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Wellbeing in family law: practical advice for avoiding burnout in lockdown

Home » News » Wellbeing in family law: practical advice for avoiding burnout in lockdown

Rachel Cooper specialises in children and finance law, particularly cases with an international element. She is the current Family Law Awards: Young Barrister of the Year (2020) award and sits on the wellbeing committee in chambers. In this blog, she presents practical and easy to follow advice to avoid burnout in lockdown (and beyond) and how to effectively deal with stress.

I think it would be fair to say that family law cases are never stress-free. Even those cases where the parties are intent on dealing with things ‘amicably’ inevitably have their hurdles. The subjects that family lawyers delve into for our clients: children, finances, housing, liberty and capacity, are of such basic value and importance that any perceived or actual threat to them is very likely to cause anxiety. This anxiety, coupled often with the heartbreak, leaves many lay clients feeling fractious, fearful, angry and exhausted. Guy Winch, psychologist, has done some work looking at the impact of heartbreak on the individual. He concludes that heartbreak can lead to people behaving in completely uncharacteristic, and surprising, ways during the heartbreak period. This is worth keeping in mind.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent move to remote hearings has added to the stress in many ways. There are the benefits of not having to take early morning trains to far-flung places with the consequent shivering on badly lit and often fairly sticky platforms. I haven’t caught my stiletto heel in the perfectly-sized groves in escalator-steps in almost a year, which has been relaxing (As an aside and in case anyone from TfL or an escalator manufacturer is reading, the heel-sized grooves in escalator steps is a serious issue requiring urgent review. The fear of losing a toe, or more importantly my beautiful shoe, having taken months off my life) . Few have to fear spilling coffee down their bright, white, shirt on their way to court with their cupboard or washing machine nearby. The new stresses include technological failures, internet connection problems, WhatsApp groups with clients whilst simultaneously being on a video hearing, and the Amazon delivery arriving during your closing submissions. There are also issues created by not being able to meet vulnerable clients face to face, of being able to hear children somewhere in the house while a witness is giving evidence although you don’t know how nearby, of having two parties in the same house giving evidence against each other and being left there together at the end of the day and of trying to deal satisfactorily with issues of special measures.

How well family practitioners are able to cope with the stress and stressors we come across daily is hugely important to our survival individually and collectively. This is because not dealing with stress well is likely to lead us to a collective burnout. This is an issue that we know the President of our Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, is very concerned about. It is more important that we are equipped to deal with the stress we experience when we are in lockdown and unable to see friends and colleagues as we usually would.

A new book provides helpful advice about how we consider stress and how we can deal with it as a profession. ‘Burnout’ by Emily & Amelia Nagoski (Penguin, 2019) focuses on what they call ‘the stress cycle’. In a nutshell, this is the physiological cycle that must be completed in order for the stress we experience as a result of our jobs to be released from our bodies. Using the metaphor of a tunnel, the Nagoskis describe not completing this cycle as the equivalent of becoming trapped in the centre of a dark tunnel. Completing the cycle, on the other hand, returns you to the light. Getting stuck in the tunnel over a long period of time can lead to serious health consequences and potentially emotional or physical burnout. Conversely, completing the cycle causes us to feel less overwhelmed and exhausted, less worried about whether we are doing ‘enough’ and, importantly, feeling strong enough to cope with whatever life throws at you next.

The ways in which the book suggests that stress can be released from our bodies are simple and straightforward. They are things that we can all do and that we can all provide for each other both in person and also remotely.

Separating the stressor and the stress

The first thing that we need to do is to separate out in our minds ‘stressors’ from the ‘stress’.

Stressors are what activate the stress response in your body. These are any matters which you imagine could do you harm professionally, psychologically or physically. The stressor in any given case might be your client, a particularly aggressive litigant in person, the judge, your opponent, the facts of the case, the complexity of the law, the expectations you have of yourself or technology issues. These are the stressors and getting away from them, like getting away from someone shouting at you in the street, is possible once a hearing (and the satellite litigation over the order) is over. Stressors are stressful but not the primary concern.

Stress is the neurological and physiological shift that happens when you encounter a stressor. A stressor activates a ‘stress response’ in our bodies. This response causes a cascade of neurological and hormonal activity throughout our systems that initiate physiological changes primarily to help you survive. These changes include pushing blood into your muscles, releasing glucocorticoids to give you energy and releasing endorphins to help you ignore how uncomfortable it all is. Your heart will beat harder, so your blood pressure increases. Your muscles tense and your sensitivity to pain diminishes. This response causes our attention to become alert and vigilant, focusing on the short-term, here-and-now thinking; your senses are heightened; your memory shifts to channel its functioning to the narrow band of experience and knowledge most immediately relevant to the stressor. This all assists us to some degree in doing our job and doing it well. To maximise your body’s efficiency in this state, your other organ systems get de-prioritised, including your digestive system, your immune system, your growth and tissue repair and your reproductive functioning.

Once we have got away from the stressor(s), which are the short rather than long-term issues, the ‘stress’ remains in our body due to the stress response that the stressor has caused. In order to release the stress that has accumulated in your body as a result of the stress response, your body requires a signal that you are safe. It is this signal that is the vital component for releasing stress. If this is not done, your body may remain in a state of stress response in which none of your natural systems are able to shift into relaxation. A chronologically activated stress response can mean chronically increased blood pressure leading to heart disease or other bodily functions slowing down.

Completing the stress cycle

The ways in which we can physiologically tell ourselves that we are safe and complete the stress cycle are relatively easy for us to get a grip on and to implement into our lives. The ways to complete the cycle include:

  • Physical activity – any movement of your body from walking, to running, to boxing, to yoga, to dancing around your kitchen with Whitney Houston’s ‘I wanna dance with somebody’ turned up loud.
  • Breathing – deep, slow breaths regulate the stress response. A simple practical exercise is to breath in counting of five, hold for five, exhale for a count of ten, pause for another count of five. Repeat this pattern three times (1 minute and 15 seconds) and then see how you feel.
  • Positive social interaction – casual but friendly social interaction is an external sign to your body that you are safe. This can be as simple as chatting to the person you buy your groceries or a coffee from. It could also mean calling up a friend for a chat. What this does is reassure your brain that the world around you is once again a safe place.
  • Laughter – this can be laughter at anything, even reminiscing about times you have had. If there is no one to have a laugh with, put on some comedy. There is so much great comedy out there: check out Stephen Colbert on the Late Show, stand-up comedy, or comedy series such as ‘Catastrophe’ or ‘This Way Up’.
  • Affection from a friend – When friendly chitchat won’t cut it or you’re too stressed out for laughter, a deeper loving connection is called for. This is something to think about when choosing your ‘one person’ outside your household who you are going to interact with during lockdown. When affection is required, it is needed from someone who likes, respects and trusts you and who you like, respect and trust in return. A warm hug lasting 20 seconds in a safe and trusting context, the Nagoskis say, can do as much to reassure your body that you are safe as running a couple of miles.
  • Affection from a partner – another example of affection is the ‘six-second kiss’. The reason why it is six seconds is because this is too long to kiss someone you resent, dislike or feel unsafe with. It requires both people to stop and deliberately notice the other person and in so-doing, your body is told that it is safe.
  • Crying – anyone who says that crying doesn’t solve anything doesn’t know the difference between dealing with the stressor and dealing with the stress. A partner at Slaughter & May used to say, “I don’t trust people who don’t cry at least once a week, but really, we should all be crying at least once a day.” You might not agree with that, but on any occasion when you allow yourself to cry it out, you will complete the stress cycle.
  • Creative expression – engaging in creative activities provide contexts for releasing your emotions and stress into whatever you are doing. It allows your brain to calm and as your body releases into the activity that you are focused on it finds that it is safe and you complete the stress cycle.

Completing the stress cycle, the Nagoskis report, will cause you to experience a shift in mood, mental state or in the physical tension held in your body. Once you are through the cycle, cup of tea in hand, you are ready to move to the next brief. Your energy and strength are likely to feel restored because you have successfully released the emotional stress of your last case.

Conclusion

We need each other to ensure that everyone is kept well. If you are into fitness, you may well be able to complete the stress cycle by putting on your dirty trainers and running mile after mile. There will be many times though when what you need is a chat or a friend to make you laugh about how awful our cases can be sometimes.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “courage does not always roar, sometimes it is the small voice at the end of the day which says, I will try again tomorrow”. Courage, I would argue, also comes from admitting that sometimes we need one another in order to try again tomorrow. We need one another now more than ever to ensure that we are letting stress go and remaining mentally and physically strong for the things that may arise in tomorrow’s case.

Releasing the stress that our jobs inevitably bring up and will continue to bring up will help keep our minds and bodies healthy and well. This in turn will allow us the space to continue to fearlessly and with commitment represent our clients’ cases. This is ultimately why we do family law and why we need to know how to release the stress of it all to keep doing it well.

If you’re interested in reading more, pick up a copy of Burnout by Emily & Amelia Nagoski (published by Penguin in 2019) from your local bookshop.

Rachel Cooper

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