But with too much pressure, lawyers can slip into “overload” and, ultimately, into “burnout.” While many lawyers will reach “overload” from time to time, the key is to get back to “eustress” as quickly as possible by using stress management, well-being, and boundary-setting strategies. The goal is to make the “overload” temporary. By keeping stress in check, protecting your well-being, and staying in “eustress” as much of the time as you can, you can reduce the likelihood that you’ll slide into burnout.
Stress is only as harmful as you think it is
Your perception of stress plays a major role in how it affects you.
A study tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years and asked them two key questions:
1) “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?”
2) “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?”
The researchers found that high stress levels increased study participants’ risk of dying by 43%, but only for those who told themselves that stress was harmful. Those who reported high stress but didn't view it as harmful had the lowest risk of dying of all study participants.
If you believe stress is a natural and helpful part of life, it can become true. When stress is viewed in this new light, it increases your capacity to find positive strategies to cope and even thrive in stressful situations.
This positive mindset around stress can be crucial for successfully managing the critical cases, challenging opposing counsel, difficult interactions, high client demands, and the long hours of being a lawyer. But how can you begin to shift your mindset around stress? A look at research on the topic offers helpful insights and strategies.
A stressful life equals a happy life
It’s impossible to have a happy, meaningful life without some stress, since many times stress comes from intentionally deciding to do hard things – like going to law school, building a legal practice, or tackling intellectually challenging issues and cases. We only have stress about the things we value, like our work, our loved ones, our clients, and our community. If we don’t care about something, we don’t worry about it.
A 2013 Stanford study asked a national sample of U.S. adults to rate how much they agreed with the statement, “Taking all things together, I feel my life is meaningful.” One of the study's main conclusions was that people with very meaningful lives worry more and have more stress than people with less meaningful lives.
The more we have meaning in our work and lives, the more stress we have. When you consider what stresses you the most, it’s typically what matters to you the most. Instead of viewing stress as harmful, we can view it as a gauge of how engaged we are in our activities and relationships rather than a sign that something is wrong.
So when that tough case nags at you or you find yourself worrying about a client late at night, maybe that’s simply a sign that you’ve created a practice that means a great deal to you, one that inspires you to care deeply about your work and its outcomes.
Your body is your ally
We often view symptoms like elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, heavy breathing, and "butterflies" as negative signs of stress and anxiety. But what if we saw these symptoms as signs that our bodies were energized and preparing us to meet a challenge? A study at Harvard found when study participants interpreted these sensations as excitement instead of anxiety, they performed better.
Stress also triggers the release of hormones such as oxytocin, DHEA, and nerve growth factor. These hormones help your body and mind recover from stress and learn from it.
Oxytocin, also known as the "cuddle hormone," makes you want to strengthen your relationships with others by giving and receiving support. This is important because loneliness and social isolation are linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide, so seeking support is crucial.
DHEA (a hormone produced in your adrenal gland) and nerve growth factor are like steroids for your brain, helping it grow stronger when faced with psychological challenges. These two hormones increase neuroplasticity, the ability of your brain to rewire itself to learn from your most stressful experiences.
When you move through and grow from a stressful experience, you have what’s called “stress inoculation” and you build “distress tolerance.” Your brain and body learn to handle stress, including new kinds of stress. If you were to ask most people how they cope with their biggest sources of stress, they would likely say that they draw on what they’ve learned from previous stressful experiences.
Once you have encountered and moved through a certain kind of stress, you feel more confident in your ability to handle that same stressor in the future, and you’ll likely handle it more calmly, skillfully, and easily than you did the initial time you faced it. You can choose to view today’s stress as a tool that will help you learn to navigate similar situations more smoothly and successfully in the future.
How to use stress as your secret weapon
One of the best ways to begin shifting your mindset around stress is to spend time reflecting on your current stressful situations.
Here are self-coaching questions for you to use that I share when I speak on this topic:
- What ways are you learning, growing, and strengthening your skills through this stressful situation?
- What elements of this situation are under your control? How can you leverage these to your advantage? What’s outside your control (and, thus, not something you should worry about)?
- How is this stress pushing you to perform at your best and bringing out a level of focus or determination you might not have otherwise?
- What opportunities within this stressful situation could benefit you in the long run?
- How can this stressor serve as a learning experience or steppingstone for future situations?
- How can you reframe this stress as energy or motivation to conquer challenges or grow new skills in your work?
- What is a past experience where you successfully navigated a similar stressful situation? What strategies can you carry forward from that experience to help you move through the current situation?
- How might this stressful experience be building your resilience and preparing you for future professional challenges?
Make the most of inevitable stress
While stress isn't the villain it's made out to be, that’s not to say that stress is always a good thing. If there is too much intense pressure that lasts for too long, you could slip into overload and burnout.
But by changing your perceptions and embracing stress as a part of a meaningful, high-performing life, you can transform potentially harmful distress into beneficial eustress.
When you can embrace a healthy level of the inevitable stress you will face in your legal practice and make that stress work for you, you can reach your biggest career and personal goals without the negative impacts on your physical and mental health.
So, the next time you feel the pressure mounting, remember: stress could be your secret weapon for success – not only in your legal career, but in your life.