Training Your Brain for Self-Regulation and Resilience

Paula Davis-Laack is the Founder and CEO of the Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute and is the author of the newly published e-book 10 Things Happy People Do Differently.

Stress, long hours, uncertainty, and the pressure to be on 24/7 are part of the everyday life of a lawyer. Because of this lifestyle, it is critical for lawyers to develop resilience to bounce back from and grow and thrive during challenge, change, and stress.

Dr. Larry Richard has been studying the lawyer personality for nearly three decades and discovered that lawyers rank low when it comes to resilience. In fact, 90 percent of lawyers studied rank in the thirtieth percentile or lower on this trait. Fortunately, research shows that resilience is made up of a set of ordinary skills that can be learned.

A critical building block of resilience is self-regulation, which is also known as self-control, self-discipline, or willpower. Resilient people are able to manage their emotions, thoughts, motivations, and behaviors.

Self-control has even been shown to predict long-term life success. In his famous “Stanford Marshmallow Experiment,” Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a series of studies on delayed gratification with kids. Each child was offered a choice between one small reward (typically a marshmallow or another piece of candy) provided immediately, or two small rewards if the child could sit and wait for a period of time (usually about 15 minutes). In follow-up studies conducted years later, the children who were able to wait for the two rewards had higher SAT scores, were described by their teachers and parents as more competent, and had a healthier body mass index.

But studies have also shown that willpower is limited. The more a person self-regulates, the lower the willpower reserves become. Once your willpower is depleted (like a car running close to empty), you have less energy to do things that require willpower—like going to the gym after a long day, not snapping at your family, and avoiding the chocolate chip cookies calling your name.

To develop willpower, which is such an essential part of resilience, consider adopting the following five strategies.

Build Your Self-Awareness. Self-awareness helps you identify how you think, feel, and behave. Self-awareness and willpower are linked because in order to manage thoughts, emotions, and behavior, you have to be aware of them. “Think It Through” is a simple exercise to build self-awareness. Here are the steps:

STEP 1: Describe the stress-producing event (or trigger) in a factual way.

STEP 2: Capture everything you thought. Write down what you immediately said to yourself, and don’t pretty it up—you want to capture your uncensored thoughts.

STEP 3: Identify how you felt and what you did. Also note the intensity of the emotions.

STEP 4: Reflect—did your thoughts, emotions, and reactions help you achieve your goals or did they interfere by setting you up to give in to certain impulses?

For example, if you want to reduce the habit of constantly checking your email in the evening and on the weekend (a habit that is no doubt interfering with your ability to de-stress, and quite possibly, your relationships), you will have to understand what you’re thinking and feeling in the moments leading up to actually checking your devices. As self-awareness increases, you’ll develop better control over your behavior.

Meditate and Focus Breathing. I have tried and tried to develop a meditation practice over the years, in part, because it has so many health benefits. I usually end up frustrated because I can’t seem to clear my mind, but I am not giving up, especially after learning that neuroscientists discovered that when you meditate, attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness all improve. (For more on this, see Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (New York: The Penguin Group 2012)).

Not ready to meditate? Practice slowing your breath to four to six breaths per minute. Regular practice of this technique has been shown to build resilience to stress and your willpower reserve.

Stop Catastrophizing. This style of thinking happens when your brain spins a worst-case scenario and your body reacts by thinking it’s really happening. Catastrophizing produces high levels of anxiety, which stops you from taking purposeful action. It interferes with building resilience because you aren’t thinking flexibly and accurately, and you are not performing at your best.

You are more likely to catastrophize when you’re stressed out or tired, doing something for the first time (e.g., closing your first deal, going to court for the first time), doing something over you did poorly the first time (e.g., rewriting a brief for a partner), or when you are put into a vague situation (e.g., you get an email that says, “Come see me now.”). Fortunately, there is an easy five-step process to stop that runaway train in your head:

  1. Describe the stress-producing event factually (who, what, when, where).
  2. Write down all the worst-case scenarios you are thinking.
  3. Create an alternative best-case scenario (which you’ll have to completely make up so you can create a surge of positive emotion to lower your anxiety).
  4. Analyze the most likely scenario.
  5. Develop a plan to address the most likely scenario.

Find Your “I Want” Power. Stanford health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal coined the phrase “I Want” power, and it’s an important component of self-control. “I Want” power is the ability to find your motivation when it really matters—that important long-term goal in which you want to focus your time and energy. Maybe it’s making partner; maybe it’s writing a book; maybe it’s one day starting your own business. Whatever it is, you need to be able to tap into this “I Want” power when your willpower reserves are running low.

Communicate in an Assertive Way. Be clear and confident, and control how you interact with others. The next time you need to react to opposing counsel, a colleague, or a family member, pause and think about how you can be more assertive. Note, too, that flexible communication styles build relationships, one of the most important components of resilience.

Here is a model you can follow for being assertive and flexible—just remember to make your CASE:

Communicate the facts. Discuss what you experience and observe about the situation, and use concrete terms to avoid exaggeration and subjective impressions.

Address your concerns in an objective way. Express how you feel calmly and avoid placing blame on the other person.

Specify concrete actions you want to see stopped or limited, and those you want to see performed. Also, make sure to ask the other person for their perspective. What behavior are you willing to change to make the agreement?

Evaluate outcomes. Suggest acceptable alternatives, negotiate, and summarize potential courses of action. In addition, set specific goals and follow up on the outcomes you set.

Most importantly, do your homework before you even have a conversation. Are you jumping to conclusions about the other person’s actions? Are you mind reading, expecting the other person to know what you want without actually verbalizing your expectations? Do you have a core value or deeply held belief that is getting in your way? For example, if you believe, “Kids should always follow the rules,” that might be an important belief to identify before you lose your temper with your ten year old about failing to complete her chores. Sorting out your own thinking before you have a conversation is a critical component of being an assertive communicator.

Regardless of where you are in your career, it’s critical to build and develop the skills of resilience and self-regulation. Knowing how to manage stress, challenge, and change, and knowing when to pump the brakes, will make you a better leader both at home and at work.

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