A Mindful Approach to Getting Triggered

As lawyers and judges, we may like to imagine that we can stay calm, cool, and collected at all times. However, we, like everyone else, can get triggered. Even if we can’t see it in ourselves, we may observe it in others—opposing counsel, clients, co-workers, and sometimes judges—who react before thinking through a response, often with strong emotions that seem disproportionate to what is happening in the moment. The law, though it engages our minds, is full of emotional triggers for us and our clients. When we are triggered, we are emotionally “hooked” by something someone says or does, or by something we see or hear, or even by something we smell, taste, or touch. When triggered, we respond or react instantaneously, without thinking through our response, or about how our response may impact others. Triggers can be obvious—such as blurting something out or sending an emotionally charged email or text after getting triggered—but they also can be subtle. For example, getting triggered may look something like this: You see an attorney at a Bar function with whom you’ve had conflict, you start thinking about all of the uncomfortable aspects to the conflict, your stomach reacts by clenching, your breathing gets shallow, and you have the impulse to move away from them physically, or feel dread when thinking about having to interact with them socially. You leave the function and think, “I never should try to socialize with other lawyers.”

When we get triggered, our nervous system becomes activated and more vigilant to outside threats. Most often when triggered, our muscles tense up and our breathing gets shallow as adrenaline is released. When our nervous system is on alert and our adrenaline levels rise, our cognitive functioning (our ability to think, perceive, reason, and remember) slows down, making it difficult to process information clearly. The more intense the trigger, the more reactive our nervous system, the more difficult it is to think. As lawyers and judges, we want to be able to think clearly; it’s what we are paid to do, and what our profession prides itself in doing well. When we think clearly, we can work with greater ease. Employing mindfulness to bring a more conscious response to triggers can help us calm down more quickly, which saves time and energy and often results in more resilient professional relationships in the long run.

While managing triggers more consciously is a big topic (see Dr. Kathy Obear’s work for a deeper dive), here’s a simple technique to help calm your nervous system and get your cognitive functioning back on line when you get triggered.

Try this:

  1. Notice you are triggered by paying attention to unexpected physical sensations (ex: increased heart rate, sweating, blinking rapidly), emotional feelings (ex: rush of anger or frustration, sadness, fear), or thoughts (difficulty concentrating, losing your words, scattered thinking).
  2. Slow down and reconnect with the here and now by taking a few deep breaths, counting slowly from one to ten, or looking at one simple thing in the room, like down at the floor or up at the ceiling.
  3. Focus on what is happening in this moment and not on any memories from the past or stories about the future.
  4. Brainstorm options for how to best respond in this moment and then make the best choice for yourself given the circumstances (ex: remove yourself physically from the triggering person, place, or thing; say something now or wait to respond later, take a break and come back).

Try this mindfulness practice consciously the next five times you get triggered. The more you practice, the more your system will make a habit of slowing down and making conscious choices for how to best respond when you get triggered.

Laura Mahr is a NC lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing mindfulness-based coaching, training, and consulting for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Her work is informed by 11 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney and 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, and a love of neuroscience. Find out more about Laura’s work at consciouslegalminds.com.

If you would like to connect with other lawyers who are curious about how mindfulness and meditation builds resilience in the practice of law, join Laura as she presents at these upcoming events:

North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys Annual Meeting, June 15, 2019, Asheville, NC,
Love Your Work. Love Your Life: Five Mindfulness Tools

Charlotte Chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators Meeting, June 19, 2019, Charlotte, NC, “What Every Legal Administrator Needs to Know About Mindfulness

North Carolina Bar Association Annual Meeting, June 22, 2019, Asheville, NC, “Tapping Into the Intelligence of the Body to Optimize Your Life

Mindfulness for Lawyers: Building Resilience to Stress Using Mindfulness, Meditation, and Neuroscience (online, on-demand CLE) http://consciouslegalminds.com/register

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