Proctor : December 2017
42 PROCTOR | December 2017 Mindfulness Enhancing mental health in the law As a litigation lawyer, I often found myself over-engineering courtroom scenarios in my head and when things didn’t go to plan it would retrospectively cause me mental angst. Many of my friends practising law are burnt out and share these sentiments, with some maintaining that whilst they may have the resilience to adequately deal with stress in the workplace, they are seeing an influx of their colleagues taking stress leave and suffering 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. 1 What is mindfulness? You can be forgiven for being a little flippant when you hear the term mindfulness, as it seems to be the ‘buzzword’ used by every self-proclaimed personal development 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 practising mindfulness are abundant. From a mental health perspective, it is a simple, non-prescriptive measure that can be used to alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain and addiction. Generally speaking, practising mindfulness vastly improves mental health and performance in the course of our personal and professional lives. Where’s the evidence? As a lawyer I insisted; show me the evidence! So I did some research and found that a technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging, used to detect blood flow in the brain, confirms that when people are practising mindfulness, only the pre-frontal cortex becomes enlivened. This is the part of the brain associated with awareness, attention, control, concentration and decision making. With prolonged practice, mindfulness increases neuroplasticity, which in turn enhances mental agility and performance. It is because of this scientific evidence – transcending it from a mere ‘buzzword’ to being a credible and powerful tool to enhance mental health – that we now have a range of successful CEOs, business professionals and leading institutions utilising mindfulness to enhance their performance. 2 The question I then asked myself was: “If these successful bodies and people are using mindfulness to reduce stress and enhance their performance, why aren’t I?” How can I start practising mindfulness? Daily meditation The most powerful tool we know that can be used to practise mindfulness is meditation. I’ve personally been meditating for ten 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 didn’t have any luck in keeping your thoughts still, you should know that there are a number of methods you can use to meditate and that it isn’t necessarily about keeping your thoughts still at all. Similar to practising 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 meditate.3 If you’re able to maintain this practice, after a few weeks you will feel a tremendous benefit to your overall wellbeing. If you’re a curious novice, you can visit msia.org.au/how-to-meditate/ for a meditation guide or simply Google ‘guided meditation’. Prolonged acts Harvard University released a recent research paper that found we spend 47% of our waking lives thinking about matters that have either occurred in the past, or may/may not transpire in the future, and that it is this ‘mind wandering’ that is the root cause of our unhappiness and various mental health concerns.4 The older we get, we become more desensitised to our environment. We repeat actions so many times that they become a part of our subconscious programming. It is when we are in this ‘auto- pilot’ mode that our mind begins to wander. You can introduce mindfulness during any prolonged act you may consider to be mundane or part of your daily routine to circumvent ‘mind wandering’. For instance, 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 and external experiences as they are occurring in the present moment and to sustain this attention control from the beginning to the end of your walk.5 How mindfulness enhances mental health at work With such a large percentage of our lives spent at work, employers not only stand to benefit from educating employees about mindfulness practice from an economical perspective but also have the opportunity to enhance the mental health, wellbeing and performance of their people, which is a win-win for everyone.6 When practising mindfulness, our conscious mind confronts our subconscious programming, so that we become the observer of our thoughts, anchoring our awareness to the present moment. When we’re completely present in the moment, we’re not concerned about matters outside our control, such as incidents that occurred in the past or may/may not happen in the future.