Lost in My Mind
Before I became a lawyer, I taught yoga and geeked out on anatomy and physiology. It was endlessly fascinating to discover and observe the profound impact that coordinating movement with breath had on my own emotional well-being and mental clarity, and that of my students. When I went to law school, however, I erroneously retired my wisdom of the body to pursue the knowledge of the mind. I put away my yoga mat and put on my thinking cap, certain that there wasn’t a need for both in the field of law. Regrettably, after three years of law school and ten years lawyering, I found myself physically exhausted and wondering what had gone wrong. To understand my experience—and to help others circumvent the same from happening to them—I turned my mind to researching the role of the mind-body-emotion connection in the field of law. Now, years into studying with national thought leaders, neuroscientists, neuropsychologists, and clinical pioneers such as Dr. Peter Levine, Deb Dana, Dr. Stephen Porges, Dr. Diane Poole Heller, and Dr. Richard Schwartz, I understand that if we want to work and feel our best, we have to draw upon the wisdom of both the body and the mind to get there. In the past eight years of coaching and training law firms how to build resilience and prevent burnout, one thing has become clear: the foundational body of knowledge from which I draw is, well, the body.
More Than a Brain
The human body is capable of experiencing a vast range of sensations and physical responses. Yet, for many of us in the legal profession, we have developed subconscious habits that ignore or suppress our physical awareness and favor the rational mind. While we understandably rely on our intellect and logical reasoning as a foundation for practicing law, the body also provides invaluable wisdom that can be tapped for guidance. By paying attention to physical sensations and responses throughout the day, it’s possible to notice the body’s signals and use those signals as an antenna—along with cognitive skills—to make well-informed decisions. This kind of bodily awareness can also support mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health, and in turn help lawyers find balance amidst a stressful work environment.
How Law Disconnects Us from Our Bodies
One reason why lawyers and judges may struggle with body awareness is the demanding nature of our professions. When lawyering, I was guilty of pushing aside my physical needs and emotional feelings to meet the mental demands and time pressures of work. Many times, I felt that I was doing something wrong—that I might disappoint someone or fail—if I took breaks during the workday. Too frequently I skipped eating, pausing to reset, or exercising to get my to-do list ta-done. Now, when I train other lawyers and judges, I hear that many are depleted from over-working, tired from under-sleeping, and overwhelmed from over-committing. Additionally, we hold stress for our clients. Numerous coaching clients share that they spend sleepless nights tossing and turning over client problems so that their clients can rest assured. I’m observing that in the legal field, productivity, billable hours, and professionalism often come at the expense of self-care. Does any of this resonate with your work habits and self-care experience?
Turning away from the signals the body communicates today can also seriously compromise long-term wellness. Ignoring our bodies can have serious consequences on our physical, mental, and emotional health over time. Most of us can attest that our bodies (as well as our minds) hold chronic tension from working in a high-stress, adversarial profession. How many of us suffer from on-going headaches, migraines, low back pain, high blood pressure, digestive problems, insomnia, hypertension, anxiety, or depression? Chronically ignoring our basic physical needs for food, water, sleep, and stress recovery are risk factors for compromised immune function, chronic disease, serious mental health conditions, and a shortened life span. Yikes! Why don’t they mention this when we sign up for the LSAT?!?
The mind-body connection is a vast and deep topic, yet it comes with learnable skills. One place to start your journey of connecting to your body is by developing interoception. Interoception, also called somatic awareness, is defined as the ability to sense and interpret the internal states of the body (soma). Internal states of the body include respiration/breathing, heart rate, body temperature, hunger, thirst, and elimination. Interoception also includes the ability to notice sensations of pleasure and pain, tension and relaxation, along with being able to ascertain your emotional state (e.g., happy, sad, frustrated, confused).
Interoception is important not only for regulating our physical bodies, but also for emotional regulation and cognitive processing. The better our “interoceptive accuracy” (the ability to accurately perceive and interpret bodily signals), the more likely we will be emotionally balanced, mentally clear, and less chronically stressed. As lawyers, when we develop interoceptive accuracy, we are more likely to pay better attention to not only what we need, but also to what our clients need, thereby better equipping ourselves to give accurate counsel and zealous representation.
Putting Interoception to Work
Below are a few examples of how you may utilize your interoception during your workday, and how it may enhance your legal practice:
1. You are in a mediation and notice your jaw tensing and your stomach fluttering. You pause and see what is happening in the negotiations. You look at the frustrated faces and closed off body language of both sides and realize that the parties are at an impasse. Instead of pushing for a resolution, you ask for a break. During the break, you encourage your clients to go outside and stroll around the block. While they are out, you take a few long exhales and make sure everyone has enough water to drink; you open the windows and let sunshine and fresh air into the previously darkened room. When your clients return, they have had a shift of perspective and so has the other party. Negotiations are successful. You go home with energy to spare.
2. You are meeting with a new client and notice chest tightness. Instead of ignoring the sensation, you instead take a moment to tune in and see what your body is telling you. Is something amiss? You reflect and realize you need to ask the client more questions to clarify an incongruence in the facts before moving forward.
3. You’ve been laser-focused drafting a document. After several hours, you notice you have to go to the bathroom. Instead of “holding it” and working another 15 minutes, you go to the bathroom. On your way back to your desk, you remember two points you intended to include in the document, but your mind had been so focused you’d forgotten.
Ten Ways to Enhance Your Interoceptive Accuracy
To cultivate interoception and tap into the wisdom of your body, start by paying attention to your body’s physical sensations as they arise. To cultivate your interoceptive accuracy, try one or more of the suggestions below. While these tools have been helpful for me and others, everyone’s body is different. Try experimenting with one that catches your attention and stay with it if it feels effective. If it doesn’t, try something different. Remember, your body is your compass and only you know what feels good for you!
Practices for Cultivating Interoception
1. Base Needs Tending: Notice when you need to take a break, when you are thirsty, need to go to the bathroom, or need to breathe more deeply. Give your body what it is asking for and notice what shifts or changes. If you’ve never done any specific interoceptive practices, this is a good place to start.
2. Mindful Breathing: Focus on the breath while breathing naturally or by using specific breathing practices. Notice what happens with your body, emotions, and thoughts as you breathe.
3. Body Scanning: Mentally scan your body from head to toe, paying attention to sensations in each area.
4. Yoga: Practice yoga. Notice what you feel when you link your body’s movements to your breath. You may want to attend yoga classes that intentionally slow down the body, such as gentle yoga, yin yoga, or “slow flow.”
5. Mindfulness Meditation: Practice being fully present in the moment and aware of your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations without judgment.
6. Massage: Notice your body’s patterns of holding and releasing tension when getting a therapeutic massage.
7. Mindful Eating: Pay attention to your body’s sensations of hunger before you eat. Be conscious of chewing your food all the way and noticing the taste and flavors. Notice when you get full.
8. Exercise with Awareness: Practice noticing your body’s internal sensations during physical activity. In particular, stay alert to sensations of pain.
9. Sensory Input: Explore different sensory experiences such as new foods or beverages, different types of music, the sensations of being outside at a different time of day or night, or wearing new colors or textures.
10. Interoception Journaling: Write about your bodily sensations, your emotions, and your thoughts to track patterns and to increase awareness of internal shifts and patterns.
Word to the Wise: Get Support when Tuning into Your Body
One challenge of tuning into the sensations of the body is that when the awareness drops in, you may feel the compound effect of what you have previously disregarded or missed. Most of us are not neutral about our bodies. We have opinions about our bodies formed by what has been taught to be “normal” by our family, friends, partners, and society at large. Most of our bodies have undergone some kind of hardship or trauma. Our legal minds, trained to find fault, can be particularly self-critical toward our own bodies, even when we are trying to do something helpful for our bodies. Many people turn away from the body for a whole host of reasons: disinterest, lack of familiarity, discomfort, shame, and/or confusion. Experiencing any of those things—or all of them at once—can feel anywhere from uncomfortable to intolerable.
If you try any of the above-listed interoceptive-enhancing practices and feel overwhelming discomfort (emotional, physical, or both), stop, or try something different. It’s possible that a somatically-trained therapist or coach could be helpful to support you in processing and understanding your experience. Note that not all therapists or coaches are trained in the mind-body connection. I highly recommend working with a professional who has specific somatic training, such as a Somatic Experiencing practitioner, or therapists and coaches trained in Applied Polyvegal Theory, somatic-based Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, trauma-informed yoga, or body-centered mindfulness (to name a few).
Lawyers Resonate with Tapping into the Body
In 2019 I presented a plenary at the North Carolina Bar Association’s annual meeting with a similar title to this article. At the time, it felt like an edgy subject and outside the norm to talk to lawyers and judges about the body’s intelligence. And yet, the audience was engaged and the feedback from the plenary was overwhelmingly positive. I still hear from participants who share how profound an experience it was to talk about stress management in the legal field from the body’s perspective.
Inspired, I have continued to teach lawyers, support staff, and judges about the mind-body connection through individual coaching and group trainings. Last fall I conducted a six-week virtual mental health CLE series for the Buncombe County Bar applying the principles of Somatic Experiencing, created by Dr. Peter Levine, to the legal profession. In the course, lawyers learned different somatic practices that return the body to a state of regulation when stuck in a dysregulated state of fight, flight, collapse, or freeze. I heard from many participants that this was their favorite course to date...so useful that they want to take it again! I felt encouraged to hear that the participants’ experiences with somatic tools were genuinely transformative with significant, noticeable results. One of the key tenets of somatic experiencing is that the body has a natural ability to heal itself—it is inspiring to witness as it happens!
What I Know So Far
While I will endlessly be learning about the mind-body connection, there’s one thing I know so far: the body-mind connection is interesting, helpful, and applicable to our profession. Teaching the body-centered tools that helped me recover from professional burnout is helping other lawyers and judges, too. What a victory! This success brings me relief and hope. Despite the concerning research that is currently being conducted about the abysmal state of mental health in the legal profession, there is a way through.
By incorporating interoception into your workdays, you can develop a deeper level of self-awareness and awareness of others. This enables you to practice law more effectively while cultivating greater well-being and balance in your own life. I invite you to go on a journey to discover what’s happening in your body so that you can arrive at a clear, calm mind. My wish for you is that the information in this article brings not only more wisdom and success to your law practice, but that it also equips you to enjoy more fully the felt pleasures of being alive.
Laura Mahr is a North Carolina and Oregon lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing well-being consulting, training, and resilience coaching for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Through the lens of neurobiology, Laura helps build strong leaders, happy lawyers, and effective teams. Her work is informed by 13 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, 25 years as a teacher and student of mindfulness and yoga, and eight years studying neurobiology and neuropsychology with clinical pioneers. If you are interested in learning more about how somatic principles can positively transform your personal or organizational experience in the law, contact Laura through consciouslegalminds.com.