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Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with a young, new attorney at my Firm (what one of my assistants used to refer to as a “baby lawyer”). She is Asian American and wanted to pick my brain about what it was like working at a large law firm where faces like ours are still pretty rare. Our chat lasted about 30 minutes and we covered a wide range of topics, including our feelings about the shooting that happened in March of last year in Atlanta, Georgia.
For many Asian Americans, myself included, the Atlanta shooting was an inflection point: we could no longer ignore the anxiety simmering in our bellies as we watched the growing antipathy and violence towards our own communities–particularly our elders. As the coverage unfolded on TV and across Twitter, I spiraled into a dark place of rage, grief, and despair. It prompted me to share this video, to write a blog post for the Firm, to take my responsibility as a representative of the AAPI community much more seriously.
But it also exhausted me.
In a way that I was totally unprepared for.
As an endurance athlete, I’m well acquainted with the idea of pacing myself, guarding against the temptation to run at the very beginning of a race while my legs are fresh and practically sizzling with adrenaline. My 5th grade gym teacher used to say it’s like spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread–instead of dumping it all onto one corner, you want to spread it out, evenly, across the entire slice. Of course, this presupposes the luxury of a finish line, a set beginning, middle, and end, a predictable conclusion to the challenge.
And more importantly, there’s no one chasing you in a race.
The Dangers of Ignoring Stress.
Interestingly, the reaction to stress is physiologically very similar to what occurs during a race. According to Harvard Medical School: A stressful situation — whether something environmental, such as a looming work deadline, or psychological, such as persistent worry about losing a job — can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes. A stressful incident can make the heart pound and breathing quicken. Muscles tense and beads of sweat appear.
The body’s reaction to stress is, as we’ve discussed before, the evolved response to danger: picture a saber tooth tiger chasing a hairy man with a club. Hairy Man considers, “Do I run or do I fight this saber tooth tiger with my club?” Regardless of what he decides, the physiological chain reaction is the same: the hypothalamus sends your adrenal glands into overdrive, which pump your body full of adrenaline. The adrenaline, in turn, optimizes your body’s ability to react to danger–narrow veins in your lungs widen to supply as much oxygen to your brain as possible, increasing alertness. Your vision, hearing, even your sense of smell grow sharper. Adrenaline also unlocks reserved stores of fat and sugar, supplying energy to your entire body. Your adrenal glands also spike your bloodstream with cortisol, the hormone that tells the body when it can finally release the gas pedal (i.e., when the saber tooth tiger is either dead or far behind you).
But did you know: “All of these changes happen so quickly that people aren’t aware of them. In fact, the wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain’s visual centers have had a chance to fully process what is happening.“
Perhaps because of how quickly it all occurs, some of us have trouble hitting the brakes on stress. I mean, how do you know to put a stop to something if you don’t have the wherewithal to know it even began, right? But the problem is, if we don’t slow down, then the body doesn’t know to turn off the “fight or flight“ mode it entered into. Ultimately, we risk exposing our bodies to chronic, low-level stress and the catastrophic hormonal chain reaction that may potentially follow:
- Persistent epinephrine surges can damage blood vessels and arteries, increasing blood pressure and raising risk of heart attacks or strokes.
- Elevated cortisol levels create physiological changes that help to replenish the body’s energy stores that are depleted during the stress response. But they inadvertently contribute to the buildup of fat tissue and to weight gain.
- Studies suggest that chronic stress can cause structural changes in the brain, rendering it more vulnerable to depressive disorders.
- Chronic, low-level stress results in chronic inflammation, the precursor for a host of diseases, including cardiovascular dysfunctions, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune syndromes.
Why Do We Keep Ignoring Chronic Stress?
If we know that chronic levels of stress can literally kill people, then why are we so good at ignoring it? Well, as mentioned above, chronic stress has a way of sneaking up on you, undetected, until it settles in like an uninvited squatter, residing in your body “rent free.” But let’s be honest here. Beyond the general undetectability of chronic stress, in times of crisis, there’s a prevailing sentiment that we should simply muscle through it. That somehow, pushing through tough times by pretending nothing is wrong is a good thing, a sign of the “mental toughness” we all could use a lot more of, the thing that will set us apart and make us successful where others have failed.
This was largely the attitude I adopted, at first, after the Atlanta shootings. I thought that in order to prove my value to my clients, my partners, my colleagues, and my Firm, I had to show up to work as usual and pretend that “I was ok.” In truth, I was anything but ok. I wanted to disappear and hide underneath my desk. I wanted to shut my laptop, hear the satisfying click as the two halves latched together in a way that conclusively silenced the world that had suddenly grown too loud for me. Every single email–from the innocent “there’s leftover donuts in the cafe” to the “what’s the ETA on the motion to compel?”–were augers drilling into my brain, as if they were tailor made to inflict unavoidable pain.
But, there was a constant refrain underneath everything:
“You have to push through this. Don’t show them. Don’t show any of them that this is bothering you. It’s weak. It’s effeminate. It’s overly emotional.”
This undercurrent was, of course, not something new. Back in 2013, I had to put my dog, Billy, down. Less than an hour after feeling his paw go limp in my hands, I led a conference call with my client on transactional data preservation. I was standing over my kitchen sink, wiping the tears that wouldn’t stop trickling down my face, but also heartlessly proud of how even my voice sounded, how no one on this call could ever tell that my dog had just died.
Some might say, “Well, I’m sure your client would’ve been extremely grateful for that level of commitment and dedication.” Perhaps. But what about my commitment to my dog, Billy, to his memory? What about my dedication to my family, who was also grieving? What about my obligations to myself? Why was I so quick to assign the backseat to all of those things, in favor of a conference call? And more perversely, why was I proud of it?
When Ignoring Chronic Stress Backfires.
During the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, I went on autopilot at work. I had a big, contentious case on my hands, and we were in the quagmire of quarantine. I could sense a disquiet in my body, a heightened alertness that wouldn’t go away. I cut out coffee, took a few weeks off from running, and even stopped posting on social media as much. But it never occurred to me that I might want to step away, even for a day, from the billable hour. Why would I? The pandemic had us in a vise and I, like virtually every other human being, was worried every hour of every day that I might lose my job. It took a particularly unpleasant settlement conference with a testosterone-laced team of opposing counsel to make me realize just how close to redlining I was. They were all the things you imagine boorish, domineering lawyers to be: cutting me off, forgetting my name, and, eventually, swearing at me, niceties they seemed to reserve for the only woman on the call (they remembered my male partner’s name easily enough).
Although I managed to hold my own on that call, I burst into tears shortly after hanging up. I stared out the window, counting the number of outdoor AC units lining the brick wall across from me, as I berated myself for being “such a girl.” But even as the self-flagellation continued, there was a small voice that managed to connect the dots. Watching what happened to Ahmad Arbery and George Floyd, observing the amount of gas lighting that occurred notwithstanding video evidence of injustice, all while being stuck inside my house cut off from my family and loved ones–it caught up to me. The repeated unmasking of the country I loved, combined with the sheer powerlessness of isolation, was simply more than my body could withstand.
I wanted more than anything in the world to quit my job, yell at every single man I came across (including my husband), while stuffing myself with a bucket of ramen noodles–all incredibly irrational (and not terribly productive) reactions to a single bad conference call (though my career is littered with them).
The peril in pretending that everything is ok is that it removes the safeguards provided for by a finish line. The longer you ignore the underlying cause of your body’s “fight or flight” response, the higher the risk that you’ll run right past the finish line and eventually crash into something that’ll force you stop. It could be a really bad settlement conference that makes you hate every male on the planet, or a physical illness or injury, one that won’t take you “out of office” for just a day or two, but for weeks.
Unshackling Ourselves from Chronic Stress.
Taking the time to develop the self-awareness to know when you are in crisis–emotional or otherwise–is a critical part of unshackling yourself from chronic stress. But equally important, we also need to discard the notion that “toughing it out” is always a good thing. This is true from the perspective of both the employee and the employer. After all, the prevailing norms of “professionalism” didn’t just spring out of nowhere.
- The productivity of the individual American worker has increased 430% since 1950, a staggering number given that the standard of living has increased by a much smaller margin.
- In the United States, there’s no federal mandate for paid sick leave.
- In fact, the US remains the only industrialized country in the world that has no required annual leave.
- In most industrialized countries, with the exception of Canada, Japan, and the US, workers get at least 20 paid vacation days, on average. In France and Finland, they get an entire month off, paid, every year.
In other words, the American worker has been trained to believe their worth is directly a function of their productivity. While corporations attempt to pay more than lip service to the elusive “work/life balance,” there are a few things we can do independent of systematic labor reform to try to ensure that we aren’t running straight towards a brick wall:
- Trust your instincts. In your gut, you know when something is abnormally stressful to you, in the same way your body has evolved to know the difference between a saber tooth tiger and koala. For example, I knew that Atlanta was causing a great deal more emotional upheaval and anxiety than the everyday headline in the news. I should have paid attention, but instead, I ignored it for as long as I could.
- Acknowledge your feelings. Acknowledging how you feel about a distressing situation can provide some instant and welcome relief. My favorite way of doing this is writing my feelings down. According to this study, expressive writing or journaling can help reduce anxiety and stress. It doesn’t need to be a novel–jot down a few bullets or sentences. Just the exercise of naming them can make them less intimidating.
- Step back. What I should have done on March 16 (the day of the shootings) and even March 17, 2021 was to call in sick. I should have bowed out of that conference call in the wake of the George Floyd tragedy. And when my Billy boy died, I should have emailed my client and ask that we reschedule our conference call. I should have told the voices in my head that said doing so would be “unprofessional” to STFU.
- Meditate. I’ve talked before about the benefits of meditation. A recent study found that regular meditation relieved anxiety, pain, and depression, and that for depression, meditation was as effective as a pharmaceutical antidepressant. I mention this here because I realize that not all of us work at jobs that allow us to call in sick or take an unexplained “personal day.” But even 20 minutes of meditation a day can have a profound effect on one’s resilience to stress.
- Unplug. I realize this is a little odd coming from me, but we all need to learn to unplug from the internet. There is no question that the advent of network connectivity has brought a great deal of good to our lives (particularly during the pandemic when we had no other means of seeing loved ones), but there is a cost to “too much information.” Take a walk. Read a book–the kind that smells like dried ink. Listen to your favorite playlist while baking some cookies.
- Stop shaming yourself. You don’t need to feel guilty for not being angry and sad and outraged over all the things happening in the world all the time. You also don’t need to shame yourself for taking 57 minutes to veg in front of the TV or read a good mystery novel. You can’t be at your best when your family or even the world really needs you if you’re spreading yourself too thin all the time. Recovery is a critical component of endurance, to ensure that the fight or flight response remains effective when actual danger looms. So, tell that voice inside your head that’s pummeling you for taking a break to… well you know, STFU.
- Exercise. While taking a break is crucial to guarding against chronic stress, regular light exercise (like walking or yoga) has also been proven to counteract the effects of stress.
- Talk to someone. Sometimes I think we say things like “you don’t need to be ashamed of getting professional help” while, in our heads, we’re saying, “Omg, I would never, though.” If it’s ok for your friend, colleague, or sibling to find someone to talk to (even if they have to pay them to listen), why should it be any different for you? We should all know, by now, the debilitating effects isolation can have on our spirit. There is no shame in seeking counseling, therapy, or even just a friendly support group.
In sum, there’s a lot going on in our world right now. It’s simply unrealistic to expect that any feeling person should tune the world out and show up to the office as usual. And by “office,” I’m not just talking about a traditional employer. Your “office” could be a home office. It can be social media. It can the kitchen or the laundry room. It can be your kids’ school district. It can be your in-law’s garage or your best friend’s sofa. Whether your obligations are strictly professional, familial, or social, the world can and will get in the way of our ability to satisfy them effectively. We’re no good to any of them if we crash and burn so let’s hit the pause button before we suit up and head out to ensure we are at our best when they need and deserve our best.
Hey Joanne. I’m a 17 year old girl going into college soon and I’m a bit worried about a mindset I have. I’ve never used the phrase “This too shall pass” for any worldly tragedy. I’ve only ever used it as a mantra for myself. But I’m worried it might be unhealthy thinking. Every time I’m faced with my AP classes, bad friends, I try to think to my college life and how much better that will be. I always say that I should let that pain go because eventually my high school life will pass. But I listened recently again to your first episode of the podcast and I’m wondering if the habit might be unhealthy, and how I could tell if it is. Your words have helped me greatly in expressing myself and I would really love it if you lend me some help. -Katie
Katie, have you ever watched the movie Anne of Green Gables? If you haven’t and you have 6 hours to spare, I highly recommend it. Or, better yet, pick up a copy of the book. One of my favorite lines from that movie is the following:
“It’s not what the world holds for you, but what you bring to it.”
This quote has radically changed my perspective on what my life is. I used to think about what my future promised me: a whole new friend group in college, maybe even a passionate love affair, and a prestigious new job that would make my parents proud of me. But I soon discovered that even if the setting changes, even if the world around me changes, it doesn’t make much of a difference if the person I am doesn’t grow. Remember–we are a product of our choices. I say this all the time in my podcast, newsletter, instagram captions, and TikTok videos. Why? Because, agency–the ability to shape your life with your own two hands is the most joyful aspect of being alive.
I used to have a terrible recurring dream, for as long as I could remember. In the dream, I am two years old, wearing a bright yellow shirt with red and blue trim. Green buttons. I am sitting in the backseat of a car that’s driving somewhere. I don’t know where. But, as the car keeps moving along, a disquiet settles over me, I’m itchy and uncomfortable. Several minutes pass. Discomfort grows into anxiety, which grows into worry, which explodes into panic. I finally get up on my knees on the backseat, grip the shoulders of the seats in front of me, and lean over to see who’s driving the car, to ask them where we are going.
The driver’s seat is empty.
The whole car is empty, except for me.
No one is driving the car and, as a two year old girl, my legs aren’t even long enough to reach the brake pedal (I try).
I always wake up, slick with cold sweat, and hating this dream.
There is nothing more terrifying, more destructive, than being relegated to the backseat of our own lives.
The phrase “this too shall pass” isn’t harmful in and of itself. I often say something similar to myself when s*** happens: “you can’t win ’em all.” It acknowledges that some things are out of our control and stressing about them isn’t really productive or a good use of our valuable time. But I think what you’re concerned about, Katie, is whether you’re now using the phrase “this too shall pass” to “pass the buck,” so to speak. It can be tempting to label bad things as “out of our control” and thus something we don’t need to do anything about. But what you allude to, rather astutely, is that when you give up ownership of the bad things, you may also end up giving up ownership of the good things. If you continue to decline the invitation to get in the driver’s seat today, what makes you think you’ll be able to assume it tomorrow?
Agency–the ability to control your destiny, instead of waiting for destiny to happen–is the key to joy, the ultimate refutation of despair. So, if you get a bad grade, if your friends decide to screw you over, if your family appears determined to misunderstand you, instead of thinking about what you could have done to prevent those things (because the past is, most certainly, out of your control), consider how you might position yourself to prevent such outcomes in the future.
Because here’s the thing about that driver’s seat: even if you get lost along the way, when you finally get to your final destination–the one that you select, at least you’ll know that you’re the one that got you there.
- TORONTO!!! Yes, I’m FINALLY headed across the border!! I’m working with an incredible non-profit organization, Han Voice, to celebrate a pop-up art exhibit, People’s Museum of North Korea. The event will be on July 2 and you can buy your tickets here. See you there!
- For TKV Meal Planners, the next live cooking demonstration will be on June 29 (check your June 23 email for the link). We’ll be making Tofu Fried Rice! Not a TKV Meal Planner yet? For less than $2 per week, you not only get this LIVE cooking demonstration, you’ll get instant access to all the recipes, food coaches, and more!
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been forced to reckon with unthinkable tragedies. The loss of life is particularly excruciating when it was preventable. On the heels of watching families destroyed by gun violence, it was enraging to read through an opinion authored by those entrusted with guarding our democracy when they seemed more intent on protecting power. And just this past Friday, the Supreme Court issued an opinion overturning Roe v. Wade.
In his concurrence, Justice Clarence Thomas called for the “reconsideration” of legal precedent protecting a woman’s right to contraception and gay marriage, calling them “demonstrably erroneous decisions.” Nine of ten Americans believe in universal background checks. And yet we don’t have them. Only 3 out of 10 Americans believed that Roe v Wade should be overturned. And yet, here we are. We all need to remain vigilant, because it’s now clear that even if the majority of Americans believe that women should have the right to contraception, even if the majority of Americans believe that two gay men should be able to get married if that’s what they want, there is no guarantee that these rights won’t still be taken away. As I stayed up last night chatting with my friend, a man who married his husband just a couple years ago, I found it hard to tamp down the fear welling up in my heart for him, the anxiety I felt for myself, knowing that a man with a great deal of power over my life was openly trying to take away my right to say, “I don’t want to bring kids into a world that doesn’t seem to value them more than guns.”
Whether it’s a global pandemic, a war, another mass shooting, the endless reporting of hate crimes, or the unchecked erosion of human rights at the highest levels of government, it can all seem a bit much. And yet, we continue to operate under the belief that we’re not permitted to react to these things outside the confines of our home. There’s a reason we are called “human resources.” If computers could do our jobs as well as we could, then they would. Our value to our employers, families, friends, and communities is built upon our humanity, and our humanity requires us to feel things. Even bad things. Even hard things. Sometimes, I worry that the more we try to act like robots, the worse things will get for all of us.
Compassion, empathy–these are the tools we use to build community, to bridge divides. These are the cornerstones to a democracy erected in hope, a bulwark against cruelty and oppression. These are the beacons exposing rank injustice and pushing back the dark tide of tyranny. But neither can prevail if we get into the habit of offering up our pain upon the altar of toxic productivity. Now, more than ever, we need to regroup, step back, dress our wounds, heal up and recover for the road ahead.