolve to cope with a nearly constant stress response. That unpleasant email, to-do list, phone call, or meeting is not occasional stress like the predator was for our ancestors. Instead, it poses a daily threat to which our limbic systems respond repeatedly every day and every week.
As amazing as our brains are, they, unfortunately, do not know the difference between a threat posed by a sabertoothed tiger and that posed by an unpleasant task. So, the optimum stress that our ancestors experienced when occasionally fighting off a predator, or we experience with the occasional presentation or negotiation, turns into chronic stress just by an increase in frequency. That chronic stress is burnout.
What you can do differently to treat and prevent Burnout.
The typical burnout prevention and mitigation recommendations for lawyers usually focus on what we as a culture already know. However, knowing does not necessarily translate to doing. While science unequivocally supports recommendations such as better and more sleep, using vacations to disconnect, exercising, and eating better, many lawyers find these goals unrealistic. There are ways to make these goals more attainable for lawyers, but there are also other things you can do to set yourself up to prevent, mitigate, and recover from burnout. You have more control than you think.
RECOMMENDATION: Know your stress cycle.
Knowing when intense stressors arise for you and how you react to them is an important part of mitigating the negative side-effects of stress. It enables you to observe otherwise undiscernible patterns of stressors and stress responses. When you can anticipate the typically more stressful parts of the year you can adapt in advance by eliminating unnecessary obligations and adjusting expectations. Know how you tend to react to stress and what your primary stressors are so that you learn your own warning signs for burnout. Sitting down with your calendar and reviewing your stressors over the past year is a simple way to identify such patterns.
RECOMMENDATION: Thought Track Your Brain.
Our thoughts and feelings significantly influence our behaviors. The ability to choose how our thoughts and feelings impact what we do is a powerful tool. It allows logic to play a role in situations where feelings like fear and doubt often take control. The more aware you are of your thinking patterns, the better prepared you are to both reduce existing stress and mitigate future stress. Check out this free quiz to identify the type of thinking patterns that most typically sabotage you: https://bit.ly/LawyerMindsetQuiz
Like stress, labeling and categorizing is a survival tactic that we are wired with: “friend or foe;” “food or poison;” “prey or predator.” Using labels for our thoughts is an easy way to categorize them as “helpful or not helpful” or “based on evidence or not based on evidence.” The better equipped we are at identifying thoughts as thinking errors instead of fact, the less likely such thoughts are capable of prolonging stress.
When you are feeling stressed write down what you are fear (no, really, write it down). What is that thought? Does it fit into any of the categories from your quiz results (see above)? If so, is there an alternative explanation or solution?
RECOMMENDATION: Build Your Resources
As a lawyer, it is easy to lose track of what resources you already have or could build around you that could help you prevent, mitigate, and/or recover from burnout. Our focus is usually on securing and/or keeping resources for others while we solve their problems, not on setting ourselves up to take care of our own. The top four resources we as lawyers need to maintain to prevent and mitigate burnout are: Social, Physical, Emotional, and Intellectual.
Social Resources consist of interpersonal connections. Studies have found that social connection is a significant predictor of how well an individual does under periods of stress. Resources in this category may be family, friends, and/or colleagues. The critical factors are that they are individuals whom you can trust, rely on, and have fun with. Who in your life helps you feel like yourself, is someone who you can share the detail of your life with, or you can count on or makes you laugh?
Your physical health is critical to your mental health. A body that is not taken care of is often treated by the brain as a body under stress. Fueling the cycle of chronic stress even more. This is where Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs plays a role. You must address your basic physical needs to thrive intellectually, socially, spiritually, etc. Physical resources consist of anything that takes care of your physical person. This includes being up to date with your annual physical, vision, dental, and other check-ups. It also includes scheduled and realistic physical activity, and basic personal care such as showering, eating nutritious food, and brushing our teeth. What basic physical resources and reserves do you need to build up? After sitting down with your calendar and getting an idea of your stress cycle, take the time to schedule your check-ups over the next year.
Emotional resources consist of your internal tools for coping with stress. Studies have found that individuals who are aware of stress-inducing thought patterns are better equipped to succeed under stressful situations and thus reduce the frequency and duration of stress responses. Resources in this category can include mindfulness practice, thought tracking, and other awareness-raising tools.
Intellectual resources are those that help you feel more confident in your abilities. They include building skills in your practice area as well as deepening your knowledge in areas outside the law, such as a hobby. Studies have found that developing a sense of competence or “mastery” in work and/or a hobby both significantly increases the likelihood of satisfaction in one’s career and increases an individual’s resilience. This translates to a reduced frequency and duration of a stress response.
Prevention and mitigation of burnout require more than one approach. The mainstream recommendations of sleep, vacations, exercise, and diet are helpful, but there is more we can do. How we think about stress and approach its presence in our lives is critical to managing stressors so that occasional or optimum stress does not evolve into chronic stress or burnout. Starting with a critical eye on your calendar and your thinking patterns to get a clearer idea of stress in your past, present, and is a simple and accessible way to prevent burnout in the future.
We invite you to watch the recorded webinar below.
About the Author
Chelsy Castro is CEO and Founder of Castro Jacobs Psychotherapy and Consulting (CJPC), a firm specializing in lawyer well-being. An attorney turned psychotherapist and career strategist, Chelsy counsels individuals and the organizations they work for on how to achieve their goals in healthy and productive ways. Chelsy’s publications and trainings focus on science-based skills and strategies for improving performance and increasing well-being in high-pressure professions.
After practicing law as a multilingual attorney in the field of international regulatory compliance, Chelsy later earned her clinical degree at the University of Chicago and shifted her focus to lawyer well-being. Prior to launching CJPC, Chelsy designed, developed, and managed clinical programs for the legal profession, and provided evidence-based psychotherapy and training for lawyers, judges, and law students.