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Contributed by Krista Larson, Morgan Lewis
Get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week. Spend quality time with family. Meditate 20 minutes a day. Eat healthy. Maintain meaningful friendships. Be present. Sleep eight hours every night. Journal. Eat healthy. Oh, and leave enough time to solve your client's bet-the-business challenge.
Despite the average attorney's proclivity for perfectionism, who has the time to perfect all of these stress management techniques? Let's talk about what it means to optimize—not perfect—stress.
First, stress and negative emotions are normal and important aspects of the human experience, and can be helpful motivators towards making important changes. As the world grapples with a surge of unsettling events, it's both reasonable and expected to experience negativity and stress. Having those feelings doesn't mean you failed or that you're bad at stress management. Instead, your feelings are completely within the realm of expected and normal experience. While this article will highlight stress management and making the most of your stress response, it's okay not to be okay all the time. Still, there is more to the story.
A great definition of stress comes from Stanford University professor Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. In her book, “Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good at It,” she says “stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake.” If you think about it, when was the last time you were stressed about something you didn't care about? And you might say, “Well, I wasn't as concerned about that urgent assignment I had to do late last night, and that stressed me out.” While that may be true on a surface level, a commitment or value likely lies not too far underneath. Perhaps it's a commitment to being perceived as competent or a value of the financial security that comes from doing well at your job.
Stress in everyday life is often associated with the physical sensations. Stress might make your palms get sweaty before giving a deposition, your body tense up during cross-examination, or perhaps your breathing quicken when an urgent email comes through. You can also experience stress emotionally as your mind racing, worry or anxiety.
If you're like most people, you've spent your life being told that stress is bad and that it has negative health consequences. This is true when it comes to prolonged, debilitating stress. However, a robust and growing body of research is showing that stress can actually be enhancing and healthy if it's used in the right way. So, before discussing how to manage the bad stress, this article will highlight how moderate amounts of stress can be good and how we can use that particular kind of stress as a tool for our well-being.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law of Arousal can help us understand how stress and performance relate to each other, and, importantly, it illustrates how and when stress can be a good thing.
In situations of low stress, you may be bored or just mildly aware. Your performance is not likely to be strong. But as stress increases, you become more alert and engaged, bringing you into the optimal performance zone. This is where a certain amount of stress can be beneficial. Without it, you wouldn't be motivated or alert. Still, there can be too much of a good thing. Once you pass the optimal zone, your ability to perform decreases and you may experience anxiety or even panic.
It's in these more moderate amounts that stress is most helpful. The stressors in this part of the graph are the everyday stressors such as the nerves you feel before giving a presentation, the tension that arises when an important deadline nears, or the stress of trying to figure out how you're going to replenish your groceries while in quarantine.
On a biological level, there are a several positive outcomes of this type of stress. It can help you be more focused and energized. Additionally, the neurotransmitters released during the stress response encourage you to connect with others, which is more important now than ever as we practice social distancing.
Yet, to use stress to help well-being, it's important to think about it in the right way. The first stress management tip for you? Adopt a strategic stress mindset.
If you think about stress as helpful—as your body preparing to respond to a challenge—not only will you perform better, but you're also likely to experience more positive physical health outcomes.
Therefore, a stress mindset can have both a mental and physical well-being impact. It turns out that stressing about stress, not necessarily the stress itself, may be what leads, in part, to the bad outcomes of stress. In order to get the most out of our stress response, research by Alia Crum, McGonigal, and others suggests you should replace stress about stress with a mindset that stress is helpful.
In short, what this means is that instead of reducing or avoiding stress entirely, you should actually be rethinking some of it. When you're experiencing stress in more moderate amounts, start to train your brain to think “this stress is helping me perform at my best.”
And this isn't just a mental trick. Those who think of stress as helpful have healthier chemical reactions in their bodies. This is because when you think about stress in a more positive way, your body releases certain hormones that help counteract the negative effects of other more damaging stress hormones, such as cortisol. Changing the way you think about stress changes the effect that stress has on your body.
Still, you can have too much of a good thing, and stress can be harmful and overwhelming.
Going back to the Yerkes-Dodson Law of Arousal, everyone finds themselves in the “red zone” from time to time. While you don't want to demonize all stress, it's also vitally important to recognize that extreme, prolonged, debilitating stress can have negative effects on our well-being and is something that can be managed.
So let's talk about managing the red zone. What you want to be able to do is create space between stressful events and your reactions to those stressors. It's in this space that stress management happens because you're opened up to a whole host of new ways of responding that can help avoid becoming stuck in the red zone.
Below are some strategies for creating that space. Think of this a bit like panning for gold. You're not going to connect with every one of them, which is why there's a wide variety. Instead, sift through these and try to identify one or two nuggets to take away with you and put into practice.
Focus on the solution: It's nearing midnight, you've already billed 12 hours today, and you're rushing to meet a deadline. Your stress level has officially reached red zone, and you send out the wrong agreement. Yikes. It's easy to lock up and catastrophize about all the negative consequences of this mistake, but that won't solve anything. Instead of getting stuck, shift gears and reframe unproductive thinking to instead focus on the solution.
Get moving: Our emotional state is inextricably linked to movement through the mind-body connection. I'm not talking about running 10 miles every day, although, good for you if you can do that. This can be as simple as doing a few jumping jacks in between calls or a series of sun salutations before logging on in the morning.
Walk it out: Walking gives us the benefits of movement with the addition of a change of scenery, allowing us to change our frame of mind. Use this time to catch up recordings of meetings you missed: Pop in the headphones, find a safe walking path, and listen while you walk it out.
Switch it up: Change direction and come back to the stressful item later. This technique can be especially helpful for those stress-inducing emails you get from time to time. If you can, don't respond to that email right away. Try coming back to it later when you're out of the red zone, but if you do need to respond immediately, try taking a couple of deep breaths first.
Phone a friend: The hormones released during stress response actually nudge you towards being social. Humans have evolved such that our stress response works to encourage us to connect with others and seek support because this can help us manage that stress. Whether it be a conversation to talk out a solution or simply to vent, connect with a confidant who can help you exit the red zone.
Spread some joy: In addition to the positive effects experienced by the recipient, giving back to others has the added advantage of benefiting the giver. Start with a gratitude letter. Who from your practice group—think, too, of legal secretaries, junior associates, and administrative staff—has made your life easier recently? Send them a quick email to say thanks. This doesn't require a gush of emotion or 5-paragraph essay—just be genuine in your recognition and let the person know you appreciate their efforts.
Write it down: Keep a piece of paper on your desk where you write out your worried thoughts. Writing down stressors helps process them, frees up mental space and allows room for more positive, productive thoughts and emotions.
Mind your mind: You can use mindfulness to train your brain to be less reactive, which allows you to choose your response to stressful situations. For a busy lawyer, sitting cross-legged and meditating for 30 minutes a day might not be realistic, and that's OK. Start small with just 30 seconds a day of mindfulness meditation and build up your practice with five-second increments.
Finally, please remember that you don't have to go at this alone. Mental health professionals can help navigate life's challenges and learn additional strategies for managing stress effectively. If you are interested in speaking to someone, look into your organization's employee assistance programs or other behavioral health support services. Lawyers, law students, and legal professionals also have access to a robust set of resources through their local lawyer assistance programs and the American Bar Association.
Stress is something all too familiar to lawyers. The potential for high-stakes and high-pressure scenarios seems to rises with every billable hour. Toss in a pandemic and the plethora of other challenging societal situations, and it's a perfect recipe for overwhelm. Managing debilitating stress is perhaps more relevant now than ever.
Therefore, you must manage the red zone, but also remember that not all stress is bad. The next time your heart starts to beat a little faster, or you feel butterflies in your stomach, think of that as your stress response preparing you to succeed. Your mindset is something you can control and should be your go-to stress management tool.