Judges Struggling With Depression: More Common Than You Think

I’ve written a lot on stress, anxiety and depression in the legal profession, but not about the judiciary. There has been much commentary, research and Law Journal articles about what ails law students and attorneys — but not about judges.

I guess that’s not surprising.  In my work, I have spoken with scores of judges from all over the country.  It’s a noble, important calling in life.  But it’s also very stressful, demanding and . . . lonely.

Isolation, Loneliness & the Judiciary

In an article for Judicature magazine, psychiatrist Isaiah Zimmerman culled through twenty years of notes he accumulated from treating state and federal judges.  Here are the voices of the judges in their own words: 

“Before becoming a judge, I had no idea or warning, of how isolating it would be.”

“Except for those very close, old friends, you cannot relax socially.”

“Judging is the most isolating and lonely of callings.”

“The isolation is gradual.  Most of your friends are lawyers, and you can’t carry on with    them as before.”

“When you become a judge, you lose your first name!”

“It was the isolation that I was not prepared for.”

“After all these years on the bench, the isolation is my major disappointment.”

“The Chief Judge warned me: ‘You’re entering a monastery when you join this circuit.’”

“I live and work in a space capsule – alone with stacks of paper.”

“Your circle of friends certainly becomes smaller.”

“Once you get on the appellate bench, you become anonymous.”

These weren’t isolated comments or small pockets of pedestrian sadness.  Dr. Zimmerman notes that about 70% of the judges he interviewed came up with these observations on their own.

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There are several things that contribute to a sense of judicial loneliness.  The Code of Judicial Conduct imposes restrictions on judicial behavior both in and out of the courtroom.  Judges must avoid the appearance of impropriety and thus must be cautious and keep an appropriate distance and bearing at social and bar events. There are good reasons to have these restrictions, but if a judge isn’t careful to live a balanced life, they can help trigger a profound sense of lonesomeness.

Loneliness isn’t just emotionally painful; it’s also dangerous to your health on multiple levels.  According to an article by psychologist, Hara Estroff Marano, writes:

“Evidence has been growing that when our need for social relationships are not met, we fall apart mentally and even physically. There are effects on the brain and on the body. Some effects work subtly, through the exposure of multiple body systems to excess amounts of stress hormones. Yet the effects are distinct enough to be measured over time, so that unmet social needs take a serious toll on health, eroding our arteries, creating high blood pressure, and even undermining learning and memory.”

Given the pressures and isolation of the job, judges need to recognize the dangers associated with loneliness: unhappiness, discontent, health problems and perhaps . . . depression.

Judges and Depression

Judges are supposed to be problem solvers in black robes; not human beings with psychological problems of their own.

Given the position that judges occupy in our society, the stigma around disclosure to others –and perhaps getting treatment for clinical depression — is much, much greater.

One psychiatrist I know who treats judges told me that judges request very early or very late weekday or weekend appointments.  Moreover, they ask not to be scheduled before or after another lawyer or judge and pay in cash so as not to attract attention or leave a paper trail.

For the first ten years of my career, much of my practice was spent litigating cases in state and federal courts in New York City.  One of my best friends from those days is now a judge.  When I decided to go public with my depression eight years ago by writing an article for Trial magazine, my friend called me for dinner to catch up on things.  He wanted to know how I was feeling and expressed concern about my plans to go public about my depression.

“Dan, why can’t you write the article anonymously,” my friend said.  “But that’s the problem, isn’t it?” I replied. “Why should I have to write such an article anonymously? What do I have to be ashamed of?  Depression is an illness no different than diabetes or heart disease.  Would I write an article about those illnesses . . . anonymously?”

We kept in contact with dinners and phone calls over the next eight years, but over time our conversations centered less on my depression and well-being and more on his.  You see, my friend the judge disclosed to me that he was suffering from depression and had tried to commit suicide some years before.

I think he felt he could trust me.  Moreover, I think my disclosure gave him implicit permission to talk about his pain and struggles; a hurt only his therapist and wife knew of.  He spoke of the loneliness of his job and how he missed the collegiality of his old large firm.  But, he said that on the balance, he’d rather be a judge and didn’t regret his change in vocation; a move from the courtroom to the chamber.  He liked his job, enjoyed the intellectual challenge and the chance to do justice.

The statistics on lawyer depression are deeply troubling.  They suffer from depression at a rate twice that (20%) of the general population.  As such, about 200,000 of this nation’s 1 million lawyers are struggling with depression right now.  No studies have been done on judicial depression.

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There are 1,774 federal level judges in the U.S. Were you to plug in the 20% depression rate we see with attorneys to the number of judges; approximately 350 judges across America are suffering from depression. Even though there haven’t been any studies of judicial depression, why would we expect the 20% rate to be any different than that found with attorneys?

I couldn’t find any statistics on how many state judges there are in the U.S.  New York State has 1,250.  Were you to plug in the 20% depression rate we see with attorneys to the number of these judges, approximately 250 of the Empire State’s judiciary are suffering from depression.

This isn’t sadness or burnout, but true clinical depression.  Sometimes, we confuse being down in the dumps with depression. They’re really not the same thing – not even close. Here’s how psychologist Richard O’Connor, best-selling author of the book Undoing Depression, distinguishes it:

“Everyone knows what depression feels like.  Everyone feels the blues at times.  Sadness, disappointment, fatigue are normal parts of life.  There is a connection between the blues and clinical depression, but the difference is like the difference between the sniffles and pneumonia.”

Nobody’s Perfect

Perfectionism is also an indicator for depression.  In his article Even Judges Get the Blues, Judge Robert L. Childers writes:

“Because of the weight of public expectation, judges generally feel that they should be perfect.  Not only do they feel that they should be fair, impartial, and make the right decision 100 percent of the time, but the public expects this of judges as well, as do the lawyers who practice before them.  This can create undo pressure for judges and, consciously or unconsciously, keep judges from admitting or recognizing the signs of debilitating disease.”

An article from the ABA JournalPerfectionism, Psychic Battering’ Among Reasons for Lawyer Depression, states: “Lawyers [and judges] are taught to aim for perfection, to be aggressive and to be emotionally detached. They ‘intellectualize, rationalize and displace problems on others’ . . .. They don’t take direction particularly well. They tend to have to have fairly elaborate denial mechanisms. And they tend to challenge anything they’re told.”  In another article from the ABA Journal, it notes that when combined with depression, perfectionism makes it harder for a person to seek help.  And in the worst case scenario, leads to suicide.

Loneliness & Depression

Depression is a multifaceted illness that has several different causes – some genetic, some physical and some emotional.  In the depths of my depression, I felt very alone – like I was trapped at the bottom of a dark well.

Many with depression isolate themselves because it’s painful to be around others.  I would hang out at Starbucks and do my work.  I didn’t want others I knew to engage me; I didn’t want others to see the pain I was desperately struggling with.

I’ve found that loneliness and depression often travel the same road.  This creates a lot of problems because the two can feed off one another.

According to psychologist Dr. Reena Sommer:

“Depression is a problem that often accompanies loneliness. In many cases, depressive symptoms such as withdrawal, anxiety, lack of motivation and sadness mimic and mask the symptoms of loneliness. In these cases, people are often treated for depression without considering the possibility that loneliness may be a contributing and sustaining factor in their condition.”

Generally, the debilitating symptoms of depression can usually be managed with antidepressant medication. But when the underlying loneliness is ignored or overlooked, the depressive-like symptoms will probably continue. Unless the reasons for loneliness and depression are separated out, it can easily turn into a ‘chicken and egg’ situation where depression leads to loneliness, and loneliness leads to depression.”

Turning It Around

While depression might not be our fault, it is our responsibility to get better.  We need to start behaving and thinking in constructive ways.  Here’s some food for thought for those on the bench:

  1. Get help.  You can’t handle this by yourself.  It is a problem bigger than any individual person.  The ABA’s Commision on Lawyer Assistance Programs created a Judicial Assistance Initiative.  Reach out to them and they can get you pointed in the right direction.
  2. You may have to take antidepressant medication to help you.  That’s okay.  You may have a chemical imbalance that you need to address.  For many, psychotherapy alone won’t help until they quieted down their somatic complaints — e.g. fatigue from sleep problems – so that they can have the energy and insight to work on their problems.
  3. Whether you need medication or not, you will need to confront your negative thinking with a therapist.  A lot of research suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy is a particularly effective form of treatment for depression.  Interview a couple therapists before you settle on one.
  4. Exercise. The value of exercise is widely known: It’s simply good for everybody. For a person with depression, it becomes not just about a healthy habit, but a critical behavior and habit – they absolutely need to work out.  In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey devotes a chapter to the importance of exercise in alleviating depression.  Please check this book out.
  5. If you have a spiritual practice, do it.  If you don’t, think about starting one.  This could be anything from a formal meditation practice, going to Mass, or walking the woods.  A lot of research suggests that people who have a spiritual practice do better with depression recovery.  If you believe in God or a higher power (I am Catholic), you can avail yourself of help and support from Someone who is bigger than your depression.  If you do not believe in God, maybe you believe in some other form of spirituality you can tap into.  Spiritual growth and development, in my opinion, are very important pillars of recovery. Two books from my tradition include Seeing beyond Depression by Father Jean Vanier and Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach by Sister Kathryn James Hermes.
  6. Get educated. Read some good books on the topic. As part of your education, learn about the powerful connection between stress, anxiety and depression.  On this subject, I recommend Dr. Richard O’Connor’s Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness. Dr. O’Connor suggests that depression is really about stress that has gone on too long. The constant hammering away of stress hormones on the brain changes its neurochemistry.  This can and often does result in anxiety disorders and/or depression.
  7. Build pleasure into your schedule.  Judges, like all those in the legal profession, are busy and have the “I will get to it later” mentally – especially when it comes to things that are healthy pleasures.  We have to jettison this approach to how we live our days.  We must begin to take time – now – to enjoy pleasurable things and people.  A hallmark of depression is the inability to feel happiness or joy.  We need to create the space where we can experience and savor good experiences and feelings.
  8. Practice mindfulness. In mindfulness meditation, we sit quietly, pay attention to our breath, and watch our thoughts float by in a stream of consciousness. Normally, we immediately react to our thoughts (e.g. “I am losing my mind with all of these deadlines”).  With mindfulness practice, we can begin – slowly – to let the thoughts and feelings float by without reacting to them.  If such an approach to depression seems far-fetched, read the best-selling book The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, for an excellent primer on how you can incorporate mindfulness into your day.
  9. Remember to be kind to yourself. It sounds so simple. I tell this to depressed lawyers and judges all the time and they usually look puzzled.  They often admit that they have rarely, if ever, thought about it and don’t know how to be kind to themselves.  I believe that it first begins with a conscious intention – “I am not going to treat myself poorly anymore.” Such a simple refrain can help us.  Depression is often built on poor mental, emotional and physical habits. We must learn to acknowledge that we are worthy of love from others and ourselves and that part of such love involves taking better care of ourselves.
  10. Spend time outside and in nature.  We humans forget that we are part of nature and the animal kingdom.  We need fresh air and sunshine.  Even more so when the darkness of winter strikes.  If you live in a part of the country with long winters, load up on vitamin D and consider using a light box to help you.

If you or a judge you know might be suffering from loneliness and/or depression, please forward this article to them.  Here’s a list of depression’s symptoms and a self-test from the Mayo Clinic.

 

10 Ways To Recharge Your Law Practice

1.         Clean out the junk.

It’s easy to let our offices become cluttered: our desk is a mess with on-going or half-digested projects, scattered pens, and things on our to-do list that have been perched on the corner of the desk so long green mold has overtaken them.  Clean it up.  Check out my previous blog, My Desk, My Enemy and The Organized Lawyer for tips on how to improve this situation.   I’ve found it particularly helpful to have a place for EVERYTHING.  I line up hanging file folders in my credenza, label each one and drop documents in there to keep my desk tidy.  I try to keep five projects on my desk that I’m actively working on. If my discipline lapses, I put aside time at the end of the week, dump all contents of desk into a huge box and go through each item one-by-one (toss things in the garbage, take other stuff home and keep items I really need to file later on).   Another nifty item that I value as much as my beloved North Face ski jacket:  a ScanSnap.  It allows me to scan and trash paper documents that I don’t use often, but need to refer to later on or preserve, quickly and easily.

2.         Marketing.

Most lawyers have this on their to-do. Nevertheless, they never get around to working on it.  But giving it the time and energy it deserves energizes us because taps into our creativity and invests in our future.  We all need more clients and marketing is an important part of any serious game plan to get them.  Check out these greats blogs on this topic from the Attorney at Work website for more ideas.

3.         Mindfulness.

Mindfulness mediation involves taking a set period of our day to sit in silence and watch our minds as thoughts and feelings roll by without reacting to them.  As lawyers, we’re hammered all day by stress.  It depletes our energy and effectiveness because our brains are knocked off balance by all the moment-to-moment crises, both real and imagined.  Sitting quietly for a proscribed period of time allows us to regroup and refocus.  Check out this article from the ABA Journal, Minfulness in Legal Practice is Going Mainstream.  I do it everyday for 15 minutes. I’m a busy lawyer, just like you.  If I can find the time, so can you.

4.         Exercise.

Everybody knows how important it is for our health.  It clobbers high levels of toxic stress, gives you pep and leaves you less prone to anxiety and depressive disorders.  If you’ve been avoiding the gym or have “fallen off the wagon,” try doing it before work.  I’ve found it’s critical to always keep my gym gear in my truck.  It serves as a constant reminder to hit the elliptical and gives me one less reason (“I don’t have my workout clothes with me”) why I can’t go to the gym.  Check out the excellent book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain for further reading on the connection between exercise and our mental health.

5.         Find Meaning.

If you dig hard enough, you can always find meaning in your day-to-day law practice.  Stop thinking of your job solely as a matter of dollars and cents and as much a matter of service to others.  When we don’t do this, we dehumanize our clients and, in the process, ourselves.  It’s all about balance.  You don’t have to forget that law is a business.  But you also shouldn’t forget that your clients are flesh and blood folks with real problems that need your care and attention.    I love this quote from author Studs Turkel: “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

6.         Stop blaming the law for your problems.

This is a big energy sucker. And whining never helps.  Blaming is the opposite of taking responsibility for one’s self: you become a victim of your own life.  Choice empowers us. Complaining disempowers us.  It’s as simple as that.  It’s a question of attitude. I had a friend who blamed the law for all his misery.  So, he chucked it all and went back to school to become a teacher.  What happened?  He was unhappy and blamed his dour mood on teaching. The moral of the story?  While it’s true that the practice of law is tough and demanding, our experience of it is greatly influenced by our attitude.  Resolve to have a better one.

7.         Be careful about the company you keep.

Lawyers are known pessimist – they tend to see the worst in everything. Check out this article, Why Lawyers Are Unhappy, by Martin Seligman, Ph.D.  Dump lawyer friends who incessantly gripe about being a lawyer.  If you have to work with them, don’t join in their bitch sessions.  You don’t have to, after all.  You have some choices here. Sit quietly, offer something constructive, or change the subject.  Over my twenty-five years career, I’ve found that hanging out with complaining lawyers that love to bitch about how shitty life is or tear down other people behind their backs leaves me dispirited about life and law.  It’s cancerous.

8.         Enhance your relationship with those you work with.

We snap at co-workers, are dismissive of their needs and don’t treat them with the respect and thoughtfulness they deserve.  As a consequence, we don’t get much good energy in return.  Would it take much time to get your secretary a cup of coffee in the morning?  Small acts of kindness count in life. How about stopping whatever you are doing to actually listen to a co-workers problem and not check your e-mails or texts on your cell phone? When people do this to me, I find it rude. Being considerate to others goes a long way!

9.         Find pleasure outside of work

Lawyers bark they don’t have time to do neat things after work or on the weekends.  When we talk about importance of the work/life balance, this is what mean.  For me, I’ve found it with blogging and volunteering at a wonderful place called St. Luke’s Mission in a poor section of Buffalo.  I find these things not only meaningful, but also pleasurable.  Silliness is also good tonic for all the seriousness that ails us.  And lawyers are an all too grim-faced bunch. I finally got around to going to a new indoor go-kart track they recently built at our mall. Frivolity is a good thing!

10.      Get more sleep.

We neglect sleep at our own peril. In fact, we’re a country of sleep-deprived people. Our bodies evolved to need a minimum amount of sleep and lawyers don’t get enough.  Perhaps their bodies are too jacked up with stress or they can’t stop ruminating about their law practice.  Recent research indicates that a lot of depression’s worst symptoms (lack of concentration, chronic fatigue, etc.) are deeply influenced by poor sleep.  Maybe you need a sleep study to get to the bottom of what ails you in this department.  Take care of this and you’ll be in a better position to wake up refreshed and ready to charge through your day.

 

 

Breaking Bad Habits: You Can Do It

From The Washington Post, a story about Richard O’Connor, Ph.D.’s latest book, Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions, Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior.  Read the News

7 Things Lawyers Can Do to Break the Bonds of Depression

Helplessness and hopelessness.

Two pillars of depression.  And they’re tough to topple.

Helplessness

Lawyers, when in the vise-like grip of depression, feel helpless.  Despite their best efforts to pull out of it, they still feel depressed and all endure the consequences that flow from their chronic melancholy: a lack of productivity, chronic fatigue, falling behind on work projects because of procrastination and a pervasive sadness or feeling dead inside.

Hopelessness

This sense of helplessness, if not addressed, often leads to a profound sense of hopelessness about the future.  Sufferers’ conclude that they doomed to feel depressed for the rest of their lives. They just can’t envision good things happening to them in the future.  They have a type of tunnel vision: they only see a crummy future ahead of them and on-again, off-again skirmishes or battles with depression.

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Lawyers breaking the bonds of depression

But many lawyers not only survive depression; they pull themselves out of it. They break the bonds of the depression that have shackled them to a life sucked dry of joy, wonder and vitality.  If you’re a lawyer who struggles with depression and can’t see any light down the road ahead of you, remember that you too can not only survive it – you come out the other side, thrive and grow.

To do so, you’ll have to leave some negative things behind and grab onto some positive ones.  Here are some kernels of wisdom that I’ve learned over my decade-long journey of helping depressed attorneys recover:

  1. Learn to let go. Depressed lawyers tend to nurture wounds inflicted by clients, judges and other lawyers.  The wounds can be the result of an opponent’s downright nasty behavior, a cold and unsympathetic judge or a badgering client.  Lawyers take all of this too seriously and personally by magnifying these exchanges. They churn infractions and insults over and over in their head. This type of ruminative thinking not only wears them out, but feeds their depression. The truth is that a lot of the bad behavior we see in the law really isn’t really about you.  It’s usually the product of the ignorance and unconsciousness of others.  Remember this. AND LET IT GO.
  2. Let go of hanging around other negative lawyers.  It’s easy to gravitate to other attorneys who, while that might not be clinically depressed, are extremely negative about law and life.  Hanging around these folks will only feed your negative view of your law practice and life.  It fosters a corrosive and cynical view of the world.  You have a choice to make. LEAVE THESE PEOPLE BEHIND.
  3. Let go of surfing the net.  I know many lawyers that are on the web for big chunks of time during their workday.  It’s a maladaptive stress, anxiety or depression management behavior and, in the short or long term, destructive.  They surf for everything under the sun during work: music, porn, Facebook, YouTube, etcetera.  Deep down, they feel like they “deserve” these breaks because law takes so much out of them.  In their minds, these surfs are something pleasurable they crave because it distracts them from the pain of too much stress, unhappiness or depression.  But it comes at a cost. They waste precious time, procrastinate and then beat themselves up for it for being unproductive.  Beating one’s self up only leads to low self-esteem, which chips away at self-worth.  They don’t make positive changes.  They just don’t think we’re worth it.  But, you are worth it and you need to start acting as if you are.  LET GO OF THIS TIME WASTER.
  4. Embrace a sense of hanging around more positive lawyers.  Yes, they are out there! And there are more of them than you think.  I know because I’ve met and developed friendships with them. Finding others, who are doing more than just complaining about the law and are trying to do something constructive about it, will help you gain some sense of hope about the future and a more positive direction.  IT’S IMPORTANT TO LET NEGATIVE PEOPLE GO.
  5. Find silence wherever you can.  There’s something profoundly healing about silence, wherever you may find it.  The practice of mindfulness meditation to cope with the stresses and strains of modern life has become widely popular.  It has found a powerful foothold in the law.   Mindfulness has been studied and found to be a powerful antidote to everyday unhappiness, too much stress, anxiety and depression.  What makes it so powerful?  The practice of unhitching our wagons from the constant stream destructive thoughts and feelings that batters our brains that are accomplished by following one’s breath and not buying into troublesome thoughts or emotions.  Basically, we get “out of our heads” and drop back down into our bodies and short-circuit the negative rumination that fuels depression.  An excellent book on this topic is The Mindful Way Through Depression. If mindfulness mediation isn’t your cup of tea, I know many who find solace in their local church or synagogue.  There’s lots of research to support the theory that people who have a regular spiritual practice cope better with their anxiety and depression than those who don’t.  FIND SOMEPLACE TO DRINK IN SILENCE.
  6. Find a way to be more organized.  Researchers have found that chronic stress is a powerful trigger for depression.  Realistically, there are some things we’ll never be able to change about the demanding nature of the legal profession.  But, it’s equally true that there are many steps we can do that significantly lower our stress load.  One of the most powerful things you can do to help yourself is to be better organized.  If you have trouble with this issue, and most depressed lawyers that I know do, delegate it to someone else to help you with this.  It may be your secretary or even an outside consultant who are pros.  Also, check out my prior blog, My Desk, My Enemy: 6 Helpful Ways to Get Organized.
  7. If you can’t go to the gym, walk.  I’ve resolved so many times to go to the gym, but often don’t.  I have come to accept that sometimes I will and sometimes I won’t.  Even when I know it would really help my mood. Sometimes it’s because my day is full of too many commitments, I’m feeling lazy or I’m unable to find the one-hour block of time to do it.

You can break those bonds.  One link at a time.  And be free.

 

 

 

 

Dan’s Latest Top 10 Book Recommendations on Stress, Stress-Management and Anxiety

 

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Over the years, I’ve read too many books to count about stress, anxiety, and depression.  Like most people, I’m always looking for tips and clues about how to handle things better.

Some of these books have turned out to be real stinkers.  Others, retreads of books and articles that have said the same things over and over again.

I have found some gems, though.  Books that have something original to say, or are well-written.

I’ve found that the most useful ones make me want to read them further after the first 25-pages, or so.  Good rule of thumb.

I hope you find help, hope, and insight between their pages.

Manage Your Time to Reduce Your Stress: A Handbook for the Overworked, Overscheduled, and Overwhelmed  — Rita Emmett

The title of this book grabbed my attention because it seemed to capture so much more than just stress management.  Stress management is truly about managing being overworked, overscheduled, and overwhelmed.

According to the author, the key is not time management but “stuff management — taking control of all those tasks to do, people to see, commitments and obligations to fulfill.  Mismanagement of all that “to-do” stuff is what leads to stress.  Emmett combines quick, easy-to-digest tips and infectious good humor to give readers positive ways to handle stress and their overly busy lives.

You can also check out her website for other helpful tips and ideas.

Monkey Mind: A Memoir on Anxiety — Daniel Smith

I first read about Smith’s book in a New York Times article called “Panic Buttons“.  This memoir on stress and anxiety is not only informative and insightful, it’s well-written and funny.

The long list of things that, over the years, have made Daniel Smith nervous includes sex, death, work, water, food, air travel, disease, amateur theater, people he’s related to and people he’s not related to, so the prospect of a book review probably wouldn’t seem like a very big deal to him. Or would it?

This fleet, exhausting memoir, is an attempt to grapple with a lifetime of anxiety: to locate its causes, describe its effects and possibly identify a cure. Or, if not a cure, at least a temporary cessation of the worry that’s been plaguing him since his youth.

Check out his website, The Monkey Mind Chronicles, for more interesting stuff.

Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence — Rick Hanson

Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a neuropsychologist and best-selling New York Times author.

Hardwiring Happiness lays out a simple method that uses the hidden power of everyday experiences to build new neural structures full of happiness, love, confidence, and peace.

In an interview discussing the book, he states:

“So, how do you get good things—such as resilience, self-worth, or love—into your brain? These inner strengths are grown mainly from positive experiences. Unfortunately, to help our ancestors survive, the brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it less adept at learning from positive experiences but efficient at learning from negative ones. In effect, it’s like Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good.

This built-in negativity bias makes us extra stressed, worried, irritated, and blue. Plus it creates a kind of bottleneck in the brain that makes it hard to gain any lasting value from our experiences, which is disheartening and the central weakness in personal development, mindfulness training, and psychotherapy”.

Check out his website for more information about the book and his suggestions.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases and Coping – Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D.

Why don’t zebras get ulcers–or heart disease, clinical anxiety, diabetes and other chronic diseases–when people do?

In a fascinating that looks at the science of stress, Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky presents an intriguing case, that people develop such diseases partly because our bodies aren’t designed for the constant stresses of a modern-day life – – like sitting in daily traffic jams or racing through e-mails, texting and running to pick up our kids after a tough day at work. Rather, humans seem more built for the kind of short-term stress faced by a zebra–like outrunning a lion.

This book is a primer about stress, stress-related disease, and the mechanisms of coping with stress. How is it that our bodies can adapt to some stressful emergencies, while other ones make us sick? Why are some of us especially vulnerable to stress-related diseases and what does that have to do with our personalities?”

Sapolsky, a neuroscientist, concludes with a hopeful chapter, titled “Managing Stress.” Although he doesn’t subscribe to the school of thought that hope cures all disease, Sapolsky highlights the studies that suggest we do have some control over stress-related ailments, based on how we perceive the stress and the kinds of social support we have.

Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness – John Kabat-Zinn, M.D.

As a busy lawyer, I was immediately attracted to the title Full Catastrophe Living. It literally leapt of the bookshelf and cracked me on the head.  Who doesn’t live a life so jammed with stuff to do that it feels like a catastrophe?

Chronic stress saps our energy, undermining our health, and making us more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and disease.  The heart of the book is based on Kabat-Zinn’s renowned mindfulness-based stress reduction program at the University at Massachusetts Medical Center.

The author takes the phrase “full catastrophe living” from book and movie “Zorba the Greek”.  If you’ve never seen it, an Englishman Basil – – who is half-Greek – – inherits a run down mine in a small Greek town.  To help him restore it, he hires  a local character named Zorba to be the foreman of the local laborers. Zorba, full of the zest of a life truly lived, is asked by Basil, “Do you have a family?” Zorba responds “Wife, children, house – – the full catastrophe!!!”

Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection Between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness – Richard O’Connor, Ph.D.

Author of my favorite book on depression, “Undoing Depression”, Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., has written another simply brilliant book on the consequences of “perpetual” stress in our lives – the alarming and escalating rates of clinical anxiety and depression.   This was the first book I read that made clear to me the connection between stress, anxiety, and depression. It formed the basis for my blog on the topic How Stress and Anxiety Become Depression. The human nervous system was never meant to handle this many stressors. It’s as if the circuit breakers in our brains are blown by too much stress running through our brain’s circuitry.  This book is a perfect fit if you want to learn a lot about the brain and physiology of stress – I found it fascinating.  If you’re looking for a quick read and pick-me-up, this isn’t it.  Check out his website.

A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook — Bob Stahl

The author writes that the key to maintaining balance is responding to stress not with frustration and self-criticism, but with mindful, nonjudgemental awareness of our bodies and minds.

This book employs some of the same mindfulness strategies discussed in Full Catastrophe Living but does it in the format of a workbook.  I find this format very helpful because it’s practical and gives me exercises to do to put into practice mindfulness to reduce my daily stress load.

The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques – Margaret Wehrenberg, Ph.D.

Medication, once considered the treatment of choice, is losing favor as more and more sufferers complain of unpleasant side effects and its temporary, quick-fix nature. Now, thanks to a flood of fresh neurobiology research and insights into the anatomy of the anxious brain, effective, practical strategies have emerged allowing us to manage day-to-day anxiety on our own without medication. Addressing physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms, Margaret Wehrenberg, Ph.D., a leading mental health clinician, draws on basic brain science to highlight the top ten anxiety-defeating tips. Everything from breathing techniques to cognitive control and self-talk are included.   I really like that the 10 chapters are highly readable and short. Dr. Wehrenberg is also a frequent blogger at the Psychology Today website.  Here’s one of her blogs, The One-Two Punch of Negativity and Fear.

Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong: A Guide to Life Liberated from Anxiety – Troy DuFrene

This book approaches the problem of anxiety a little differently than most. Instead of trying to help you overcome or reduce feelings of anxiety, it will help you climb inside these feelings, sit in that place, and see what it would be like to have anxiety and still make room in your life to breathe and rest and live, really and truly live, in a way that matters to you.  This approach is based upon a research-supported form of psychotherapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, also known as ACT which starts with the assumption that the normal condition of human existence is suffering and struggle, ACT works by first encouraging individuals to accept their lives as they are in the here and now. This acceptance is an antidote to the problem of avoidance, which ACT views as among the greatest risk factors for unnecessary suffering and poor mental health

The Worry Cure – Robert L. Leahy

For “highly worried people,” or those who suffer from the “what-if disease,” this book presents a systematic, accessible self-help guide to gaining control over debilitating anxiety. Leahy is an expert in changing thought processes, and he walks worriers step-by-step through problems in the way they think, with pointers on how to change these biases. The author then outlines a seven-step worry-reduction plan (remember, I love plans!) beginning with identifying productive and unproductive worry, progressing to improving skills for accepting reality, challenging worried thinking and learning to harness unpleasant emotions such as fear or anger.

Self-Coaching: The Powerful Guide to Beat Anxiety – Joseph J. Luciani, Ph.D.

This is a good book for those who don’t want to see a therapist or, if they do, need extra doses of encouragement and practice to overcome their stress and anxiety. The author advises readers to identify themselves as specific personality types (e.g., “Worrywarts,” “Hedgehogs,” “Perfectionists”) and then gives specific instructions on how to change the particular thought patterns associated with this type of personality.  So many people who struggle with anxiety never got what they needed while growing up – – enough love, encouragement, and affirmation.  Lacking these core experiences, we develop can develop particular maladaptive strategies to cope with people and situations that push our buttons.  This is the only book that I’ve read that pairs specific coping recommendations with particular personality types.

What books would you recommend?  Hit the comment button and submit your favorites.

Next Steps:

If you are interested in talking to Dan about CLE eligible trainings he offers law firms, call him at (716) 913-6309 or via our contact form. One-on-one coaching is also available for lawyers who need individualized attention. Go to Dan’s website Yourdepressioncoach.com to download his free book and schedule a consultation.

 

Why We Can’t Think Our Way Out of Depression

In the book, The Mindful Way through Depression:  Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness, four experts explain why our usual attempts to “think” our way out of depression or “just snap out of it” lead us deeper into a downward spiral where depression only worsens.  Through insightful lessons (and an included CD with guided meditations) drawn from both Eastern meditative traditions and cognitive therapy, they demonstrate how to sidestep the mental habits that lead to depression, including rumination and self-blame, so that one can face life’s challenges with greater resilience.

spiral

The authors explain how our trying to outthink depression is problematic:

“When depression starts to pull us down, we often react, for very understandable reasons, by trying to get rid of our feelings by suppressing them or by trying to think our way out of them.  In the process we dredge up past regrets and conjure up future worries.  In our heads, we try this solution and that solution, and it doesn’t take long for us to start feeling bad for failing to come up with a way to alleviate the painful emotions we’re feeling.  We get lost in comparisons of where we are versus where we want to be, soon living almost entirely in our heads”

Lawyers, by the nature of our work, are required to live in their heads a lot.  Not only that, our thinking habits are prone to pessimism –we look for problems everywhere and try to fix them.   We are the ultimate “fixers”.  This can get us into trouble, however, if we are prone to or suffer from depression.   The authors point this out:

“Once negative memories, thoughts, and feelings, reactivated by unhappy moods, have forced their way into our consciousness, they produce two major effects. First, naturally enough, they increase our unhappiness, depressing mood even further.  Second, they will bring with them a set of seemingly urgent priorities for what the mind has absolutely got to focus on – our deficiencies and what we can do about them.  It is these priorities that dominate the mind and make it difficult to switch attention to anything else.  Thus we find ourselves compulsively trying over and over to get to the bottom of what is wrong with us as people, or with the way we live our lives, and fix it.”

mindful guy

The author’s solution to this virtual swampland of depression:  mindfulness.  The practice of mindfulness is actually quite simply to do and involves sitting in silence and watching our feelings and thoughts float by the stream of our consciousness.  But instead of taking them literally – that such depressing thoughts and feelings are REALITY – we just detach from them and let them continue to float down the river.  We stop trying to react to these states by stopping our attempts to try to fix them.  We move from a “doing mode” to a “being mode.”  We pay attention to a neutral experience – the in and out sensation of our breath.  When we notice a thought or feeling flowing by and see that we are getting embroiled with it, we let it go and return to our breath.  Check out this great video, “Mindfulness with Jon Kabit-Zinn.”

In “The Zen Path through Depression”, Philip Martin advises us to stop running away from our depression and face it.  It can even provide us with a unique type of experience:

“In depression our back is often against the wall.  Indeed, nothing describes depression so well as that feeling of having nowhere to turn, nothing left to do.  Yet such a place is incredibly ripe, filled with possibility.  It gives us the opportunity to really pay attention and just see what happens.  When we’ve done everything, when nothing we know and believe seems to fit, there is finally the opportunity to see things anew, to look differently at what has become stale and familiar to us.  Sometimes when our back is against the wall, the best thing to do is to sit down and be quiet.”

Part of the quality of our lives, of maintaining ourselves, is learning and growth.  The ongoing pain of our depression is a wakeup call that we need to think about how we typically respond to our depression and how we might respond differently – by moving from a doing to a being mode. This can be achieved with mindfulness meditation.

Copyright, 2013 – Daniel T. Lukasik

 

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