Mindfulness is a term that’s increasingly used as a catch-all phrase in the wellness industry for…something or other, right? Mindfulness, while often used interchangeably with meditation, is actually its own practice. You can certainly have “mindfulness meditation,” but you can practice mindfulness on its own.
Mindfulness, when broken down to its most basic meaning, means to simply be present and engaged in what you’re doing. When you’re practicing mindfulness, you allow yourself to be aware of your thoughts and feelings without getting swept up by them.
An example of what can happen if you’re adept at mindfulness: You’re writing a brief at the end of a long day. A worry from a meeting with another client pops into your head, but instead of engaging with the worry, you acknowledge that it exists and allow yourself to continue writing.
Mindfulness lets you be present in the moment rather than chasing down your anxieties, stresses, fears, and frustrations. Mindfulness acknowledges that these experiences exist but helps us react calmly to them. For lawyers, who are constantly under pressure, this can benefit nearly every area of life and business.
How it helps
Mindfulness as a practice has a long history, but it’s benefits have been extensively studied in recent years. Here’s an overview of ways mindfulness can help.
You might not think about the term “rumination” very often but you probably do it a lot. You’re not alone. Rumination is mentally reviewing your worries without making progress on resolving or addressing them.
Being a lawyer requires you to think deeply about subjects. How else do you get past law school, after all? But when you focus on repetitive, negative thoughts, ruminating can lead to or intensify depression, stress, and anxiety.
Mindfulness, however, is effective in reducing rumination. In a 2008 study, 20 novice mediators took a 10-day mindfulness meditation retreat. Following the experience, the group reported a decrease in self-reported negative affect, fewer depressive symptoms, and less rumination.
It’s the rare legal professional who says that they’d like more, not less, stress. The study of mindfulness has a whole host of research supporting claims that the practice reduces stress. Take these examples:
- A 2010 meta-analysis of 39 different studies found that mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive therapy can support the treatment of a range of clinical issues.
- Another 2010 study had participants watch sad movies. The researchers found that mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques resulted in less anxiety, depression, and somatic distress, as well as less neural reactivity.
Better working memory
Your working memory plays a big role in your cognitive well being. Mindfulness practice may give it a boost. A study in 2010 looked at two groups of military members and a group of civilians in the eight weeks leading up to deployment, a stressful experience.
One group of soldiers underwent mindfulness training, the others didn’t. The results were intriguing:
- Non-meditating soldiers had decreased working memory
- Non-meditating civilians had stable working memory
- Meditating soldiers had increased working memory
Improved focus and cognitive flexibility
Mindfulness practices are correlated with increases in cognitive flexibility and attention spans. This was demonstrated in one study that looked at how participants reacted to distracting information when trained in mindfulness or not; they found that the group with meditation experience had better information recall and memory functioning.
Another study found those who practiced mindfulness meditation had better adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations. Activation of this neurological region through meditation corresponded with faster recovery to baseline after being negatively provoked.
Along similar lines, less emotional reactivity may be a result of mindfulness practices. In a study of people who engaged in mindfulness meditation practice, researchers found that they disengaged from upsetting images faster and focused better on an unrelated cognitive task than those who saw the images but did not meditate.
More satisfying relationships
Lawyers often report difficulty in their personal relationships stemming from their work. Mindfulness can help guard against that. Evidence suggests that mindfulness can guard practitioners against emotional stress arising from conflict in relationships, helps individuals express themselves more effectively, and generally improves relationship satisfaction (see Barnes et al., 2007; Wachs & Cordova, 2007).
5 Ways you can bring mindfulness into your practice
- Meditate: There are numerous meditation techniques that you can practice easily at work, from body scans to walking meditation. Even using an app like Calm or Headspace for a five-minute break can help center you in the middle of a hectic day.
- Optimize your technology for mindful focusing by removing or silencing notifications, using the Pomodoro technique for focusing, and deactivating the internet or distracting websites with apps like Freedom.
- Getting comfortable with negative emotions. Part of mindfulness is learning to hold space for stressful or negative emotions without reacting or judging them. The S.T.O.P. technique is helpful for that:
- Take a breath
- Observe your reaction without judgment
- Proceed with what you were doing
- Avoid letting small demands or tasks accumulate. If it will take less than five minutes, take care of it. If longer, schedule time to handle the task or delegate.
- Pay attention to your physical needs. Taking care of your body makes it easier to focus and regulate your emotions. Move around a little bit every hour, eat balanced meals, and make sure to drink plenty of water.
Mindfulness isn’t a panacea against workplace stresses, but then again, it’s not meant to be. Instead, the goal of mindfulness is to help you handle them without feeling overwhelmed or bogged down by negative emotions. Have you tried mindfulness practices? What has worked for you?