Stress for Success?

By Todd C. Scott

James, a litigator from Minneapolis, was on vacation when he thought he was experiencing a heart attack. His symptoms—numbness in his limbs, light-headedness, a racing heart, sweaty palms, and the feeling that he just couldn’t catch his breath—caused him to lie down and wonder whether his children were in danger of losing their father.

“We were in Mexico and my wife said she was going to the beach,” James reports. “She came back to the room with a doctor.”

James was diagnosed with having a panic attack. At age 40, James had never experienced a panic attack prior to his Mexican vacation, but before leaving for home, he was to have another one that was even more debilitating.

For James, a long-overdue vacation where he and his spouse could finally relax away from their kids seemed like a peculiar place to experience a panic attack. Often, first panic attacks can be triggered by physical illness, a major life stress, or certain medications. James had been very healthy and had no reason to stress during his vacation. In hindsight, James realized that had been under particularly high stress preparing for trials in the weeks leading up to his vacation, however.

“I found myself working the whole weekend to reduce anxiety,” says James. “Even if I was, for all practical purposes, prepared for my trial, coming in to work for the weekend gave me the sense that I was doing all that I could do. Working on the weekends gave me some relief from my increasing stress.”

For James, changes in the way lawyers practice litigation further added to his stress. Opposing attorneys seemed to have become more unreasonable, purposefully adopting tactics that would escalate his client’s costs, despite being on the losing end of a matter. James recognized that his distaste for such aggressive tactics had drastically increased, and sometimes he would need days or even weeks before he could get over his anger at the jerks who were harassing his client.

Or perhaps it was James who was changing. As an attorney in his 20s, James always had been up for a good legal contest—later taking out his aggressions on a hockey rink or playing five rounds of golf in a week. Now, although he was a wiser and more experienced attorney, stress and anxiety seemed to come on quicker than ever, and a few rounds of golf didn’t seem to do the trick anymore.

James’s feelings about work are not surprising to most who understand the nature of a law practice. The occupation of “lawyer” ranks second in the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of top ten most stressful jobs. The ranking is based on the average number of days workers spent away from their jobs recovering from neurotic reactions to job stress.

A panic attack is not the only way that increasing stress can cause debilitating reactions in the human body, but it sure is a good attention-getter. Because the symptoms are quite similar to myocardial infarction, most people visit a doctor soon after their first attack and get advice about reducing the stress in their life that may have triggered the event. Understanding what happens to the human body while it is under stress may also be helpful when trying to choose the best methods for avoiding more continuous panic episodes.

What Causes Stress

The human body is set up like a Rube Goldberg machine for processing a perceived threat. Through a system of electronic pulses and chemical reactions, the mechanism that was designed to save humans when a tiger walked into their cave at night still kicks into action if our bills are paid late or when someone asks us for a favor that we don’t care to fulfill.

The first stop for the stress message is the thalamus, a clump of matter in the lower center of the brain that instantly sends a message to the amygdala to start searching through the brain’s archives to look for any similar experiences in the past. The stress notice is forwarded throughout the body through the autonomic nervous system, causing minute physical reactions such as muscle tension, increasing heart rate, and facial expressions. At the same time, a message is sent to the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s decision-making center, to start the process of determining whether the threat merits a high-stress reaction. Also picking up on the message are glands in the brain and atop the kidneys that pump hormones that increase the heart rate and cause the liver to deliver high-energy blood sugar to the muscles and brain—all the things necessary to get the body out of the way of immediate danger.

The messages produced by this high-speed human warning system race through the body below the radar, inducing unconscious reactions before one has any awareness of what is happening. By the time you realize you are stressing, the horses have already left the stable.

The body’s ability to react to abstract threats in the same way as life-threatening dangers gives people the capacity to make quick, clear-headed decisions while feeling at their peak. It’s no wonder that some people—professional athletes, stock traders, and lawyers—sometimes feel they thrive under stressful conditions. The feeling of being at peak performance is enhanced when all the physical reactions of a stressful episode are unleashed throughout the body.

But a danger lurks in those who spend too much time in a stressful state. The physical reactions produced by hormones and autonomic messages can take a toll on the human body over time. Increasing blood pressure will develop cracks in artery walls, the immune system can become so modified that it will shut-down, and the hippocampus, the memory-storing part of the brain, will literally shrink from the constant flow of stress hormones.

Even worse, a steady diet of perceived threats over time can cause the human stress-reaction system to get stuck in the “on” position, leading the brain to treat the higher heart rate as the new baseline. In short, if you operate in a constant state of stress, the brain will start to look for things to stress about even during a period of relative calm.

It is possible that people can have fewer stressful episodes by happenstance if they incorporate new hobbies or thinking patterns in their lives, but only a conscious decision from those suffering continuous stress to rid their lives of anxiety will reduce the number of episodes they experience and lessen the severity of the events.

Studies show that humans who process thoughts more regularly through the left half of their prefrontal cortex tend to have more positive emotions, while right-side users are more sensitive to criticism and are less able to regulate negative emotion. The good news for stress-suffering right-side users is that the brain can be “retrained” and pathways can be worn into the prefrontal cortex that cause you to respond to stress using the parts of the brain that are believed to produce problem-solving capabilities and more positive emotions.

Retraining the brain can be done through both physical means and by properly engaging the mind. You should think of stress-reducing techniques as pilates for the brain. These exercises can save a legal career from coming to a premature end—along with the life of the lawyer.

Just Chill Out

One of the reasons that playing golf, gardening, enjoying music, knitting, or running can reduce stress is that they rely on the left side of the prefrontal cortex—the pleasure center of your brain. The simple act of engaging in such activities will carve new pathways through the side of the brain that experiences enjoyment, contentment, satisfaction, and delight and will unconsciously focus the brain to try processing stressful activities through the left side as well. The result will often be a calmer, rational thought process while experiencing something that would otherwise get your heart racing.

If certain activities don’t seem to give you the reduction in stress that they once did, you may want to look for new, more relaxing activities—something that you have always wanted to do—to keep the brain happy and in action. First-time experiences such as learning to play the guitar, knitting, trying out for a play, or oil painting will greatly enhance the trail-blazing, pleasure-inducing process of left-side brain activity.

In addition to finding a good hobby and sticking to it, new methods of thinking will train the brain to process stressful thoughts differently. By planning contingencies, or trying to see the bigger picture, your brain will react to stressful episodes as though they are just one step in a bigger process. Humor is also an underrated coping mechanism for quickly and effectively changing a brain’s process that has gotten stuck in a right-side pattern of helplessness and defeat.

Some individuals are predisposed to routing stressful thoughts through the left side of the brain. Certain employers, such as NASA, test for such individuals because of their ability to suppress a stressful problem until the time is right to solve it.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy for those whose thinking patterns may be based on more deeply rooted negative thoughts. By replacing those nagging thoughts with new thinking patterns, people can effect positive changes in their mental outlook in a matter of weeks. A CBT therapist will challenge the negative assumptions under which a person may have been operating for years (e.g., “I never should have been a litigator”) and help effectuate a new positive outlook (e.g., by examining the reasons you chose your practice area).

Controlling your surroundings will make a big difference in how fast your brain moves into its negative mode on Monday mornings. By taking control of your workload, regularly scheduling time off, and keeping an organized office, you will allow yourself more time to make a difficult decision, and you may experience fewer moments when things seem out of control.

Stress and Depression

Chronic stress will lead to depression, and a depressed lawyer will result in neglected clients. Therefore, it is important that you also recognize the symptoms of depression that you or your colleagues might be exhibiting:

• persistent feelings of sadness or irritability

• loss of interest in activities once enjoyed

• changes in weight or appetite

• changes in sleep patterns

• feelings of guilt or hopelessness

• inability to concentrate or make a decision

• fatigue

• restlessness or lethargy

• thoughts about suicide or death

• isolating or avoiding friends or family

Like stress, depression is rampant among lawyers. Out of 105 occupations, lawyers rank first with the most who report they suffer from depression. This statistic may also play a role in the disproportionate number of lawyers who commit suicide and the above-average rate of alcohol abuse among lawyers—18 percent versus 10 percent in other professions.

Law firms need to address issues of stress and depression as a risk-management concern to lessen the chances that a client’s matter will be permanently harmed because the file is neglected. Lawyers should recognize the patterns of stress and depression among their colleagues and approach the suffering lawyer with compassion and concern. Other professionals such as pilots and doctors are more proactive about recognizing these symptoms and providing the time that is needed to recuperate—for the sake of the afflicted individual as well as the people in his or her care, be they passengers, patients, or clients.

Whether you are a stressed-out lawyer (and, as a note of congratulations, you have managed to give yourself enough time to read this far!) or you have colleagues you are concerned about, it is important to understand the harm that too much stress can produce. By also having a grasp on the physiology of stress and the methods for changing the way your brain reacts to it, you can add years to your life and to a legal career that is on the verge of fizzing out.

Todd C. Scott is vice president of Member Services, the risk management unit of Minnesota Lawyer’s Mutual Insurance Company. He also serves as co-chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association’s Practice Management and Marketing Section. He may be reached at .

Copyright 2007

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