For Peak Performance, Mind Your Mental Health

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Good mental health is linked to good physical health. Attorneys, though, suffer depression at rates three times the average. The same holds true for substance abuse and even suicide. If the connection to physical health weren’t enough, mental health issues also impact work performance significantly.

Individuals exhibiting active depression and anxiety symptoms – including irritability, obsessive thoughts, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances and fatigue – do not deliver close to their best work. A recent University of Michigan study in “Brain,” concluded that depressed people experience “fuzzy thinking,” i.e., poor concentration and decision making.

Of course, what clients expect is sharp analysis and excellent solutions. Those things are hard to come by when the brain is not functioning at its best.

Before attorneys get to a crisis state of depression or anxiety, they can implement a number of practices to maintain, or improve, their mental health.

The best tools for maintaining and improving mental health are surprisingly simple and inexpensive: Get enough sleep, engage in mindfulness, and take time away from the office. Yet while these are simple ideas, they can be surprisingly difficult to implement.

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Get Enough Sleep Sleep is the foundation of good mental and physical health. According to “Deprived of Sleep and Productivity,” a 2008 article in “Entrepreneur,” even “a slight sleep deficit [half an hour nightly] has proven to decrease cognitive functioning, including processing time, ability to perform complex tasks, . . . [and a] loss of coping skills.”

Working with such mental impairment means a lot of potentially excellent work did not get done. Plus, the loss of coping skills translates to attorneys feeling pretty awful while trying to get through a to-do list.

Many lawyers I have worked with confess that they stay up late, in an attempt to be more productive. They are on screens late into the evening. Or, they watch TV in an effort to decompress. Either way, these habits need reforming.

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First, assess when your bedtime should be so that you can get eight hours of shuteye. Then, crowbar yourself off screens an hour before that time. You may not be able to get to sleep at your ideal time, initially. That’s fine. Resetting sleep clocks takes several days, if not a week or two. Try getting in bed 20 minutes earlier than usual for two nights. Continue that process until you are going to sleep at your ideal bedtime.

Engage in Mindfulness Mindfulness meditation gets a lot of press, for good reason; it has been shown to decrease stress. A 2013 study from Johns Hopkins suggests that mindfulness meditation can ease anxiety, depression and pain.

Mindfulness meditation requires focus on the present, and on current sensory input. For example, you can focus on breathing, sights or other physical feelings. The key is keeping attention on the present, and not drifting into thoughts about the past or the future.

Guided meditations can help. One good, free source is www.mindfulnesssolution.com. And of course, the Internet offers many more.

For Paige Waldrop Mills, a litigation and intellectual property partner with Bass, Berry & Sims, prayer time is part of her meditative practice. “Prayer is extremely calming. When you are really stressed out, try praying for other people. It really helps to re-center your mind.”

Time Away From the Office To maintain mental health, it’s important to have a life outside of work. Both maintaining relationships and time for yourself help keep mental balance. In other words, lawyers need friendships and meaningful social connections to sustain them.

If a lawyer’s peer group is mostly other lawyers, this can lead to a skewed view of life priorities. Make sure to meet with nonlawyer friends regularly. Be purposeful about having after-work interests that don’t involve many, if any, other lawyers.

Particularly for attorneys who work extremely long hours alone time to regroup and recharge is key.

Dana Ausbrooks, a criminal defense and estate planning lawyer in Franklin, and a Williamson County commissioner, says, “I schedule a couple of hours of ‘me time’ on my calendar each week. I found if I didn’t schedule it, then it wouldn’t happen. This trick forces me to make myself a priority every week.”

Don’t wait until a mental health and performance crisis strikes. Implement these effective solutions now, and watch your entire life improve. Jennifer Alvey

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