While there are many strategies to help lawyers cope with stress – such as meditation and affirmations – breathing techniques are one of the simplest and most effective methods to reduce stress and blood pressure and increase the flow of oxygen to the brain.
By James Gray Robinson, Consultant and Speaker
Probably the number one complaint of lawyers is having to live with high levels of stress. Lawyers have to deal with high-stress situations on a daily basis. The whole legal industry is competitive with compensation tied to attracting new clients, impressing existing clients, and being perceived as being “better” than other lawyers.
When faced with the threat of loss, many lawyers who are not trained in stress management naturally react by failing to breathe properly because it is the natural human reaction to danger. When humans fail to breathe properly, oxygen flow to the frontal cortex is reduced and the more primitive parts of the brain take over as part of our genetic survival system. These primitive parts of the brain only have the ability to fight or flee, similar to our ancient ancestors who were faced with physical threats.
In today’s society, we don’t have many physical threats on a day to day basis, but the same mental survival responses kick in when faced with perceived threats. Lawyers seem to be particularly susceptible to this reaction because they are faced with stress on a daily basis.
While there are many strategies for dealing with stress, including meditation and affirmations, breathing techniques are the simplest strategy for dealing with stress. When the frontal cortex is supplied with adequate oxygen, our reasoning faculties are able to calmly deal with the situation and intuition and logic can prevail.
There are many breathing techniques that increase the flow of oxygen to the brain, some from yoga practices brought to the West 50 years ago and others from martial arts and other disciplines. This article will explain four breathing techniques which I have found particularly useful in stressful situations, both in court and in life.
This is the simplest form of breathing. Probably the hardest thing to remember for breathing techniques is to breathe deeply when faced with stress. When we are faced with the potential of loss, whether not getting what we want or losing what we have, it is difficult to remember that the most important thing to do is to breathe. Rhythmic breathing simply involves inhaling and exhaling for the same length of time. I like to count to six while I inhale and then count to six while I exhale. This insures that I fill and empty my lungs as completely as possible.
When I was young I contracted double pneumonia which prevents me from breathing as deeply as I would like and I have to focus to do so. When I practice Rhythmic Breathing I can feel myself relax and become more grounded and less panicked. I would write myself a note which I had in front of me in court to remind me to breathe. I also had a note posted on my refrigerator at home which came in handy more often than not.
This technique is the next level up from simple Rhythmic Breathing and involves a pause either at the end of the inhale, or the exhale, or both. Ideally, you want to pause for as long as the inhale or exhale. The advantage of this type of breathing is that it requires you to focus on your breathing to the exclusion of the perception of whatever threatens you so you can free yourself from the threat.
So if you are inhaling to the count of six, you can pause at the end of the inhale, the exhale or both, for the count of six. When you do both, this is also known as box breathing because you have four sides to each round of breathing: inhale, pause, exhale, pause, then repeat. This is good for any highly stressful situation.
In this breathing technique, you close one nostril for the inhale, and close the other nostril for the exhale, and then reverse. Using one hand, you use the thumb on one side and the little finger on the other. For example, you would inhale with the left nostril (right nostril closed) and exhale with the right nostril (left nostril closed). On the next cycle, you reverse the nostril used so if you exhaled with the right nostril, you inhale with the same right nostril and then exhale through the left nostril. On the next cycle you would reverse the nostril, so if you exhaled through the left nostril you would inhale through the same left nostril and exhale through the right nostril.
This technique, like all breathing techniques, is a great technique for meditation. By focusing on your breathing, you can break any habitual negative thinking patterns and allow your frontal cortex to contemplate solutions and responses. This technique supposedly synchronizes the left hemisphere of the brain with the right hemisphere of the brain so your intuition can be involved with your decision-making process.
This technique is used both in yoga and martial arts, it focuses your thoughts and strength to solving any problem at hand. To start, inhale through your nose as deeply as possible. Then slowly exhale through the back of your throat softly saying “HA” several times during the exhale. After several cycles of this, you can simply exhale with a soft “hiss” over the back of your throat. This technique focuses your attention to the exhale and the controlled use of your energy and power. If you can empty your thoughts while you are doing this, you can bring an amazing amount of clarity and resolve to solving any problem at hand.
Regular practice of any of these breathing techniques can help reduce stress, blood pressure, the feeling of fear, and fight or flight. As with any technique, with regular practice, your body will begin to do it naturally; eventually, you won’t have to think about it to do it. This will allow you to respond to threats, adverse consequences, challenges or loss rationally and calmly which goes a long way in being perceived as a confident and successful professional.
James Gray Robinson was a third generation trial attorney, specializing in family law, for 27 years in his native North Carolina up until 2004. Since then he has become an individual and business consultant who works with a wide range of people, professional organizations, and leading corporations. Robinson’s mission is for all people to have fulfilling, peaceful career experiences and work environments. www.JamesGrayRobinson.com
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