On July 29, 2002, as I was preparing to go on a mountain bike ride, the phone rang. I answered it, and the voice on the other side said, “I’m sorry, but there has been an accident. Your son is on a helicopter heading for the hospital in Dunedin, New Zealand.” The caller could not tell me if he were dead or alive. My son, an Air Force pilot, had gone to New Zealand for his dream vacation to spend three weeks training with mogul-skiing Olympic hopefuls. They found him unconscious at the bottom of a ski hill. I rushed to New Zealand. When I arrived at the hospital, the doctors told me he would be a vegetable for the rest of his life because he had suffered a severe traumatic brain injury.
I am no stranger to stress. My son’s traumatic brain injury was one of the longest ordeals, but it came at the heels of childhood trauma, a near-fatal car accident, divorce, hurricanes, earthquakes, and even cancer. If the only time you suffered stress were extreme situations such as these, when the stressful event subsided, your body would calm, and all would be well.
But the law profession is full of stressors, small, medium, and large. Some lawyers enjoy the feeling of being under stress and revel in getting ready for “showtime” or trial regularly. Many tolerate the stress and can’t wait until the event is over. Most aren’t even aware of all the stressors that are wreaking havoc on their body and, in particular, their brain.
Stress is inevitable. Some stress is good for us. But the underlying hum of stress that lawyers perceive as “normal” is harming you and the lawyer next to you. As with any prevention or treatment, awareness is step one.
Not All Stress Is Bad for You
Eustress (a word coined by Hans Selye, pioneer of modern stress study) is beneficial stress. You’ve experienced this when your car suddenly swerves on an icy road. This stress triggers your “fight-or-flight” response, and you respond instantly. Your primitive brain provides the chemical boost necessary to deal with sudden, unpredictable events. Without this response, our species would have died off thousands of years ago.
This is the stress that you may feel right before you begin closing arguments or an athletic performance. This stress can help you “rise” to the performance. But when the event is over, this stress dissipates (or, rather, it should dissipate).
If all we experienced was eustress, this article would not be necessary.
Stress Becomes Problematic When It Becomes Chronic
The fundamental problem with our brain’s reaction to stress is that our brain does not distinguish the difference between real (saber-toothed tiger attacking), perceived (possible unhappy client), and imaginary (boogeyman under the bed) threats. When multiple events that the brain perceives as threats occur all day, every day, chronic stress begins.
Chronic stress results from repeated and/or constant exposure to situations that lead to the release of stress chemicals, particularly cortisol. Our bodies were not designed by evolution to deal with these stress chemicals on a consistent basis. Release of these chemicals on a regular basis causes wear and tear on your brain and body. Imagine a faucet being turned on when you begin to suffer from stress (good or bad), pouring cortisol into your system. When living in chronic stress, even when the major stressor dissipates, the faucet does not shut down completely, and you suffer from a “cortisol drip.” When living in chronic stress, your brain and body never get a break from this cortisol drip.
According to several studies, high levels of cortisol wear down the brain’s ability to function properly, kill brain cells, and reduce the size of the brain. This finding should be of particular alarm to lawyers.
Additionally, one of the most significant effects of stress is that bodily functions unnecessary to dealing with a fight-or-flight response become temporarily paralyzed. This interruption to bodily functions such as the immune system and digestive system contribute to the multitude of diseases and illnesses of modern times. Your executive functions, also, are not necessary to deal with a fight-or-flight response. When suffering from chronic stress, your high-level brain functions are also impaired, as if you’ve had a couple of drinks.
In order to effectively manage stress, the cortisol tap must be shut down completely to stop the infusion of cortisol into your system. When the tap is completely shut down, your body releases chemicals to counteract the cortisol that is in your system. So long as cortisol is dripping, the counteracting chemicals never get released. This is why so many modern-day medical conditions can be linked to stress (cardiovascular, immune, reproductive, digestive, and neurological problems; diabetes; Parkinson’s disease; Alzheimer’s disease; etc.).
Stress in the Life of a Lawyer
The legal profession is particularly susceptible to stressors because lawyers are society’s problem-solvers, and problems often give rise to feelings of anxiety, worry, uncertainty, frustration, and other negative emotions, all of which trigger stress. Out of the most common six basic emotions (happy, sad, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust), five are negative. Our brains have an inclination toward negative emotions, and these trigger stress. Add constant problem-solving as the main purpose of your profession, and the impact is exacerbated.
In addition to the stress-inducing profession, lawyers, like everyone else, also suffer from stress caused by everyday occurrences. Some examples of everyday stressors include dealing with road rage, traffic, problems with staff, and arguments with spouses, just to name a few.
Because a typical lawyer’s “normal” is living with a low hum of stress, many lawyers are unaware that they are suffering from chronic stress and the incessant drip of cortisol. By the time many lawyers become alarmed about suffering from stress, they are suffering from significant stress and turning to alcohol, drugs, and medication to deal with chronic stress.
Lawyers Resist Stress Management
Why do we resist taking steps to reduce or manage stress before it becomes a major problem?
One, it is human nature; we don’t want to be bothered with anything we perceive as interrupting the status quo. Our brains are wired to resist change. Your brain’s sole function is to keep you alive, and it has done a good job of it so far, so why change?
Two, what lawyer doesn’t already feel busy and feel as if there’s no more time to do something new? After all, if you have the time, you’d make it to your daughter’s soccer game. But this reasoning always takes me back to the airline’s instruction to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others. If you are not fully functioning, you are unable to help anyone else.
And three, you can’t bill for this time!
Reducing and effectively managing stress are not that difficult. It’s just difficult to get ourselves to do something simple. Yes, it does take a certain amount of time and a willingness to give focused attention to learning more about ourselves and adjusting our behavior. But the alternative—living in chronic stress with cortisol shrinking your brain—should be enough reason to start making some changes.
It’s Not Just about Mindfulness and Meditation
During the past several years, there has been a push toward mindfulness and meditation practices, all of which are effective ways to manage stress. However, not all lawyers (including me) are amenable to these practices, and other solutions are necessary. If you have a mindfulness or meditation practice, I recommend you continue it. However, I have had to find alternative ways to manage stress. Rather than managing stress on a general level, my first goal has been to identify the source of stress and then employ strategies that deal with that cause of stress.
Because stress is the result of hyperactivity of the primitive brain triggering a fight-or-flight response, the ability to recognize when our brains perceive threats, what emotions are triggered, and what are the methods to calm the emotion to prevent stress from going into overdrive are at the source of stress-management strategies. Mindfulness and meditation work because these practices help calm the brain to give it time to sort through the emotions and separate real and perceived fears.
Alternatives to Mindfulness and Meditation Practices
We experience, on average, about 100 emotions each day. We ignore most of them, and sometimes we ignore all of them. Learning to accurately identify our emotions is a critical first step toward managing emotions and ultimately managing our reactions. You can’t manage what you don’t know exists. One simple activity is to set aside four to five times a day when you stop for one minute and ask yourself how you’re feeling and identify the emotion. The simple act of paying attention can calm your brain. A Mood Meter (designed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence) is a tool that includes the names of a multitude of emotions to help you identify your emotion. My handout “Mood Meter: Identifying Emotions” describes this exercise; you can download it here: https://bit.ly/FTone-MoodMeter.
Elevating your emotional intelligence will improve how you manage stress. The EQ-i 2.0 assessment measures 15 competencies ranging from self-perception to decision-making to stress management. When these competencies are out of balance, you are more likely to be susceptible to the negative impacts of stress. Identifying weaknesses and working to balance the 15 competencies not only increase your awareness of stress causers but also help you develop tools to manage stress more effectively.
One of the major sources of stress for lawyers is the never-ending to-do list. Lawyers are a busy bunch, but, often, the busy-ness is the result of an out-of-control to-do list. Just looking at a list that never ends is overwhelming and will cause your brain to perceive a threat. The Eisenhower Principle will help you get your to-do list under control so that it stops being a source of stress. You classify everything on your list according to two sets of variables: important/unimportant and urgent/not urgent. You tackle tasks that are both important and urgent, and you schedule tasks that are important but not urgent. Anything that is unimportant needs to be given to someone else or eliminated entirely, and definitively removed from your to-do list.
And, finally, one simple and easy stress reducer is to spend six minutes each day reading fiction. Studies have shown that this simple activity will reduce stress by 68 percent in those six minutes. This is a substantial stress reduction and, according to some studies, greater than you get from meditation.
Lawyers Need to Take Action Before Stress Becomes a Problem
As I said, stress is inevitable in the legal profession. Given the devastating impact stress can have on your health and your brain, waiting until you have a problem is often too late.
The solution lies in your ability to shut down stress completely so that your body and brain have the time and opportunity to repair. Meditation and mindfulness will help you do this. But developing and heightening your self-awareness so you can regulate your emotional response will also help you do this.
Would you put on your oxygen mask first before helping the person next to you? That is what stress management is: your learning to manage stress enough to shut it off completely so you can continue to be an effective attorney for your clients and an effective friend, parent, or spouse.
When my son suffered his severe traumatic brain injury, I had to take my own advice and manage my stress effectively. Panic and emotional reactions were not an option. Whatever caused a cortisol drip had to be kept at bay. Ten years later, my son went to Germany for six and one-half years in his new job as a strategic military planner for Air Force Command Europe/Africa. Not a vegetable.