In this time of stress and uncertainty, it is essential that we continue to examine and prioritize our own mental health. In this edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance podcast, Tish Vincent and JoAnn Hathaway talk with Molly Ranns and Katie Stanley about their tips for cultivating mindfulness and staying healthy in the midst of the pandemic.
Molly Ranns is a clinical case manager for the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program at the State Bar of Michigan.
Katie Stanley is a staff attorney and fair housing education manager for Legal Services of Eastern Michigan.
State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast
Wellness During Times of Crisis
Intro: Welcome to State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast, where we talk about practice management and lawyer wellness for a thriving law practice with your hosts JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent, here on Legal Talk Network.
Take it away ladies.
Tish Vincent: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I am Tish Vincent.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I am JoAnn Hathaway. We are very pleased to have Molly Ranns, Clinical Case Manager for the Lawyers & Judges Assistance Program at the State Bar of Michigan and Katie Stanley, Staff Attorney and Fair Housing Education Manager for Legal Services of Eastern Michigan join us today as our podcast guests to talk about Wellness During Times of Crisis.
So Molly and Katie, would you share some information about yourselves with our listeners?
Molly Ranns: Hello. Thank you so much for having me. I am Molly Ranns. I have worked as a Clinical Case Manager with the Lawyers & Judges Assistance Program or LJAP for the past nine years. I am a fully licensed professional counselor, a nationally board certified counselor and a board certified addictions clinician. And since March 13th of this year I have added teacher to my other titles as I have been working remotely parenting and homeschooling my children due to the COVID-19 pandemic. My husband is also working remotely. We have two wonderful kiddos ages three and six.
And I am thankful to be here today to talk openly about and perhaps even normalize some of the challenges I think we are all facing because of this crisis.
And I am excited to present with Katie Stanley. Katie and I worked on an On-Demand Wellness Webinar for ICLE last year and she is a wonderful person to be here today with me.
Tish Vincent: Katie.
Katie Stanley: Thanks Molly. I am very excited to be here with you. I am like Tish said a Fair Housing Education Manager at a legal services agency in Flint, Michigan. We cover 14 counties across the whole eastern side of Michigan.
I also am a staff attorney by day and what brings me here really with you all today is that I work with the Crim Fitness Foundation as a part of the Mindfulness Initiative Advisory Board and I am also a Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute Fellow working towards a national certification to teach mindfulness and wellness.
Tish Vincent: Excellent. Thank you very much both of you for being our guests today. I want to start out with a question for you Katie, could you say something about what mindfulness is for our listeners?
Katie Stanley: Absolutely. I think that’s an important question to ask because there are a lot of preconceived notions around what it should look like. I think with anything as attorneys we are tempted to kind of try to figure something out before we go at it. And mindfulness to me in my experience can be as unique to each person as we all are to one another.
It could be as simple as something like a dedicated practice where for me for instance I carve out time to do dedicated practice each day, but a lot of times the most valuable parts of mindfulness are integrated practices or things that we can access right in the moment, right when we are having these experiences.
Jon Kabat-Zinn gives probably the most well-known definition of what mindfulness is and what he defines it as is essentially paying attention in the current moment in a specific way, most importantly without judgment.
Again, I think as attorneys we have this tendency to make judgments about things because we are trained to issue spots and it can be a very difficult task to sit in the moment with some of those experiences.
So mindfulness can be that dedicated practice of meditation, but it can also be mindful movement like yoga or exercise, a lot of folks feel like running is a great way to practice mindfulness, getting into and nature noticing the sounds that you hear, noticing something beautiful that you see, that’s a mindful moment.
Essentially creating a space for yourself to engage with what’s happening right now and kind of meet yourself right where you are at rather than running from it and you can translate that into your everyday encounters.
For instance, if you are in a grocery store I think a good example right now is probably someone who is hoarding toilet paper, that everyday encounter, maybe taking a moment to pause and consider that you don’t know everything that’s going on with that person and before you rush to judgment taking a moment to choose and be mindful of how you are responding and engaging with the world around you and yourself.
So it can be all kinds of practices from dedicated practices, to in the moment things, to even just taking a moment to take a breath or practice gratitude and just find a way to look for things that you are grateful for even in the midst of all this stress and trauma.
JoAnn Hathaway: So can you speak specifically to, I have read and heard you say it at times that you can use the mindfulness practice at this time when people are dealing with shifting to working from home and we are hearing about the pandemic and COVID-19 and now some of the protests that we are seeing, there is so much that’s going on that it’s easy to slip into an anxious state or feeling overwhelmed, can you share a little bit about how mindfulness can be put to use to cope with all that stress?
Katie Stanley: Absolutely. And these are evidence-based practices so I am not just giving you my opinion, although the way that I came to mindfulness was through my own practice as an attorney and experiencing some of that vicarious trauma and working with high stress caseloads, traumatic cases; I worked with crime victims so there were a lot of cases that didn’t have very happy outcomes.
Whatever your progression was to mindfulness if you are just finding it right now I would say, I have said this before and meant it then, but I mean it also now, there is probably no better time to find the mindfulness practice that works for you. Everybody is experiencing such intense feelings of stress and fear around uncertainty in the world, a virus, and a 100 year flood; some of our staff, their houses were flooded in Midland last week, and along with like you mentioned the protest and kind of the civil rights unrest that’s spreading across the country and affecting people in all kinds of ways.
So now more than ever I would say mindfulness is important and it can help with a variety of things, to start with our health; it can help us manage that anxiety and stress. There are studies that show it lowers our cortisol, the stress blood pressure inducing chemicals in our body.
It can also help us make better decisions. I read a really interesting study once that showed that when your emotional or feeling side of your brain is triggered, so what you imagine when say you encounter a bear in the woods, we can lose up to 75% of our decision making capacity in that moment.
So the interesting thing about the brain is that, and again, I will say I am a lawyer, I am not a neuroscientist, but from what we know about how our bodies respond to stress, it doesn’t distinguish between a bear or say an irritating email. So it could take you on average up to 20 minutes the studies have shown to recover from a stressful encounter, whether it’s the bear or maybe a stressful moment with your kids being at home or your spouse or an e-mail or work or whatever it might be, we lose on an average day when we are not in the middle of a pandemic so much of our productivity and our ability to really bring our full selves to the moment and this decision that we are making.
And really the ability to make wise choices. I think quite simply when we are all feeling the stress of either being isolated and quarantining alone or with your family or whatever your circumstances are, mindfulness helps us simply just be happier. It creates this flexibility in your attention where you are able to maybe notice some of the things in your life that are still positive, like noticing something in nature, like we talked about earlier, taking a mindful moment or making a gratitude list for things that you are grateful for.
So I think in a normal setting mindfulness has this incredible power to transform not only our inner experience, but also how we engage with the world around us. And as attorneys who work primarily in serving others with clients and with colleagues and with our organizations, it stands to benefit not just our personal wellness, but also our relationships and our connections with the world around us.
So I would say if you have an interest now is the best time of any to spark that.
One last point too that I wanted to make and I almost forgot is that during this time a lot of people think mindfulness is kind of an isolated practice, which it is, you are going within and you are finding a space within yourself, but in eastern traditions mindfulness is actually a way to cultivate engaging with the other.
So it starts with yourself, but it really is building the capacity to be a better community member, to be a better advocate, to be a better attorney or parent or a friend or sibling, whatever titles you carry with you, the idea of mindfulness is this personal practice, but during a time when I think we all need to reach out to one another even more than ever that fundamental principle is also something worth noting.
And if you don’t feel comfortable talking about it to others, I know Molly can speak to this and Tish and JoAnn, LJAP has got some great confidential resources also for folks that want to reach out.
Tish Vincent: Switching gears here just a moment, Molly, a question for you, as a professional can you talk about maintaining your own wellness while managing your day-to-day obligations such as working remotely with your children that you mentioned?
Molly Ranns: Absolutely. One thing I repeatedly hear from the folks I talk with on a daily basis; lawyers, judges, law students, other clients is that they feel simply exhausted and I echo the sentiments. The word that resonates most with me is really depleted.
Back in March when this pandemic swept in and changed so much about our lives, being somewhat of a perfectionist I immediately started creating a plan. I made a schedule for my children each day. My husband and I set up two remote office locations in the house. We even made a home project list. And then I waited somewhat impatiently for the world to return to normal and I think at that point the saying popped into my head, if you want to make God laugh tell him your plans, and I felt exhausted. I realized that the world was not returning to the normal I knew, but was creating a new one and that was why I felt so tired.
I was creating a new normal while simultaneously working full-time for the State Bar, managing a small therapy practice on the side, parenting my two kiddos with no ability to get help from extended family or daycare because of quarantine, and homeschooling my kindergartner.
And I realized that if I were to try to go on with business as usual during the pandemic without acknowledging that a huge amount of my energy was being used to create a new normal, I was going to feel like a failure.
So once I got my head around this I had to adjust my expectations and then I began to be able to manage my own well-being along with all of my other day-to-day obligations.
I had to understand that my best today is different than it was three or four months ago when I was sitting in an office with no distractions; distractions such as my six-year-old walking in on my Zoom meeting or my daughter calling out my name because she is stuck in the tree in the front yard while I am on a conference call, and these are things that I have to attend to in the moment and that I cannot plan for.
So in the moment I have to adjust my priorities. It’s not that my best is any less than it was before the pandemic, it’s just different. And as Katie mentioned, I needed to stop judging myself for that.
So I adjusted my expectations and then I adjusted them again and then I adjusted them again and in my experience legal professionals can be also somewhat perfectionistic and rigid in their thinking, always wanting a plan, always needing a plan and I can certainly identify with this. It helps me to be a successful professional and manage my life in a way that’s efficient and optimal.
But I think we also have to be able to be flexible and adaptive and an inability to do so right now is going to be dangerous and I don’t think it can sustain.
So I manage my own wellness during this pandemic and in times of crisis by being adaptive and flexible, by not judging myself for feeling so tired, for understanding and accepting the fact that I am creating a new normal with each day that passes, adjusting my expectations and then setting aside my tendencies for perfectionism.
JoAnn Hathaway: That’s interesting and thank you for that Molly. One thing to interject is that I think it will be surprising to many of the lawyers and our listeners to understand that it’s not just them experiencing those types of emotions and circumstances such as you are experiencing, but you, even mental health professionals who are experts in this area are experiencing it. So while I am sure they don’t want to hear that others are going through what they are going through, in some ways it may help them not feel so alone.
Molly Ranns: Certainly.
Tish Vincent: Yes, yes. Could you speak about how it is to be someone in the helping profession, how is it possible to be present for other people when you yourself are dealing with this new challenge to handling your own emotions?
Molly Ranns: Sure. That’s an interesting question, because I think back to when I made the decision to go to graduate school and I was choosing between law school or getting my master’s in counseling, and I chose the latter and I am grateful that I did because it suits me, but looking back now I realized that the reason I was contemplating between these two professions is because I think that they have a lot in common, most notably the core of both professions seem to be to help people or to help the community.
And I think that right now we can help those around us. I think that the emotions that we are experiencing due to this pandemic, whether that be unease or fear, anger, feeling overwhelmed, I think that these emotions can help us increase our commitment to the community.
For legal professionals, I think these emotions can help them increase their commitment to justice and to equality. I think that therapists as well as lawyers can be a part of healing the community right now during these really difficult times, but in order to be present for others we first have to take care of ourselves.
It’s why they always tell you on an airplane, during the instructional portion of the flight, in case of an emergency you need to put on your own life mask before assisting other people. And I think we need to talk about the fact and Katie mentioned this for herself personally that we are all more susceptible to compassion fatigue right now.
Compassion fatigue or sometimes referred to as vicarious trauma or secondary trauma is really the physical and mental exhaustion and perhaps even the emotional withdrawal which can be experienced by those who care for traumatized populations.
So I am able to take care of myself which results in me being able to take care of others during this period of time and what I needed to do first was get an idea of what is wellness, what is well-being, what does that mean for me.
We know that legal professionals have much higher rates of mental health and substance use issues, not only than the general public, but also other high stress professions such as physicians. And so after this groundbreaking research came out in 2016-2017 a National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being was formed and one of the first goals or tasks of the task force was to define well-being.
And I love the definition that they provided because it talks about how wellness is not just the absence of illness, but rather thriving in each dimension of our lives. And I think six dimensions were identified; physical well being, emotional, intellectual, occupational, spiritual and social.
And so I ask myself where am I thriving and I ask my clients where are you thriving and what do you maybe need to pay attention to, what do you need to have an awareness of, and once there is an awareness of emotions, awareness of need, and awareness of limits and boundaries that need to be set, we can create balance in our lives and we can establish some connections, just like Katie was talking about, connection with ourselves, connections with others, connections with a greater community.
And so staying mindful, staying in the moment is so vital right now. I think it’s noteworthy that we spend so much time worrying about things that have already occurred, that we have no control over and so much time worrying about things that are yet to happen that will never happen exactly as we imagine that we don’t spend nearly enough time in the present, which is really where we spend all of our time.
So being present in the moment without judging myself, this is how I stay healthy and this is how I stay present for others during times of crisis. Taking care of myself helps me to be able to take care of others. Identifying the things I can control and letting go of or accepting the things that I cannot.
JoAnn Hathaway: If you could carve it out, can you share what has been the most stressful for you as a professional and a parent during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Molly Ranns: Absolutely. For me personally I think what’s been the most stressful is managing the distractions. In an office you take for granted the fact your phone might be ringing or your emails are coming in, you may have a colleague stepping into your office for a question or to staff something, but at home you have so many more distractions that you have not previously accounted for.
My children coming in and out, the dog barking, a neighbor ringing the doorbell, these things are really difficult to manage. And so staying patient with myself, with my family members and then mostly adjusting the expectations I put on myself. As I talked about earlier, the work product that I have now may be slightly different, not less than, but different than what it was three or four months ago.
So I would say managing the distractions and adjusting the expectations I put on myself are the most challenging pieces.
Tish Vincent: I am going to direct this next question to Katie. What have you heard from others, other lawyers or friends that you know that are not lawyers about what’s been most stressful for them about working from home, working remotely?
Katie Stanley: So interestingly I actually did a poll of this around our staff yesterday, just because I was curious when we talked about this what some of them would say, and Molly hit a lot of that right on the head. A lot of people are having trouble managing distractions and one employee actually put it I think in a really interesting way. She was having a hard time separating her home life from her work life because now they are both in the same space.
So I find myself kind of moving from room to room and designating areas that are for work and then designating areas that aren’t, to kind of try to put a barrier there in my mind so I am not always kind of thinking about work and always checking that next email.
Also I think for a lot of people it’s been hard to try to reinvent the way they do their job or having to learn new skills and change is hard anytime, but I think during a pandemic where there is so much outside of our control and so many unknowns, in that environment on top of trying to learn new skills and do it in an environment that really isn’t dedicated to work, that’s been a big challenge for folks.
And then like Molly pointed to, just having the energy to do any of this work. I mean we work in a service profession where we are representing the interests of another and we are responsible for them and there is a great amount of responsibility in that and I think it’s a privilege to be able to do it, but it’s also draining on a normal day, it can be very taxing on a normal day.
So with all of what’s going on right now, just like Molly said, people are just feeling really exhausted and I think it highlights what we talked about earlier Tish that it’s so important now in this current climate to really focus on wellness as best we can.
Tish Vincent: Absolutely.
JoAnn Hathaway: So lawyers tend to be perfectionists as we all know and when working from home and as it was mentioned earlier isolated from peers, how have you seen this tendency to perfectionism play out?
Katie Stanley: Well, I guess I can speak to that first. I think I keep hearing or seeing this meme about how Newton discovered gravity during the plague, the great plague in quarantine and I think it always makes me laugh when I see it because I think this is exactly what a type A lawyer personality would think, I am locked at home so for me, I am a musician also and I put all this pressure on myself, well, I am here at home, I should be making music, I should be learning new skills, now is a great time to learn how to sew, I don’t know, whatever it is for you.
But I think it’s really easy, especially if you are isolated to get stuck kind of in your own perspective and not realize how much pressure you are putting on yourself and inherent in that is kind of a dangerous threat of not trusting your own individual journey.
And this can be — sometimes it’s harder if you are not having faith in others’ journey, but if you are not having faith in your own journey and kind of acknowledging where you are at and the stressors that you are under and making your own self-care plan and acknowledge ways that maybe you can practice self-care and compassion right now, it can put us in to this really dangerous tailspin where we just feel like nothing is ever enough. And that’s not a space where we produce our best work from, that’s not a space where we show up as our best self from either. So I think just being aware of that is important right now.
Molly Ranns: Absolutely. I think it’s feeling as though the same level of efficiency and accomplishment should be easily achieved in this new normal that we are creating and I think that results in rigidity and feelings of disappointment and I think eventually could really result in burnout. And so I think it’s so important to take care of ourselves right now.
I think oftentimes we think about self-care as that one vacation or that one massage and all those things are really important, the idea of self-care is really creating a life you don’t have to escape from, for that one vacation or that one massage. And that’s so important and this is the perfect example, because right now we don’t have any ability to have those escapes, no one is traveling, no one is booking massages right now and so by not creating a life that incorporates wellness into all that you do, I think this could be a dangerous time for folks.
It also is a time for folks to really reevaluate what does my wellness look like? It’s kind of forcing everybody to slow down and take a look at what changes maybe do I want to make going forward as I am establishing a new normal.
Tish Vincent: Excellent points.
JoAnn Hathaway: Wonderful. Well, it looks like we have come to the end of our show. We would like to thank our guests today Molly Ranns and Katie Stanley for a wonderful program.
Tish Vincent: Yes, thank you very much. Molly and Katie, if our guests would like to follow up with you, how can they reach you?
Molly Ranns: I can be reached via email at [email protected] and my direct business line is 517-346-6336.
Katie Stanley: Thanks Molly. This is Katie speaking. You guys can all reach me if you would like at my work email, it’s [email protected] like Legal Services of Eastern Michigan. You can also call me on my work phone, it’s 800-322-4512, extension 106, I would be happy to talk or answer any questions that anyone might have.
Tish Vincent: Excellent. Thank you ladies. This has been another edition of The State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I am JoAnn Hathaway.
Tish Vincent: And I am Tish Vincent. Until next time, thank you for listening.
Outro: Thank you for listening to the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast, brought to you by the State Bar of Michigan and produced by the broadcast professionals at Legal Talk Network.
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