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Toolbox Tip: One-minute Anxiety Buster

Contributing Author: Kirsten H. Pabst, NDAA Well-being Task Force Chair

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Photo credit: Skitterphoto

Find your calm in 5 easy steps

Ever wonder why some lawyers always seem so in control, so chill, so . . . crushing life? They walk into court, making eye contact with the court reporter, smiling at the bailiff, impressing the judge. Have you ever thought,

“She must not work child abuse cases, or you’d see the weight of that on her face. Lucky.”

“He must have well-behaved kids who never puke at daycare, zero-balance on his student loans, and parents not negotiating the Medicare maze.”

“I’d be that happy too if I didn’t have to respond to these asinine briefs by 8:00 a.m. tomorrow. The judge just doesn’t get that I have other cases.”

Chances are, the smooth-sailing attorney with her stuff together is likely dealing the with same circus of demands, but has practiced how to control her anxiety, quiet her mind and tackle the next obstacle. The stress of our work is the one constant we can always count on. The good news is that we can learn to control our response to it, and harness it to our benefit. I’ve tried several ‘stress-busters’ and I’m going to share a favorite, recently put to the test.

Last week, one of our district court judges invited me to speak at a large public meeting about the prosecution-led re-entry program I am developing, with the help of our tribal re-entry program. I went into the Zoom super excited, telling myself, they are going to LOVE this idea! Yeah . . . no.

I was caught off-guard and unprepared for the 45-minute, un-moderated grilling by a handful of anti-detention advocates about the fact that violent crime — especially domestic violence — is rising in number and severity since COVID, trying to convince the audience of legislators, commissioners and media, that I was inventing the current crisis to justify filling jail beds with innocent people. The personal nature of the blitzkrieg launched me right into modern-day fight or flight — heart-pounding, palms-sweating, mind-racing — mentally perfecting my responses — and I know you do this too — long after I’d logged off.

“Sabotage. That was so unfair! What are they, heartless?” I asked myself. “Why do I even bother?” Then, I remembered my best trick for shortening stress’s refractory period and bringing my system back into stasis: the 1–2–3–4–5 breath trick slows the heart and turns down the volume of the anxious brain.

In How To Breathe, author Ashley Neese explains how to move from fight-or-flight back to the parasympathetic system’s rest-and-digest. She writes,

[W]hen you make one part of the breath cycle, either the inhale or the exhale, longer than the other, and you do this for several minutes, the accumulated effect is that you will either slow your heart rate down or speed it up.

When you extend your exhale by one to two counts longer than your inhale and you practice this for a couple of minutes, your heart rate will slow down. This sends a feedback message to the brain saying that everything is more peaceful and calm than it was a few minutes ago.

Here’s what that process looks like for me in 5 quick steps:

1. One second to notice. Take one second to notice your body and brain’s response to a stress trigger. Where do you feel the stress? Your gut? Your chest? In your head? It is important to identify this stress-holder place inside of you.

2. Two feet on the ground. Plant one foot, and then the other, firmly on the ground. Or the marble steps of the court house. Or plastic carpet-protector under your desk. Just connect your body to the surface supporting you and identify the place in you where you feel grounded to your strength source.

3. Three counts breathing in. Take a long, slow breathe in to the count of 3.

4. Four counts, hold. Gently hold that breath for a slow count of 4, closing your eyes unless, of course, you are driving, speaking at the lectern, etc. In that case, keep them open.

5. Five counts to breathe out.

Repeat if necessary. Repeat again if necessary.

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Photo credit: Armon Arani

Neese explains that in a process like this, the lungs and heart convince the brain that the outer environment is no longer a threat, even if the stressful circumstances continue.

Obviously, this tool isn’t going to solve all of the world’s problems, or even yours. But it can help you regain your calm and composure enough to metabolize whatever is elevating your response at that moment.

After the meeting the other day, I went through the 5 steps — not once, but several times until I reached a space with greater calm, clarity and clearer thinking. The importance of the re-entry project came back into focus, as well as next steps I’d take toward my goal.

Video: How to Stay Calm When You Are TRIGGERED, by Davidji, Youtube

Book: How To Breathe, by Ashley Neese, published by Ten Speed Press

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Pictured: Kirsten Pabst

Kirsten Pabst is the Chair of NDAA’s Well-being Task Force, serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors, and is serving her second term as the elected prosecutor for Missoula County, Montana.

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The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.

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