For anyone practising at the Bar, the management of stress is part of your daily professional life. We all experience stress in different ways, with different symptoms and different tell-tale signs that the pressure is building up beyond what is sustainable. Learning how to deal with it comes from experience and over the course of one’s career, one learns much about oneself and how best to handle stress. But there is always more to learn.
I experienced a particularly busy year in practice a few years ago. The desire to take on as much work as came my way got the better of me. I wanted to deliver as good a service to all my clients as I could. I broke the habit of a lifetime and cancelled my summer holidays in order to work on an urgent case over the summer. Results were going my way. So all of this felt like an easy short-term price to pay for the cases I was involved in.
By the end of the year, the unrelenting pressure was catching up to me. I was in a frazzled state, nerves on edge and I easily tipped into a state of anxiety. I was not sleeping well and my stress levels meant I was no longer enjoying what I was doing. I thought I had long since used my experience to put negative stress behind me but here it was again. It had crept up on me unawares.
I vividly remember leaving for a vacation at Christmas feeling dispirited and telling myself I needed to try to change to the way I balanced work and life outside. Unfortunately, I was short on ideas and could not immediately work out how to put things right. The first lesson I fully embraced was to take a complete break from work at regular periods during the year. I came back from holiday hugely refreshed and immediately less prone to stress reactions. But without more meaningful adjustments to my lifestyle it was clear that this would only be a temporary fix.
That was when “Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World” by Mark Williams and Danny Penman was recommended to me. I was sceptical about self-help books in general. But, it helped that the lead author is a respected academic and the book touched on some of the emerging hard science behind “neuroplasticity”: the idea that the brain can be trained through the practice of techniques such as meditation to react – or not react – in different ways.
At the heart of it is the practice of short meditations, taking time to focus on your own body and breathing, for a few minutes, to exist purely in the moment. I have found it to be the single most effective form of daily stress relief I know of. The great advantage I found of this book is that it sets out a clear and easy to follow 8-week programme with a CD of guided meditations.
Within days of starting the programme I noticed an immediate and positive effect. By the end of the course I had learnt that undertaking a short, focussed 10 – 15 minutes meditation once or twice a day can have a transformative effect in dealing with stress, rebalancing the mind and giving renewed perspective.
In the middle of a stressful day this can seem the very opposite of what is helpful. Time feels very short and finding 15 minutes to sit quietly in a chair and focus in on your breathing and your own body in the moment can seem an indulgence. It can also seem uninteresting and boring at times. But that is not something to be afraid of, but rather embraced. The benefit of doing so is in my experience pretty profound.
Julian Greenhill QC (1997 call, 2018 silk) is a barrister at Wilberforce Chambers. He is the Property Bar Association representative on the Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group. His principal area of work lies in property, commercial and professional liability litigation.