Completing the Cycle
It’s well known that exercise generally helps reduce stress. We would probably be less stressed if we all had time for the activity we know we need. But many lawyers do not have “time” for exercise, and even those who regularly make time for it may be caught off guard by a more than occasional professional stressor. The good news is that there are other tools you can use. Some don’t take much time and can have a significant impact. The key to unlocking stress is to complete the stress cycle.
If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this: Stress is a biological process that needs to run its course—you don’t want to get stuck in idle. Stress is not the enemy; remaining stressed is.
Imagine what would happen to a car if it got stuck in idle rather than turning off and resting when it parked in the garage. How quickly would that wear down the engine and all other parts when a car is left running? The same concept applies to our bodies. Our heart, blood vessels, and other stress-activated systems are “running” when they should be resting, causing them to wear out before they should. If you recognize your body’s physiology and, rather than continuing to idle in stress mode, physically release that stress, your body can return to normal—like turning the car off.
Even a short burst of energy can help signal the body to return to “safety” or homeostasis when you are done. Rather than being sedentary after a surge of stress hormones, complete the cycle in any way that you can at the time. Jumping jacks, burpees, running, pacing, or even walking. You can run up a few flights of stairs. On a particularly challenging day, as hard as it may feel to do more, ending the day with some physical activity can reset your body, pave the way for quality sleep, and end the stress cycle for the following days.
Even in short bursts, exercise is a powerful tool for managing stress. It helps maintain physical health and plays a crucial role in regulating stress hormones. In addition to signaling to your body that a threat is over, regular physical activity increases the production of endorphins, our body’s natural mood lifters. Fitness professionals generally recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of intense exercise per week to benefit mood, sleep, and focus. Many fitness professionals recommend more. But remember, not too much, you have to rest—even from good stress like exercise.
Leisure Activities and Hobbies
For those unable to do some of the suggested physical activities, research has shown that pleasurable activities that reassure the body that the threat is over will also help to complete the stress cycle. So you can paint, garden, color, complete a puzzle, or listen to music. Choose anything that you consider a leisure activity, which signals to your body that there are no physical threats to its safety.
Meditation has been around for thousands of years, and the most recent research on mindfulness concludes that the benefits include stress reduction. Meditation not only gives your body a rest, like leisure activities, but it also can improve your ability to pay attention and focus on what’s in front of you. An easy way to build your practice is to set a timer, sit comfortably, and breathe. Another trick is to step outside and feel the sun’s warmth while taking deep breaths, which allows you to purposefully slow down and give your body a break from the stress cycle.
Connect and Laugh
There is also research showing that physical contact and laughter reduce stress. A hug from a loved one is just what the doctor ordered (hang on for a few extra moments because the research says at least 20 seconds). Research also shows that laughter increases heart and respiratory rates and oxygen consumption over a short period and then moves a person into a state of relaxation, revving up the sympathetic nervous system and lowering the stress hormone cortisol. If stressed, find time for a quick joke and laughter with a good friend. Pick up the phone and call your funniest friend, or pull up your favorite meme.
In the demanding world of law, legal professionals must prioritize stress reduction to maintain their mental and physical well-being. Exercise offers a practical and evidence-based approach to managing stress by decreasing stress hormones and promoting relaxation, but it is not the only method for reducing stress. Meditation or mindfulness also gives your body a break. And even some simple things, like a hug or a good joke, will interrupt the rising stress you can feel when sitting at your desk. The key is to find a few tools that work for you and then use them to complete the stress cycle.