Reducing Stress: Understanding and ManagingThe Tigers in Our Heads
By George W. Kaufman
In my 37 years of practicing law, I have experienced the stresses of the profession in many different configurations. In our field, we consider the pressures of practice something to be lived with, like a birthmark, rather than something to excise from our lives, like a boil. We are told that the pressures come with the territory and that if we can’t stand the heat, we should get out of the kitchen.
Where would we go? Into the arms of another firm or corporate practice? Perhaps the bench or nonprofit law? Maybe public service? The problem is that wherever we might travel, we take ourselves. And if we haven’t altered our perspective around the work we do, the stresses of lawyering follow us around like an afternoon shadow.
The primary source of stress derives from the way we practice. Our system encourages adversarial behavior. In the June 21 issue of New York magazine, the cover story, titled "Law Is Hell," says that "life at the city’s top firms has become a state of war." Money and power appear to be the aphrodisiacs that lawyers and firms crave. Unfortunately, these short-term fixes offer little stability to lawyers or the law firms where they work. We have only to look at public trials or watch late-night talk shows to hear the way that lawyers interact. We are constantly struggling to get or keep clients, meet unreasonable deadlines, juggle multiple matters and still keep a life. Since we are trained in this process, we perform well. Unfortunately, in the very act of our performing, we are unaware of what that performance costs us.
Stress carries a high price tag. Too high. We need to understand what stress is, what stress does and what practical steps we can take to dilute it.
What Stress Is
Stress is something to be managed, not eviscerated. Simply put, a stressor is anything that throws the body out of balance. It can be a sudden event or just something we anticipate happening. Our response to stress is the way that our body tries to restore balance. When physical danger suddenly appears, several automatic body responses occur. When Cro-Magnon man encountered a saber-toothed tiger in the forest, his body responses were remarkably similar to your own when you encounter what seems a life-threatening situation.
Here’s a summary of body changes:
- Adrenaline is released into the body.
- Pupils dilate to let in more light.
- Blood flow to extremities is reduced to minimize bleeding.
- Heart rate increases, carrying oxygen to cells.
- The liver releases stored sugar to meet increased energy needs.
- Digestive organs receive less blood.
- Perspiration increases to cool the body.
- Chemicals release to make the blood clot more rapidly.
Each of these changes is designed to prepare us either to fight or flee from the danger that has caused our body to react. Without these body changes, our chances of survival against external danger would be seriously reduced.
In modern society, of course, most tigers live in our heads. While we still need to deal with external threats when they occur, we have developed our consciousness so that stress responses can be triggered by our thoughts. Since our body doesn’t distinguish between real dangers and the dangers we create by thought, it goes through the same physical changes in either case.
What Stress Does
In times of danger, the body’s response to stress can be a weapon that saves your life. When the danger passes, your body returns to equilibrium. The surges of energy you experienced subside and your metabolism slows. However, when you are feeling anxious on a continual basis, the body keeps trying to arm itself against danger and remain on alert. This type of stress is known as chronic. The body maintains a constant presence of stress hormones. Suddenly, the weapon the body forged to thwart danger has become a weapon turned against itself.
The most unfortunate expression of chronic stress is the wearing down of the body’s immunological system. The weakest part of the body becomes the most susceptible to disease. As the body tries to adapt to physiological changes resulting from chronic stress, its resistance is diminished. Here are other by-products of chronic stress:
- Memory loss
- Greater rate of impotence
- More miscarriages
- Elevated blood pressure
- Rapid wearing out of the cardiovascular system
Even though the dangers are obvious, we resist making changes in our behavior until illness strikes us with the swat power of a 2-by-4 block of wood. By then the damage from chronic stress has already occurred. We are too late for prevention and must instead work on repairing the body.
What Dilutes Stress?
Work can produce an inexhaustible supply of new stressors that keep our body in a state of constant alert. Life goes out of balance as work demands more and more of our waking time. We lose touch with our relationships, our feelings, our ability for self-care and our creativity.
In the long run, we need to find ways of reprioritizing our values and acting in concert with the values we espouse. Those life changes address stress at its source. Perhaps no other endeavor we undertake will be as important—or as hard. Yet when accomplished, no other endeavor will be as life affirming.
That’s in the long run. But what can be done today? There are a host of relaxation techniques that chip away at the harmful effects of stress and give us pockets of relief. They are not substitutes for change—just useful palliatives until change happens.
Breathing: Slow Down
Most of us breathe too rapidly. Our breathing is shallow and primarily takes place in the upper lungs. When we’re angry or emotional, we often hold our breath. When we’re fearful, we tighten our stomach muscles. This action doesn’t let the diaphragm expand into the stomach. Instead, it forces us to breathe from our chests.
Learn to breathe from your diaphragm. Lie down. If you can’t lie down, find a place where you can lean back in a chair. By keeping the body straight, the diaphragm has room to expand. Place your left hand on your abdomen and your right hand on your chest. Breathe so that your left hand rises and falls instead of your right hand. If you take deep breaths, your right hand will also begin to rise and fall, but it will do so later and in a less pronounced way.
Breathe in slowly and take deep breaths. After you inhale, hold your breath for a few seconds before exhaling. When you exhale, allow a soft sigh (the sigh of relief) to escape as a way of releasing tension.
Do this for two minutes. If it feels difficult, stop. The object is not to push yourself, but to relax yourself. Find a comfortable way to introduce this type of breathing into your routine. You can catch yourself at moments in the day when you’ve lost the connection to diaphragmatic breathing. Just take a few deep, slow breaths from the abdomen as a way of remembering this type of breathing. It will slow you down.
Personal Time: Mark Your Calendar
When things get busy, we give up pieces of ourselves in favor of work. It takes a catastrophe to surrender even a small part of our workload. While we all need a break in our daily schedules, when we look at our appointments, we find that there’s no time.
Try scheduling an appointment with yourself. Consider taking three hours a week—during the workday—just for you. Look at your calendar and find some open spots. You can take the three hours in one shot or spread them out in half-hour modules. (No 10-minute billing cycles, please.) Mark the time in your calendar and let it have the same gravity as a work appointment. If you have to cancel it (as you might with business appointments), schedule another time.
Plan what you’re going to do with your self-appointment when the time comes. It could be going to the gym, reading or taking a walk. You decide. But it can’t be work. Finding time is a personal reminder to care for yourself and the beginning step to putting more balance into your daily routine.
Cheap Toys: Meditation
Most of the toys we accumulate are expensive. If it’s golf or tennis, we trade up as technology and advertising entice us into believing we can be better players by improving our equipment. Meditation is a self-improvement toy that needs no equipment, takes 20 minutes to play and doesn’t require a partner or an opponent. Meditation is a space game. When we play, we are finding ways to create space in our lives. We are uncomfortable with empty time and no activity to occupy us. The beauty of meditation is that it provides a way of stepping out of the fast lane.
As a kid, I used to be fascinated with one amusement park ride. You stood in a silo-shaped space and leaned against the wall as the silo turned faster and faster. At a certain speed, you were pinned against the wall and couldn’t move. The floor dropped out, but you were stuck in place as though crazy glue was attached to your clothes. Centrifugal force. When we practice law in the fast-forward mode, we are stuck against the walls of work with no way to move. Meditation slows the speed of the moving silo and puts the floor back under us. That practice slows us down and increases relaxation. It facilitates our efforts to take our bodies away from living in a state of chronic stress.
A Prescription for Well-Being
Stress is so common in our culture that the era in which we live has been referred to as the Age of Anxiety and the Century of Stress. It is critical that we find a way to lighten up. The suggestions offered here are just an introduction to a world of relaxation techniques. There are many other ways to practice relaxation—yoga, massage, exercise, saunas, vacations and biofeedback, to name a few. The more experiences you have with these practices, the more tools you will have to offset stress and rebalance how you allocate time.
George Kaufman ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lawyer who lives in Saugerties, NY. He is the author of the ABA book The Lawyer’s Guide to Balancing Life and Work.
Be Attentive to the Here and Now
Multitasking is one of those words that sounds great and feels rotten. Instead of doing several tasks well, we rob a little from each one to avoid failure. Instead of raising the bar of excellence, we see how far it can drop without collapsing.
The anonymity of the telephone, for example, encourages multitasking. We can be speaking to a client while rummaging through our desk, sorting mail, organizing papers and reading e-mails. Don’t succumb to this temptation. When you’re on the telephone, give your attention to the person at the other end. Your real attention. When the phone rings, take two deep breaths before you answer it. If your secretary transfers your calls, tell her you’ll be on in 15 seconds. Use the time to focus on breathing in deeply and exhaling slowly. Do it twice. The breathing will move you away from the six other things you were doing and bring your attention to the one task now before you. The breathing will ground you in the here and now. When you answer the phone, the caller will have your attention.
When you finish, take two more deep breaths. Don’t rush them—or your effort will be wasted. The deep breaths are a way of ending your involvement with the conversation before beginning something else.
- Guide to Stress Reduction by L. John Mason. Celestial Arts, 1997.
- The Lawyer’s Guide to Balancing Life and Work by George W. Kaufman. ABA Law Practice Management Section, 1999.
- The Lemming Conspiracy by Bob D. McDonald and Don Hutcheson. Longstreet Press, 1997.
- The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, MD. Avon Books, 1975.
- Stress Management for Lawyers by Amiram Elwork. The Vorkell Group, 1997.
- Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. John Weatherhill, 1970.