April 02, 2019

Ten Tips to Manage Stress

Rick B. Allan

Seeking professional help in facing life’s difficult or painful moments is often an excellent place to start the healing process; however, it is only the starting point. Diagnosis and even many helpful suggestions can be made by the professional, but if we are not willing to own up to our situation and take the actions necessary to initiate a change and bring it to fruition, the professional’s help and assistance is of little value. Ultimately, it is an “inside job.”

To begin the process of positive change in our lives, it is important for us to look within our very being, even our core values—to take inventory, if you will. The first step in our self-evaluation, one necessary to process our difficult or painful situation, is that we must face the facts and accept the situation. At this point we may need to define acceptance as used in this context: It does not mean that we approve of the facts that we have faced, we only have to accept the reality of their existence.

While as lawyers we are trained to evaluate and process the facts, the very nature of our training and experience can be a liability when we are confronted by difficult or painful life episodes. Rationalization and justification are often associated with troubling life experiences, especially when they have been brought about by our own mistakes, which we often deny. We must fight our professional instinct to build a case against the situation rather than accepting it.

You might say, “Okay, so I have faced the facts—so what? I am still miserable! You said I could be part of the solution and that I could find the answers within, but nothing is happening. The professional analyzed the problem, I have been thinking, researching, analyzing, and thinking some more, and I still feel like I did when I first sought professional help: miserable.” I agree. In the words of the famous saying (attributed alternately to Albert Einstein or Benjamin Franklin), insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The answer is to be found in taking action—action that may be difficult or previously thought to be contrary to that which we were convinced was part of our very being or core values so deeply ingrained by our upbringing or religious experience.

In my personal journey, I have been greatly helped by a quote attributed to Herbert Spencer:

There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation.

Having accepted the facts, I must open up my mind and my soul, if you will, to “new ideas,” one of which might be “I could have been wrong.” It may be surprising to find on occasion that those items we had held to so tightly and for so long may not have been assets as we had always thought, but may actually have been or have become liabilities. We must be willing to ask ourselves, as our friend Dr. Phil of TV fame suggests, “How is that working for you?”

The solutions to many of life’s issues are simple; however, as stated above, we lawyers often are individuals with complex minds and educated many times beyond our intelligence. As a result, we have a tendency to overthink our lives because that is what we are trained to do. Pole-vaulting over ant hills instead of simply walking around them is our mind-set.

So having accepted the facts and recognizing that our “old ideas” are not working, what simple things can we do to address the misery that we perceive and the difficulty in our lives?

My friend the late Michael J. Sweeney, in an article titled “How to Manage Stress” (Oregon State Bar Bulletin, February/March 1993, volume 11), suggested ten simple ways we can reduce stress in our lives and in so doing face life each day. I would suggest that you not attempt them all at one time. Select one and practice it until it becomes a working part of your life, then move to another and incorporate it until you have progressed through them all.

1. Watch your diet. Obesity is not the only diet-related problem we must address. Certain foods contribute to the production of the “feel good” chemicals in our brain, whereas others merely provide empty calories. And we don’t need to be dietitians to learn how to eat right; resources abound in book stores and on the Internet.

2.  Exercise. Much of the stress in our lives originates in our instinctive “fight or flight” response. Physical activity reduces stress. We could discuss the scientific explanations for this, but we are trying to keep it simple, so let’s just say, “it works.”

3.  Learn time management. Time pressure is inherent in our legal system. Don’t fight it; learn to live with it. There are now many more tools for time management than there were when I began practicing law 45 years ago, but I am uncertain sometimes whether they have helped or added to our stress. One of Carl Horn’s suggestion in his book LawyerLife: Finding a Life and a Higher Calling in the Practice of Law (ABA Publishing, 2003) is “Don’t let technology control your life.” However, it is my opinion that technology can be used to one’s advantage. Beyond technological solutions, there are more basic time-management techniques you can practice. First and foremost, watch out for procrastination: It is a sign that we are becoming overwhelmed. Take action. Start working through the pile—from the top or bottom—and do one thing at a time, even if it is a small accomplishment. Just start. Many time-management experts have said that it doesn’t matter whether you use a paper planner or a computer program, so long as you use it consistently.

4.  Learn relaxation and breathing skills. “Take a deep breath”—where have we heard that before? Even taking a few moments, maybe repeating a word or phrase that helps us relax, can break that stressed, uptight feeling. The relaxation response is the exact opposite of the stress response. Relaxation not only improves our health but also enhances our energy levels and clarity of thought.

5.  Learn to play and have fun. I have always had a problem with this one. Raised in a family that taught that responsibility and work are the core of this life (at least that’s what I heard), I had a certain amount of guilt when playing or having fun. I’ve discovered this is another of those “old ideas” about which I was wrong. There is a reason we had recess in kindergarten.

6.  Use positive thinking and self-talk. Attitude is everything. I carry an Eeyore cartoon character pen in my pocket to remind myself not to complain and whine. (You might remember Eeyore, the donkey from the Winnie the Pooh stories with a rather dismal outlook on life.) I’ve also discovered that while I cannot always think my way into right actions, I often can act my way into right thinking.

7.  Develop a detached attitude. I am not sure when lawyers and judges began to talk about incivility in our profession, but the problem certainly has developed since I began practicing. I have not been able to determine the root or continuing cause, so I can only speculate about some of the reasons and hope for solutions. I am convinced that one of the causes is brought about by lawyers identifying themselves with the cases in which they are involved. We must not lose sight of who we are: We are called upon to be advocates, not protagonists and agitators. We must not become the matters in which we are involved. Try not to become emotionally involved in outcomes. Do the best you can, and let go of the results.

8.  Engage in prayer or meditation. Understanding that this will vary with individuals, I am not suggesting that the reader needs to have any particular form of spiritual affiliation or belief. I am suggesting that, for those who incorporate spiritual practices in their lives, faith and prayer bring about the same kind of stress reduction as relaxation techniques.

9.  Develop a sense of humor. Neuro­transmitters and endorphins are released in the pleasure center of the brain when you laugh. Laughter is a natural stress reducer. The messages “lighten up and don’t take yourself so seriously” are meritorious. Take them to heart—they may save your heart.

10.  Share your stress with someone. It has been suggested that this is the number-one way to reduce stress. Amazing things can happen when we share our stress with someone else. It is helpful simply to “get it off of your chest,” but, just as important, you may find that the situation is not as you had perceived. As the saying goes, 90 percent of the stuff we worry about never happens.

Just remember: Life can be difficult, misery is optional. 

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