As a litigation lawyer, I often found myself over-thinking courtroom scenarios in my head and when things didn’t go to plan, it would cause me mental angst.
Many of my friends practising law are burnt out and share these sentiments; others have had to take stress leave and suffer from anxiety and depression.
Recent studies show that one in five Australian employees have taken time off work due to feeling mentally unwell in the past 12 months and that untreated mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces approximately $10.9 billion per year in absenteeism, presentism and compensation claims.
I was one these statistics before I stumbled upon Mindfulness practice, which is a simple and non-prescriptive measure we can all use to combat stress, anxiety and depression.
You can be forgiven for being a little flippant whenever you hear the term mindfulness, as it seems to be the ‘buzzword’ used by every self-help guru out there. In essence though, mindfulness is simply: the psychological process of bringing our complete and undivided attention to our internal and external experiences, as they are occurring in the present moment.
What are the benefits?
The benefits of practicing mindfulness are abundant. It makes you feel calm and in control. From a mental health perspective, it’s a simple way to reduce and even eradicate stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain and even addiction.
Practicing mindfulness allows us to become the observer of our thoughts as they arise in the moment. From this platform we’re able to minimise negative self-talk, self-doubt and self-sabotaging behaviours.
Where’s the evidence?
As a lawyer I needed evidence that delving into this practice was going to work. So I did some research and found that functional magnetic resonance imaging, that detects blood flow in the brain, had been used on subjects practicing mindfulness, confirming that that when practicing it, only the pre-frontal cortex becomes enlivened. This is part of the brain associated with awareness, attention control, concentration & decision-making.
Mindfulness has also been found to increase neuroplasticity, which in turn enhances mental agility, confidence and performance. It is because of this scientific evidence (transcending it from a mere “buzzword” to being a credible and powerful mental enhancement tool), that you now have successful CEOs, professional athletes and leading institutions utilising mindfulness to enhance their wellbeing and performance.
The question I then asked myself was: If these successful bodies and people are using mindfulness to reduce stress & enhance their performance, why aren’t I?
How can I start practicing mindfulness”
The most powerful tool that can be used to practice mindfulness is meditation. I’ve personally been meditating for 10 years now and don’t believe I’d be able to get through my day without it.
It anchors my being to everything that is important in my life and has taught me patience, tolerance and how to keep a birds-eye perspective on things.
If you haven’t meditated before or perhaps have tried and couldn’t keep your thoughts still, you should know that there are a multitude of ways you can meditate and it isn’t necessarily about keeping your thoughts still at all. Similar to practicing mindfulness, meditation is simply about being completely present in the moment.
A minimum of 15 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes at night is the recommended time one should mediate. If you’re able to maintain this practice for a few weeks, research has shown that your cortisol (stress hormone) levels decrease and you will feel a tremendous benefit to your overall wellbeing.
If you’re a curious novice try the Calm and Headspace apps or simply Google ‘guided meditation’ to get started.
Harvard University released a research paper that found we spend 47% of our waking lives thinking about things that have either occurred in the past, or may/ may not happen in the future and that this ‘mind-wandering’ is the root cause of our unhappiness and various mental health concerns.
Today’s technological world is only increasing our ‘mind-wandering’. We’re always plugged into our devices and live for instant gratification.
Mindfulness counteracts all of this by anchoring our awareness to the ‘present moment’. You can even practice it during any act you might consider to be mundane. For example, it can be applied to the act of brushing your teeth, driving to work, having a cup of tea or going for a walk.
If we were to take the act of your lunchtime walk for instance, your sole objective would be to bring your attention to your internal/ external experiences as they’re occurring in the moment and to sustain that attention from the beginning to the end of your walk.
Commence with your breath, your body and sensory contact to the outside world, sights sounds, smells – everything occurring in the present moment. By doing so, you’re strengthening your pre-frontal cortex and the mental stage from which to gain a higher perspective.
How mindfulness enhances mental health at work
With such a large chunk of our lives spent at work, employers stand to benefit from educating their staff about mindfulness practice. Enhancing the mental health and wellbeing of staff results in increased job satisfaction and productivity, making it a win-win for everyone.
When practicing mindfulness, our conscious mind confronts our subconscious programming. We become the observer of our thoughts, anchoring our awareness to the present moment; when we’re completely present, we’re not thinking about the past or future events – things we have little to no control over.
Rather, we’re operating from an objective, all encompassing birds-eye perspective, enabling us to remain calm, restfully-alert and make rational choices to life’s events.
It is from this platform that we can exercise overlapping psychological processes such as critical thinking and emotional intelligence – skills that are essential in any workplace.
I’m a firm believer that life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it. By practicing mindfulness each day we strengthen and empower our mind to react objectively to life’s challenging circumstances. This ultimately leads to composed, considerate and positive decisions being made at work and delivers an overall enrichment when it comes to mental health, performance and wellbeing.
Paul Pitsaras, Managing Director of The Open Mind Institute, is a qualified lawyer and the Founder and Managing Director of The Open Mind Institute (TOMI), an organisation which delivers corporate mental health and wellbeing training. With more than 10 years’ experience working as a litigation lawyer in London and Australia, Paul has become a sought after speaker globally.
The information in this blog is intended only to provide a general overview and has not been prepared with a view to any particular situation or set of circumstances. It is not intended to be comprehensive nor does it constitute legal advice. While we attempt to ensure the information is current and accurate we do not guarantee its currency and accuracy. You should seek legal or other professional advice before acting or relying on any of the information in this blog as it may not be appropriate for your individual circumstances.