By Susan Burak, former Lawyer Counsellor at LAPBC.
Stress is a mountain of a topic. The causes and solutions fill countless pages of google search results. Stress is sometimes worn as a badge of honour as colleagues enter into unspoken competitions on the number of hours billed or the weight of their workload. Fortunately, the conversation around stress is showing signs of change. A key influencer in that conversation is the growing acceptance of a practice called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Before delving into the practice, it is important to understand what we mean by MBSR. The term describes an approach to stress reduction focused on training the mind in grounding and meditative techniques. It is a lifestyle change in that, to be successful, a participant must recalibrate how their brain reacts to stress on a daily basis. This approach is designed to gear individuals toward a more permanent resilience to stress, rather than a quick fix. While these techniques have ancient origins, MBSR made its modern debut in 1979, spearheaded by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and associates at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “Through intensive training in a combination of mindfulness, cognitive behavioural and self-regulation skills, participants learn to mobilize their deep inner resources to facilitate learning, growth, healing, enhance self-care, and make positive shifts in attitudes, behaviours, and relationships.” Dr. Kabat-Zinn continues his work in MBSR and the mindfulness conversation at large. The first program was geared toward medical students, but has since spread to other professions.
As lawyers, we are natural skeptics. A healthy skepticism serves us well in cases to turn over arguments and use a critical lens. However, an asset in the courtroom does not always translate positively to our personal life. For example, walking through the front door in “trial mode” might result in interactions with our family that resemble cross examinations more than conversations. MBSR addresses this challenge by cultivating a grounding practice that an individual can tap into anytime, anywhere. MBSR is an inward practice with outward practicality. This is not wishful thinking, but empirically-supported neuroscience data.
All of the work done through the MBSR contributes to an individual’s ability to self-regulate. In our day to day interactions, personally and professionally, there is very little we can control regarding the words directed at us or the media we are exposed to. Investing in the armour of self-regulation allows us to move through life with an internal leveling system that is constantly adjusting to the surroundings to keep us on equal footing. Science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain and body. And what the data shows is that when you meditate with self compassion, with kindness practice, then you are cultivating an innate capacity to self-regulate much more quickly because the compassion center of the brain is in the higher executive level functioning part of the brain.
Stress is unavoidable. It is a part of our human experience. We cannot control the existence of stress, but we can and should have a say over the depth, frequency, and impact of stress in our lives. MBSR is not the only approach, but it can be argued that the core principles have stood the test of time, with over 40 years of consistent, positive results.