When to Ask for Help . . . or Welcome to the Club

Contributing Author: Meri Althauser, Workplace Wellness Specialist, National Wellness Institute & Resilience and Thriving Facilitator, Organizational Wellness and Learning Systems

It was the first day of in-person school, 2020. I was both excited for the break and the opportunity for my kids to socialize again but was of course wondering how in the world it would ever work. My 7-year-old was nervous for her first day of school. She grabbed one of her kid’s mindfulness-meditation cards (solve the world’s problems with a deck of meditation prompts for kids! Zen in your house, only $25!) and plopped herself in the bathroom. I don’t think she really ever follows the cards, but she knows they’re for reading and playing with when she’s feeling nervous. So, she did.

A while later she finally emerged from the bathroom. She got dressed, saw that her friends were all outside on their usual walking train to school — this time masked up — and gleefully bounded out the door. Back to normal! I returned from our walk to school to find it: the meditation card, floating in a sea of backed-up toilet water on the bathroom floor. The delightful cartoonish characters and whimsical fonts all getting distorted as the card took on water. It floated closer to me in the slight current. “Change is hard!” it let me know.

Well, that about summed it up. A diorama of 2020, captured on my bathroom floor. I’m not sure it made me laugh so hard I cried, or I was close enough to tears already that they just came out at the same time I laughed. Either way, the irony was not lost. A close second prize for “most 2020” occurrence of the year goes to: Group Text From Ski Coach “If you’re thinking of skiing today, don’t. Due to a vehicle on fire on Snowbowl road, please stay home.” (what the…??? luckily no one was hurt!)

As if our lives weren’t stressful enough already (did we choose a life in law because it looked so laid back?), the events of the past year have added to and amplified our stressors. It’s time to evaluate whether we’re laugh-crying in a manageable, and managed way, or whether it’s time to ask for help. Here is how you know:

1) Tackle your stressors. To the extent possible, it’s important to identify the things, situations, or tasks that cause you stress and come up with a better way to streamline or eliminate those stressors. We can all probably think of someone who skips this step and goes straight to self-care:

“OMG… I can’t POSSIBLY do this spreadsheet until I do my Yoga!” …

*goes to yoga*…

*still doesn’t do spreadsheet*…

*you do the spreadsheet*.

You need to evaluate and tackle the stressor before you can move on to handling the stress. It won’t work for everything (world peace!) but strategize for things like: time management, conflict management, overburdensome work requirements, tasks at home, relationship stress, healthy eating, or even basic legal skills like writing, questioning of witnesses, and research. Take the time to take a class, learn a new method, work with your team, or adopt a new technology that helps reduce the impact of those stressors.

2) Tackle the stress itself. Know the early warning signs that something is getting to you so that you can take steps to de-stress. Even when the stressor is gone, the stress itself remains in almost every system of your body. Stress hormones affect your digestion, memory, blood pressure, neurological functioning, and more. We all know that feeling. Like campfire smoke that’s still in your hair even after you’re done camping, you need to do something to wash out the stink of stress! It is important to recognize a) how long it takes you to realize that these warning signs are present, b) whether these symptoms seem to come from something in particular, or a generalized sense of overwhelm (anxiety, or what have you), and c) how hard it is for you to stick to a self-care routine that resolves these symptoms.

What are early warning signs? These are the signs that you’re getting stressed in a manageable way. Self-care is still your best tool. Early warning signs can include headaches, muscle tension, easy to become ill (upset stomach, colds), irritability, anxiousness, mulling events over, inattentiveness, distraction, inability to decide what to do next, snappiness, oversensitivity, loneliness, grumpiness, skipping self-care routines like exercise and packing lunch, and over-reliance on tension release (drinking, eating, zoning out online). Try to become aware of these symptoms creeping into your day and label them as soon as possible. Noticing and labeling them as soon as possible gives you the power to tackle them.

Easier said than done? Well, good news! There are many ways to flush stress from the system. You will know when you’ve found the best way, and the only commitment you need to make is to find that method, then de-stress every day that you experience stress. Thirty minutes of exercise, singing along to your favorite playlist, exposure to the outdoors, laughing with friends, doing nice things for others (I like to go talk to my barista!), volunteering, or snuggling pets are all good ways to flush the bad out with good. Even just watching a good old-fashioned movie that makes you cry or laugh is a good way to flush the system.

A second great option is to take preventive measures to make stressful events less psychologically stressful. People who savor and celebrate positive events, are optimistic, practice gratitude and mindfulness, or have a meditation daily practice actually handle stress better or don’t even experience the same volume of stress as their less optimistic counterparts. Of course, we can’t take this too far and stick our heads in the sand of optimism (everything’s GREAT!!), but there are many benefits that come from using mindfulness, gratitude, and optimism to increase our resilience without having to deny reality.

If these tasks seem daunting because you’re not intuitively focused on self-care, or you have a hard time sticking to these types of goals: welcome to the club! Most of us aren’t innately wired to pick a well-being goal, stick to it, and get happier straight away. Approach these goals like any other difficult task you decided to stick with. It takes the same amount of practice and dedication to be well that it does to learn the law. It is not easy, but you’re ready and you’ve done it before. Choose a method that helps you to be consistent, like putting exercise on your calendar, starting your practice with an accountability buddy, or tying your self-care endeavor to another habit that is automatic, like “before I brush my teeth, I meditate for 5 minutes.”

3) When later warning signs emerge, ask for help. How stressed is too stressed? Isn’t it self-indulgent to feel like I can just go to a spin class and ignore the ills that we’re facing in this day and age? We can’t allow the overwhelm of the real problems we face prevent us as individuals from taking care of ourselves. When stressors and stress are cumulative, and just making an effort to de-stress is insufficient, you may begin to experience these more severe symptoms. If you feel plagued by even one of the following warning signs, it’s time to make a plan.

These later warning signs include: changes in sleep patterns, change in eating habits causing weight loss/gain, lasting feelings of the blues (even dinner with friends doesn’t cheer you up), increased use of drugs and alcohol, feelings of hopelessness, perpetual foggy thinking, inability to control anger, overactive (e.g. crying a lot) or perpetually suppressed feelings, fighting, disturbing dreams, major avoidance of stress (e.g. skipping work, not returning home), and feeling all alone or like a stranger to others/in your own home. If you simply can’t even try steps one and two (tackling stressors and stress), or you can give it a go, but the feelings of stress come flooding back as soon as your workout is over, it is time to reach out. These can be signs of burnout, clinical issues with mental health, or even precursors to major medical issues like stroke and heart attack.

We tell the people we work with all the time that counseling, coaching, or an action plan to help them deal with their stressors will be beneficial and in their best interests. We tell them that counseling will “look good in court” yet we have a hard time seeking help for ourselves because of how it might look to others. There are simple tools that a person with an outside perspective can give you, and a less-stressed version of yourself could be on the horizon. As a profession charged with taking care of itself, your colleagues will be empathetic and ready to help, so reach out to any trusted attorney friend. Reach out to the Lawyer Assistance Program, your local 2–1–1 referral service, your list of preferred providers from your health insurance, or perform a google search for counselors in your area. For a step down from counseling, wellness coaches are available including life coaches, executive coaches, diet and nutrition coaches, mindfulness coaches and programs, and many more. The magic that comes from having a trusted third party totally on your side is invaluable in gaining insight into your own behavior, needs, and objectives, and to help you feel like you are not alone. These folks’ passion is to help you, so please reach out.

So, back to my bathroom floor. Something had to be done before the tides of toilet water spread to the hallway. Picking up the kid’s mediation card I reviewed the advice as I cleaned it off and gathered towels to clean up:

When things change, does it make your tummy feel queasy?

When things change, does it make you sad to miss out on the way things were before?

Change is hard! Think of times in the past that change has occurred in your life. Can you make a list of all the good things that happened after a change? Use as many colors as you can find when you make your list!

Color a picture of your favorite new things or routines!

Thinking through this task I was awash (get it!) with a brief reprieve from the overwhelm of the day. Hands soaked in toilet water, I imagined what I’d put on my list and pictured my 2nd grader’s cute, brightly colored and mis-spelled mindfulness homework. I optimistically envisioned she’d be returning at the end of the day totally happy with seeing her friends and finding the COVID protocols at school to be no big deal. For just a second, I thought of not sending out a swear-word-laden S.O.S. text to my husband. My 2020 Zen bathroom moment was disturbed: “UGGGHHHHhh!!! MOOOOMMM!!! How am I supposed to get ready!? Gross! I hate this house!!” The sweet coos of a teenager in the morning brought me back to reality.

As the school year winds down, I’m thankful we made it through. It was hard for sure, but we managed, and the craziness of the year made it absolutely concrete that we (me and my family) need to have a proactive and clear plan for managing our stress. Outdoor time and exercise every single day and being mindful about releasing tension with alcohol or food have been critical survival tools for the year. I realize we are a lucky bunch. For help with managing stress, avoiding later warning signs, or seeking help when the stress is too much, please reach out. Your colleagues care.

Meri Althauser is an attorney of 10 years, certified Workplace Wellness Specialist through the National Wellness Institute, and a Resilience and Thriving Facilitator through Organizational Wellness and Learning Systems. Please contact her at meri@forwardlegal406.com or 406–325–7100.

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