5 trauma-informed mindfulness practices for legal professionals

I have been in constant conversation with legal professionals throughout my life. My father was a lawyer. I have friends who are legal professionals. My partner is a lawyer.

What do our conversations revolve around? What's a constant theme?

Grievance. Grief. Trauma. 

Legal professionals are continuously exposed to hurt, pained, anguished people. Because of this, legal professionals experience the effects of grievance and trauma in their own bodies. 

According to Canadian author and physician, Gabor Mate, trauma is a wound. It's the wound of too much, too fast, too soon. It can be real. It can be imagined. I can be felt through the recalled experience of another.

The Journal of Traumatic Stress
reports that most of us will be exposed to a traumatic event. Roughly 90% of any given population will live through trauma, whether Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or complex trauma. 

My feeling is legal professionals should work on the basis that clients will be bringing a trauma history with them through their grievance. It could be small traumas they have had that could cause them to snap with their sense of grievance. Or they may feel a sense of shame. According to Peter Levine, psychotherapist and creator of somatic experiencing, shame has similar psychophysiological patterns that we see in trauma. Clients might be feeling a sense of shame that they have reached this point. I think we can safely assume that trauma and shame are continuously in the room for legal professionals.

So what can a legal professional do to navigate this constant?

First, take care of yourself. If you take care of yourself, you are better placed to take care of the clients you serve.

Self-care starts with being trauma-informed

I want to offer some practical strategies using trauma-informed mindfulness practices that offer a safe place to reduce your stress and the stress of your clients. Yes, you are a coach. But more so, you're a fellow human on this journey called life. You need to help yourself and your client feel safe and secure. 

Here are 5 practices I think might help. I call these practices the 5Cs. 

They are: Centredness - Calmness - Confidence - Clarity - Compassion 

1. Centredness can be found in the container of your body. You are not going to have an effective presence as an advocate, a coach, or an agent of self-representation unless you are present and in the container of your body. 

Let’s use the metaphor of a vessel – one that is centered, anchored, grounded, and moored, in a safe harbor. If you are tense you are going to go inside your head. You will get confused, foggy, and flustered. You are going to be either in fight or flight mode or shutdown mode. In doing this you narrow what is known as your Window of Tolerance

The 5Cs will help you open that window so you have a better chance of accessing clearer reasoning. You can do this in the following way:

Get grounded. Feel your feet on the floor. Your seat on the chair. Instead of feeling as though you are carrying the weight of the world, let the weight of the world carry you. 

Get a sense of your posture. I value this advice, from American psychologist and neuroscientist Stephen Porges: "If you move to an upright position, you trigger a change in blood pressure that makes you feel more alert and focused. A slight shift in posture can trigger neurophysiological circuits, and change how we react to the world, how we organize thoughts, and how we motivate ourselves"

Next, try a breath mantra: allow the breath to anchor you. As you gently breathe in and out, say, “Breathing in I calm body and mind. Breathing out I calm body and mind.” 

Then there is the experience of feeling sensations: feel sensations in the fingers. The lips. The eyes. This is somatic awareness. It helps you to shift attention away from the ruminative, anxious, thinking mind. 

Finally, listen to sounds: Allow sounds to be received. Sounds in the room, outside the room. Long sounds. Short sounds. Sounds within sounds.

2. Calmness: Once we are in the container of our body and centered, the body can attune itself to the physiological intervention of breathing in a way that is calming and soothing. Here we are using the superpower of the vagus nerve, responsible for the activation of the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system. We can use a specific breathing method called a 7/11. Count to seven on the inhale, then to 11 on the exhale. A gentler, extended exhale can help invite a sense of calm.

3. Confidence: Confidence is born out of calmness and acceptance. The acceptance of what is, rather than what if. This is a foundational attitude of mindfulness. From acceptance comes a willingness to confidently say "yes" to your experience; to be open and receptive – to accept the reality of ‘what is’.

4. Clarity. Clarity connects with purpose, a key intentional outcome of coaching. What is your purpose? What do you want to achieve? For instance, 

The doubt of “Can I?” becomes a purposeful “I can.” 

The uncertainty of “Do I?” becomes a certain “I do.” 

The trepidation of "Will I?” becomes the momentum of “I will.” 

The fear of “Am I?” becomes the fearless “I am.”

Try it now. Find the clarity of who you are by completing these sentence starters:

I am ...

I can ...

I will ...

I do... *

5. Compassion: Each of these Cs leads to what the Dalai Lama refers to as the muscularity of compassion. According to Clinical Psychologist, Dr Chris Irons, compassion is the ability to understand, approach and engage with suffering and distress, as well as the desire and motivation to alleviate suffering, uproot its causes, and seek to prevent suffering in the future. 

First of all, have compassion for yourself.

I find this powerful reframe from Jon Kabat Zinn helps:

"As long as you are breathing there is more right with you than wrong with you, even when there is something wrong with you."

There is a refuge in such advice. It can also be reframed further: 

There is more right with this situation than wrong with this situation. 

There is more right with this conversation than wrong with this conversation. 

There is more right with this person than wrong with this person. 

The compassionate perspective reminds you: There is always more right than wrong. 

Outward compassion can take the form of seeing the person you are in conflict with as a nervous system. You can then see their behaviour as reflexive, not intentional. It is a product of their conditioning and neurotic organisation. This affords you the opportunity to reframe the experience of encountering the person you are in conflict with by de-personalising with inward and outward compassion. 

As for yourself, invite self-compassion: when feeling overwhelmed, place a hand on your heart & say: "There is still more right with me than wrong with me. This will pass. I'll get through this."

How do I practice the 5Cs? 

Bring the 5Cs into your everyday life. You know the every day trigger points in your life: getting the kids ready for school; a conflict moment with your partner; thinking about a future situation that is challenging; or even being caught up in traffic. You are gifted with such opportunities each day. The more you recognise situations as moments of opportunity to practice one or all of the 5Cs the more you lay down pathways known as Experience Dependent Neuroplasticity. You will be activating neurons and synaptic connections. In the famous phrase, you will be allowing neurons that fire together, to wire together. You will become stronger as a presence for yourself and others. 

However, don’t leave this to the last minute or put it on a checklist ‘to-do’. It doesn’t work that way. These practices are embodied. They need to be remembered by the body, not the mind. Also, don’t think you have to do all of these Cs. It might just be one C you want to practice. For instance, just grounding yourself, finding centredness through a modality that helps you find the space you need to come home to the clear mind and heart you already possess.

* This practice is taken from '90 Seconds to a Life You Love' Joan, I. Rosenberg

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