Mental Health Awareness Month

First, to state the obvious, becoming a lawyer, and then actually practicing in the profession, is stressful.

Like almost everyone else who dared this journey, I was on that roller coaster of stress from the day I started law school. I inflicted daily headaches upon myself and unnecessary worry and anxiety. Finally I realized it didn’t have to be like that. My stress then, and even now in the actual practice of the profession is totally self-inflicted. I, and only I, am totally in control of how I choose to let any external events affect me. Digesting that reality is so powerful. So much so, that whenever a stressful event threatens my space I feel immediate consolation when I remember that I have control over how I will choose respond to it.

Stress is of course not limited to the legal profession. In talking to all of my friends and colleagues from stay-at-home moms all the way up to VP level of big corporations, anxiety and stress emanates throughout. In fact, I recently read that about 10% of Americans commit suicide each day because of stress, which is about 80 people every day! The Center for Disease Control has ranked students as 6th out of 30 persons who are likely to commit suicide during the course of studying for their profession. I have no doubt that a majority of those “students” must have been law students.

In my case, I realized that I take my job very seriously, often times, too seriously. I go to bed and wake up thinking about the cases I’m working on, how I need to make better arguments and negotiate better agreements on behalf of my clients, and how I can become even more efficient and productive. Basically, I am admittedly, obsessed with becoming my best self. Because of this personality trait, it actually takes a lot of effort for me to be present “in the moment”. I am thankful for my friends and family who constantly call me out on this, to the point that one day I truly awakened myself to realizing what that personality trait does to me and the people I care about, and how I can effectively counter it.

The more I mastered my choice and control over stress is the more I thought that everyone should just naturally be able to do the same. The truth is however, that this is not the case. For people who are genuinely affected with mental health issues, the choice is not natural and they cannot just “choose” to put themselves in a healthier mental space as easily as some of us can.

I believe that we have a social responsibility to support and not condemn or stigmatize people who have this challenge. So below is a list of the ways I support the mental health of the people in my life and how I personally deal with the stressful events that go off like fireworks in my world everyday.

  1. Be a nice person

When you are all caught up in your world and everything that you need to do, it becomes very easy to be abrasive, snappy, mean, and selfish. Sometimes you don’t even intend to inflict hurt or distress upon the people on the receiving end of this behavior, but you do. Most of the time, you might not even realize what you’ve done, except in those few cases where the person you’ve done it to calls you out on it. The key here is to practice not having to be called out on it, but to actually just be naturally, kind, considerate, and conscious of how you affect the emotions of other people with the decisions you make. Try to stay in self-check mode. Play out the end result of everything you say and do before acting. Ask yourself, how will saying this, or doing that, make you or the other person involved feel? Be a person who other people enjoy being around and feeling comfortable talking to.  This will allow us all to internalize our problems less and have honest respectful conversations more.  It actually feels very good to be nice and even better to realize how happy being nice makes other people feel.

  1. Stay busy

I know it seems counter intuitive to keep yourself busy if the reason you are stressed is because you are too busy. So, if you believe you are stressed because you have too much to do, see some of my other suggestions below. For the others of you, I can say from personal experience that not having enough to do or not identifying a genuine sense of purpose can be the reason you feel stressed. The best example of this for me was during the time when I graduated from law school and was applying and interviewing for jobs. When I wasn’t filling out an application or at a job interview, I would spend so much free time at home thinking about all the money I spent on school and what I would do if I never got a job. I retrospect, I wish I spent all that free time doing more of the things I enjoy doing that I don’t have enough time to do more of now- like volunteering, spending time with friends and family, and exercising. The point is that mind will find something for you to stress about if you are not busy and allow it to run idle. Have faith and stay productive.

  1. Help someone 

You probably think that if you can’t help yourself, then you can’t, nor do you want to, help someone else. Well, I believe that regardless of where you are or have been in your life, you have lived an experience that someone else can benefit from. People often share different issues with me that they are going through personally or professionally, and many times, I find that my own problems pale in comparison.  In realizing this, it becomes easy and just natural for me to become an advisor and confidant to them. Most of the time both me and the person I’m trying to help feel so much better afterwards. Even if we don’t reach a certain solution, at a minimum, I serve as an avenue for the person to air their frustration. Besides helping the people you personally know in this way, there are so many people in our communities who also need support. Finding a resourceful way to give of your time or resources will make you feel good. By feeling good you will also feel less stressed.

  1. Operate in your lane

Sometimes because of competition, peer pressure, or necessity, people commit to responsibilities and even professions that they just are not happy with and don’t genuinely want to do. This is a certain way to become stressed out. The reality is though, that if you operate in your lane, stay true to yourself and your purpose, you will eventually become successful while doing something that you genuinely enjoy. Operating in your lane also involves not being afraid to change lanes. So what if you spent “X” number of months or years studying for a profession or building a business that over time is just making you miserable or stressed? The sooner you admit it and strategize getting out of it is the sooner you can find something that you’re actually happy doing. Do not blindly commit to anything that you know makes you unhappy.

  1. Say no

There are 24 hours in everyday and you cannot pour from an empty cup. You cannot be everywhere and you cannot be everything to everyone.   Many times people do not know how much you have on your plate and it is your responsibility to push back and say no when taking on more responsibility will overwhelm you. In fact, you cannot give your best to anything when you are stretched so thin to the point of feeling stressed out. Operating in this way also leads to you making mistakes or bad judgment calls that can create even bigger problems. Don’t be afraid to counter propose on deadlines you cannot meet or decline taking on roles that aren’t timely aligned with other things you have going on in your life.

  1. Organize and prioritize

The busier your life becomes is the more important it is to list everything you need to do and put them in some order of priority. Even if you are good at keeping it all in your head, I believe that is unnecessary and unproductive use of your mental space.   Relax, make a list, and tackle each item one at a time. I get immediate consolation from organizing and checking in with my task list every couple days. It helps me to feel less stressed by reminding me that I’m on track with the things I need to get done which also makes me worry less about whether I am forgetting anything.

  1. Procrastination will steal your peace

Speaking of task lists, inevitably, there will be items on this list that you don’t really want to do but will have to deal with eventually. Putting off these not so fun items for “later” can cause you to remain subconsciously restless until you actually get it done, even when you are actually carrying on with other things that you need to do. So what is the point of putting it off ? In my case for example, exercise is often first on my daily task list because I know once different issues start coming at me throughout the day it becomes less likely for me to get it done.   The days that I put off exercising until after work are usually very aggravating for me because I remain restlessly concerned about whether I will actually get it done by the time I take care of everything else.

  1. Don’t obsess over “mistakes”

Somewhere I read that you never lose. You either win or you learn. That is a truth I choose to live by. “Should have”, “would have”, and “could have” are usually the terms associated with and that pretext habitual statements of obsessing over past mistakes. You are where you are with what you have. You are the product of every decision and action you choose to take, or not. If you wished you did something different in the past, you have the rest of your life to change the course and make it right. Dwelling on your mistakes only creates a situation that allows you to take longer to make things better.  Focus on your options and not your obstacles.

None of these suggestions are overnight solutions. My personal experience proves that they are habit-forming strategies that do work if you intentionally set out to integrate them in your life every single day. Most of the time, it is very hard to do. However, the key here is to never give up. Instead, be gently forgiving to yourself when you fall short of the expectations that you have for yourself and that others have for you, and keep striving to reach that ultimate healthy mental space. You can do it!