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Wellness Experts Address Burnout, Emotional Regulation at Well-Being Summit

May 17, 2024

By John Murph

Well-Being Summit screen grab

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, the D.C. Bar Communities and Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) held their fourth annual Well-Being Summit on May 9. The virtual daylong event attracted 180 attendees who heard from wellness experts on a range of topics, from overcoming burnout to regulating emotions in the professional setting.

In his opening remarks, D.C. Bar President Charles R. Lowery Jr. reflected on his wake-up call regarding the importance of good health. “They say that in order to be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer,” Lowery said. “But this statement doesn’t just apply to lawyers; it applies to everyone in the legal profession, whether [they] are judges, law students, or other professionals.”

Lowery recalled growing up in his working-class family outside of Cleveland in a household that did not prioritize preventive health care. He said that caring for their health was limited to occasional doctor’s visits, dentist appointments to repair cavities, or trips to the emergency room after sustaining injuries from playing football. In 1989 Lowery’s father passed away from prostate cancer.

“I only found out later in life that in spite of his prostate problem, he had not gone to the doctor,” Lowery said. “So, this was a wake-up call to me that underscores the importance of regular health checkups, and it also highlighted the higher risks of prostate cancer among African American men, which I was previously unaware of.”

Lowery reflected on the demanding nature of the legal profession and how many people neglect their personal well-being in favor of work commitments, possibly leading to increased stress, estranged relationships, and dissatisfaction in both their professional and personal worlds. “If we ignore our well-being, we risk chronic stress and burnout. And prolonged exposure to stress can lead to cognitive decline,” he said. “Even more alarming, research shows that attorneys experiencing high stress were 22 times more likely to contemplate suicide. But this is not just a risk for attorneys; it’s a risk for all of us.”

Combating Burnout

A session on burnout aimed to help attendees understand where they are on the continuum of professional exhaustion and how to address their needs to get back on track. Niki Irish, LAP outreach and education coordinator, said burnout “can happen to anyone because [it] is where our demands are exceeding the resources that we have.”

LAP senior counselor Jessie Joachim pointed out that lawyers and judges who work with clients dealing with traumatic events such as domestic violence, homelessness, and sexual abuse are susceptible to vicarious trauma, secondary trauma, and compassion fatigue.

“Imagine spending time with a friend or a loved one and they are really anxious or really happy or really sad. The longer you stay at [that] state with them, how would you feel?” Joachim asked. “How would you feel if they were anxious? Would you start to feel anxious as well?”

Distinguishing between secondary trauma and vicarious trauma, Joachim explained that the former is often felt immediately after hearing a traumatic story from someone, while the latter is the cumulative effect of constantly listening to traumatic stories.

Joachim said increasing one’s awareness of secondary and vicarious trauma is essential to avoiding compassion fatigue and eventual burnout. Signs to watch include feeling helpless and hopeless in helping a client, sensing that you can never do enough, being hypervigilant, and adopting a sense of grandiosity.

Once someone reaches the point of compassion fatigue, the debilitating effects include diminished creativity, decreased ability to embrace complexities, deliberate avoidance of work, and lessened capacity to listen and empathize, according to Joachim. The long-term effects of vicarious trauma can lead to chronic physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion; dissociative moments; sleep disruptions; and drug and alcohol addiction.

Irish encouraged attendees to be mindful of their “mirror neurons,” which involve our bodies’ response to the observations of others’ behaviors. “It's when you're listening to the trauma of a crime and your body is responding as if [that trauma] is happening to you,” she explained. “It's really important to be aware of that and to understand there's a physiological thing happening in our body.”

“The more that we are exposed to trauma, the more we are vulnerable to mirror neurons. And trauma inputs can also involve the things that we read, [such as] news, or even the movies that we watch,” she added.

Once people recognize that they are experiencing compassion fatigue, they need to adjust their professional expectations in response to reality, Joachim said. She suggested focusing on the good and accepting the bad when setting one’s compassionate boundaries, as well as viewing self-care as essential to one’s mental and physical health.

Other tips from Irish and Joachim include engaging in informal debriefing sessions to process traumatic information, identifying one’s self-care needs, and increasing emotional awareness through writing.

Regulating Emotions in the Workplace

In another session, Dr. Martha Rackets, a licensed marriage and family therapist, offered tips on how to better regulate one’s emotions in the professional workspace. “[In the workplace] … communication [is often] live, either through a virtual call or in person,” but these days a lot of our communication is actually text-based, Rackets said. “That’s something that we don’t give that much thought to when we think about the health of that communication, and how our emotions come up and how we are communicating the effects.”

Rackets explained that everyone has emotions, and those emotions carry over into our professional communications. While all emotions are functional, they can be negative, such as being frustrated, stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, unsupported, distracted, and disrespected. “The first step in regulating an emotion in the workspace is being able to name it,” Rackets said. “You have to label it before you can tame it.”

“Not all of us have the vocabulary to know if we feel frustrated,” Rackets continued. “[If so,] you may need to look at other signals from your body or your brain to realize that [this emotion] is happening.” Another flag that you’re in a negative emotional state is noticing when your internal dialogue — all the things you’re saying about yourself — is changing, Rackets said.

Rackets recommended observing the tone and volume of your voice and the language that you choose. “Sometimes we can notice [a negative emotion] in our walking,” she said. “Sometimes our pace will change,” she said. Other physical changes include tension in the chest, neck, stomach, and shoulders; sweaty palms; and headaches.

Rackets presented a communication model to illustrate how people interpret one another’s messages. In text-based communication, the energy is slower because people can’t type as fast as they talk. Also, feedback on how one’s messages are being interpreted is not immediate. Rackets mentioned that, according to research, emotions will still be detected when using text-based communication, especially if it involves a preexisting relationship.

“So, even if you’re trying to be careful with your language, they probably are going to be able to connect the [emotional] dots because they know you so well,” Rackets said. “So, text-based is not always a flat, emotionless forum to communicate in.”

Rackets demonstrated the freeze-framing technique of concentrating on breathing and focusing on your heart and imagining positive images as an effective technique to tame negative emotional states during communication in the workplace. When that technique doesn’t work, Rackets advised getting up from the computer and going for a walk, cooling off the body such as splashing cold water in your face, or giving yourself a hug.

Other topics during the Well-Being Summit included developing a neurodiversity-inclusive workplace, the cost of pushing through, and embracing “good enough” in work and life. A free recording of the summit is available here.

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