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Talking about Mental Health: Why it’s time to stop dealing with mental illness and start building mental strength

12 June 2020 - By Daina Worrall

Picture this.

You’re at your desk, it’s already 10am and you’re on your third coffee, just trying to make a dent in the 127 emails in your inbox.

I can do this…I can do this. Just focus.

A phone call interrupts you again, but this time you’re needed in the partner’s office.

Eager to know what’s so urgent this time, you decide to just stop what you’re doing and find out.

It’ll be fine, I’m fine, everything is fine.

You feel that third coffee kicking in and forget to knock as you walk straight into his office, and straight into his phone call. With his therapist.

“Oh I’m so sorry, I’ll just come back later.”

Just get out and close the door.

He’s seeing a therapist?

Next thoughts? Go.

I’d stake my next pay cheque on the fact that, in that scenario, you’d be thinking things like “I wonder what’s wrong with him”, “Is he OK?”, or “Should I ask him about it and check-in?” or even that perhaps you’d want to just stay out of it. Away from the awkwardness…

It’s not a criticism, but it’s an example of the negative context in which we think, talk, and write about mental health in the legal industry. We are seeing so many great initiatives and programmes coming forward that aim to really help employees and bring awareness to mental health and wellbeing, but there’s something to be said about the fact that this topic seems to be a magnet for discussions on mental health “concerns”, “problems” and “issues” and ultimately, prevention.

We talk about mental health as something we have to “deal with”, “suffer from” and something that needs to be “taken care of”, which is true for so many of us that have battled with it. But the point is that we know the corporate world can be a breeding ground for things like depression, anxiety, low self-confidence, low self-esteem, and low self-worth, and we know these things aren’t good, BUT we aren’t exactly seeing numbers go down…

Focusing on the problems isn’t exactly working.

Let’s return to the therapist analogy for a moment… but this time, instead of overhearing a colleague’s conversation, you overhear someone talking about an athlete who just hired a therapist, or better yet a conversation about when the All Blacks hired Dr Ceri Evans, a sports psychologist. Even if you’re not an avid sports fan, I’d hazard a guess that you wouldn’t immediately ask, “Oh what’s wrong with them, are they OK?”, “Are they struggling with their mental health?”

Nope.

Interesting right? It’s all about the context.

Mental Health vs Mental Strength

We associate sporting therapists and coaches as helping their clients get ahead in the game and get clear on their goals, and whether we like it or not, we typically associate therapists in the corporate world as the ones who can help pick up the pieces and help us solve our problems.

But why can’t we see it the same way? Why can’t we shift the context so that we, as professionals, also use the tools and techniques that athletes use to build mental strength, to prepare for the tough times and to help us see our goals clearly and set our intentions?

That way we could have coaches, leaders and therapists as allies in business, helping us thrive rather than just survive.

How can we learn from athletes?

The lack of emphasis on training our minds to collaborate with us, not against us is the fundamental issue we have.

Athletes get mental strength training, they focus on the importance of positive self-talk and self-belief, but we don’t. We have mental wellbeing programmes that aren’t really used until the pressure gets to be a little too much… that’s not to say the programmes aren’t helpful, but it’s not something we’re primed to use in order to set us up for success, it’s more of a safety net to fall back on.

We have people relying on us, we face high expectations and huge repercussions if we mess up, not unlike athletes. Add on the pressure of families, mortgages, complex deals, angry and needy clients, cross-border transactions involving millions or billions of dollars, as well as the physical toll of sitting in a chair for over 10 hours a day. Not to mention the lack of oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins that athletes get… perhaps you’re starting to see that we probably should get more training than athletes do?

Starting with the mind

A yoga class

Sports psychologists and coaches are brought onto a team because they know that in order to achieve amazing things, it all starts in the mind. It is the mind that controls the body, and often it’s solely our minds that limit us.

“The mind often limits us, and actually our body can do more... We think we’ve reached our threshold but the mind gives up first.” — Dr Ceri Evans.

Stress and pressure are unavoidable in the corporate world, and just as athletes are primed to perform under pressure with pre-game rituals and mental mantras, self-talk, and meditation, so too should we. This will help engage others not to just open up when things go wrong, but keep the dialogue open year-round for ways to improve performance, change your thinking, get ahead, and create new abilities.

Want to boost confidence, get better at pitching or public speaking? Want to feel comfortable at work and less anxious all the time? Thinking clearly and concisely in meetings…? All of these things we can work on daily and together. The start point is to focus primarily on (a) the relationship we have with ourselves, and (b) our ability to collaborate with ourselves.

The relationship we have with ourselves

The starting point should be identifying how we speak to ourselves every day, because our brains don’t know the difference between a real event and a thought, and they believe the words we tell them.

So, if you use the 50,000 to 60,000 thoughts you have per day running through all the mistakes you made at work, thinking about how useless you are, worrying about the stress and pressure you’re going to face tomorrow or replaying the worst-case scenario of the presentation over and over, then your mind will act as if that’s really happening and it’ll create the necessary response in your body.

This is exactly why anxiety, depression, stress, impostor syndrome, social anxiety, and loneliness feel so real because our brain actually thinks we’re under threat, it doesn’t know we’re just overthinking. This is also why burnout happens - we’re not spending enough time in the “rest and digest” state because even when we’re at home, a lot of the time we haven’t stopped thinking about work.

Diving a little deeper into the sports psychology pyramid...

1. We need to get clear on our goals and beliefs: The first thing any great athlete will say is to believe in yourself. If you don’t, who else will? Also, if you don’t know where you want to end up, your end goal, you run the risk of leading a life you don’t love… one of the biggest causes of depression. It’s also important to know what beliefs you hold about yourself at a deeper level and often this comes from our childhood experiences. Things we learned early on about ourselves and others. I help people work on this element, but ultimately getting a pen and paper, getting some time to think about what you love, what you enjoy, and where you see yourself will help you on the right path. Also, start noticing how you talk to yourself every day. If you had to repeat what you tell yourself verbatim to a friend, would they hang around? Or would they think you were pretty negative and mean?

2. Mental preparation: Your ability to collaborate with yourself requires the use of positive self-talk and imagery to set you up with a positive mindset. The pictures we see in our minds and the words we say to ourselves can make or break us. If you’ve got a stressful meeting, a tough presentation, a difficult conversation or a really hard problem to solve, get quiet, get calm, close your eyes, and visualise. Just like athletes do. See yourself succeeding. Executing perfectly. See yourself feeling great about it and tell yourself just how great you are. This is such a key skill to be able to turn to and build upon throughout your entire personal and professional life.

3. Performance skills: Remaining calm in the face of pressure and stress is all about priming yourself for the daily ebbs and flows of being a high-performer. Having a daily ritual and a pre-game ritual to help yourself stay calm and focused even when things get intense. Rafael Nadal is well known for his pre-game mantras and almost OCD approach to maintaining order in his environment prior to and during his match. He does this to maintain a calm, inner focus. A flow state. A majority of athletes do this and there’s no reason why you can’t do something like this. Even non-athletes, like Matthew McConaughey in the Wolf of Wall Street, when he was banging on his chest in that restaurant - that was actually his pre-game ritual before the camera started rolling. DiCaprio asked him to include it in the film. Things like that to get you into your calm, flow state are key when you need to perform.

A ripple effect…

In stepping back to the bigger picture, my hope is that you can start to see mental wellbeing in a different light. As a strength not a weakness. An ally not an enemy. All it takes is just one person, one leader, one manager who takes a more proactive approach building mental strength, as athletes do, as opposed to taking a reactive approach to cause a ripple effect. The bigger the ripple the more we can slowly start to shift the stereotype that lawyers don’t value wellbeing, work-life balance or happiness. Because we do. We just didn’t really know how to, until now.

Daina Worrall is a lawyer and psychotherapist practising in hypnotherapy and rapid transformational therapy (RTT) who aims to help professionals overcome fear in order to create happier and more effective work environments.

Sarah Taylor is the co-ordinator of this series, a senior lawyer, and the Director of Client Solutions at LOD, a law firm focused on the success and wellbeing of lawyers. If you’d like to contribute to this series, please contact Sarah at sarah.taylor@lodlaw.com

Last updated on the 12th June 2020