Achieving Wellness Through Balance
By Rich Lombino, Esq, LCSW
Therapist & Lawyer
With COVID-19 (the “coronavirus”), the world has been turned upside down. Days blend together. Sleep schedules move later. Working from home presents new challenges. These changes significantly impact our already complicated lives, including relationships, career, financially, parenting and more. Let’s look at ways to manage your mental health so you can make the best of a difficult time.
Lawyers And Stress
Based on extensive research, lawyers all have challenges with stress, to varying degrees. Though many work long hours with demanding colleagues and clients, they are still able to be effective lawyers and be present at home with their families. By “present” I mean not just physically there, but also mentally and emotionally engaged. But there are many who have challenges with managing stress and become overwhelmed, turn to alcohol, isolate, get angry easily, become depressed or severely anxious. Having balance in our lives can help.
What Do I Mean By Achieving Balance?
If we have balance in our lives, we‘re more likely to better manage our emotions. This is especially true during a crisis, such as now with COVID-19. Achieving balance in this climate is finding a middle ground that we’re comfortable with that gives us the information we need while keeping our emotions managed.
It’s understandable for all of us to be glued to a computer screen, smart phone or television getting updates on everything from social distancing to school closures. The government rolling out changes slowly has the benefit of allowing us time to adjust to the new restrictions. However, it also has the disadvantage of causing uncertainty of “what’ll be next” and the anxiety that accompanies “fear of the unknown.” These can lead our mind to move in the direction of “worst case scenario.”
As lawyers we are particularly susceptible to this because this is how we were educated and trained, and how we practice. We have to tell our clients what could happen at worst and the percentage risk involved so they can make the best business or personal decisions possible.
Sadly this skill can also lead to our own significant mental health pressures. Instead of going down the rabbit hole, it’s possible for us to develop a healthy alternative structure in managing how we have a balanced view of the world around us.
A Specific Example of Achieving Balance
At the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, many people I’ve spoken with were checking the news all day long, reading multiple articles from many news sources, watching long press conferences and more. Their stress level increased every day and it took some time to deescalate themselves before getting back to what they were doing before checking in. They knew there was something wrong and had to change their behavior. But to be a responsible family member, friend and professional, they still needed to be updated on changes in the situation. You can develop and put in place an alternative plan. This may not work for everyone, but illustrates the concept of achieving balance.
Check the news once in the morning and once in the evening. When checking, limit your intake to reading one article and a number of headlines of the main themes of the day. Unless necessary or if you feel it would provide you or the person you’re speaking with support, limit how much you initiate conversations with others about COVID-19. With this structure, your stress level can be reduced as you are protecting your mind from the constant bombardment of tragic news. This can lead you to be more likely to be present at home and effective in your practice.
Managing Expectations: A Transferable Skill
Managing expectations is one of the most important life skills. This is especially true during this time of COVID-19 when stress and anxiety are elevated. It’s a transferable skill throughout all areas of our lives. As lawyers we have the benefit of being trained in this skill, thus providing us with additional expertise beyond what we’ve learned along the way.
In general, when we are emotional and try to communicate, the content of what we’re saying to the other person can sometimes be lost because of the emotional tone we’re using. If we don’t consider and anticipate what will happen, we will likely be surprised. This can increase stress and anxiety.
We can take the time to think things through when we’re calm and develop the best way to present our concerns prior to the conversation. Then anticipate the response and prepare for what we’ll say. The more we manage our expectations, the better we can have these difficult discussions and convey our thoughts rationally and have better outcomes.
Let’s give the example of a real estate attorney. Back when I was practicing law, I’d draft a contract that had all the standard boilerplate language one would expect in that type of real estate deal and that no one would argue about. I’d also include a rider with modifications of the boilerplate language and additional provisions that weren’t in the standard contract. Before finishing the contract and sending it over to opposing counsel, I’d ask myself what will likely be the response. Then I’d think about how I’d respond to their response. The same is true with litigation. Lawyers don’t just create an argument and bring it to court. They anticipate counter arguments and prepare counter arguments to them. And on and on.
In this way we’re managing our expectations of how the negotiation or litigation will proceed so that we do our best to be governed by our “rational mind,” instead of our “emotional mind.” Even when dealing with a difficult or toxic adversary which brings negative emotions to the surface of our mind and usually can possibly impair our judgement and cause us to be less effective, we can think rationally and be successful in the encounter.
These skills are transferable in that they can apply to other areas of our lives. One example is when we need to have a difficult discussion with our significant other or friend.
Do the best you can to practice self care and wellness. This includes achieving balance and managing your expectations. Take the time to evaluate what is causing stress and anxiety, think critically about possible solutions, implement the solutions, and if necessary modify them over time. It is possible to maintain good mental health and wellness even in the face of a crisis. You can do it.
In this podcast episode, I thought I’d tell you a bit about myself so you can see where my perspective on the episode topics is inspired by and comes from. My career began as a lawyer working in New York City on commercial and residential real estate deals. After about 10 years in the law, I realized I wasn’t getting any personal satisfaction in the law and developed a strong need to help people in a different way. I transitioned into nonprofit directing programs advocating for those experiencing homelessness and severe mental health concerns. Through this 8 years of work, I enjoyed the one-on-one encounters with the clients I was helping, and decided to go back to school for more clinical training. I earned a Masters in Social Work from Columbia University and have been a therapist for almost 10 years. In my personal time, I enjoy spending time with family and friends, playing guitar and listening to music, visiting museums, watching films and visiting the beach.