To start, let me tell you that I cannot keep track of, well, anything lately. You?
If there are 3 steps to a recipe I’m trying, I cannot remember steps 2 and 3 without looking at the instructions for, oh, the fifth time. I open a new tab in my browser and have no idea what I was planning to look for, a mere 5 seconds after the initial thought of “I need to look that up.”
It’s pretty sad, y’all. For a former lawyer who could understand and apply discretionary federal jurisdiction doctrines once upon a time, I have sunk pretty low on the cognitive charts. Even though I don’t feel acutely stressed, my brain is shrieking (and performing) otherwise.
Intellectually, I know my inability to focus and concentrate is related to anxiety and overstimulation, and probably a skosh of depression. Oddly enough, juggling clients, parenting a teenager doing online learning, and all the other adaptations I need to live a fairly low-risk life in this time of pandemic, is somehow blowing all my brain circuits. I am mentally and emotionally wiped out. Go figure.
But my usual strategies for dealing with overwhelm and anxiety are largely off-limits right now. Visiting random junktique stores, my favorite guilty pleasure, is a roulette wheel. Plus, the amount of pre-planning it takes to come up with something fun, festive, and refreshing is exhausting, especially when the weather is steamy. Most days, I just end up staying inside, spending too much time on my computer, and getting as much done as a hamster on its wheel.
Thankfully, the weather intervened here in Middle Tennessee. And that leads to my number one tip for ratcheting down your anxiety.
Get the Hell Outside
I don’t mean being outside on your way into the store, either. Go outside for at least 15 minutes and sit for a spell, or take a hike, or sit by a fountain. Something, anything outdoors. Soak in all the sights and sounds you can’t get on a screen.
This past week, we have had weather that fantasies are made of in the South: low humidity, highs in the 70s, and sun. Wonderfully excessive amount of sun.
I needed to work on a furniture project, and plant the dozen pansies I had snagged a week ago. So I spent hours outside over the weekend. No music or podcasts; I just worked on my stuff, listened to the birds, and tried to ignore the sounds of loud trucks and leaf blowers.
By Sunday afternoon, I could think straight again. It was astounding how much better I could function, mentally.
Limit Online Time to an Hour Daily
When the news about Justice Ginsburg hit, I knew there would be a tsunami of posts from distressed friends, plus the predictable political nonsense. So I stayed offline for most of that weekend, and was much better for it.
This past weekend was even more beneficial, because I stayed offline due to, yanno, being busy with life. I was embracing something, rather than merely avoiding something. I cannot recommend this highly enough.
All those social media posts, even if they align with exactly what you think, are little chunks of mental energy. Posts not only suck our energy away, they also end up in our thoughts later, like cow’s cud. But not as nutritious. That’s a complete lose/lose when it comes to lowering overstimulation and anxiety.
Your brain needs a lot of space and time to process, period, for life and lawyering. A pandemic and political instability means you need even more brain space than usual.
Unless you are a reporter or political operative, you really don’t need to spend more than an hour per day keeping up with things. Truly. So cut back hard on your data inputs (news, social media, people who never shut up yet say nothing).
If the world is about to end, someone will tell you. Promise.
Notice Your Ordinary Moments
Most of us suck at noticing and appreciating the small things that make life rich. That lovely coffee and morsel are hardly noticed since we’re reading something. We have a pet or a kid on our lap, or even a warm fuzzy blanket, but we tune out of that delight and focus on a screen.
The next time you find yourself parked in front of a screen, stop for a moment and check in with your senses. What do your feet, hands, lap, and back feel? What different sounds can you identify? What do you see? Pay really close attention. Notice your world.
Also, NO JUDGING of anything you feel/hear/see. Judging launches us into thinking, rather than experiencing. It’s not what you need right now. Simply note, “Hmmm, that sound is loud. Hmmm, that arm hurts,” and move on.
Pay full attention to what is happening to you right now, especially to your body. Don’t tell anyone, but this is really what mindfulness is all about. Meditation is one form of mindfulness, but most attorneys do better starting with being in their bodies, rather than in their heads. (We’re there 90% of the time already, right?)
Try these 3 things for 3 days, and see if you don’t feel more alert, calm, and able to live and work a bit better. And if you feel better, keep on doing them.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who has struggled with anxiety since dinosaurs roamed the earth in the 1980s. Then she went to law school and into practice, undiagnosed. That was interesting. If you need to talk about law-practice-aggravated anxiety, drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a sample session. She has a few ideas and tools for that.