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Probate & Property

Jan/Feb 2024

Career Development & Wellness—Unlocking the Stress Cycle

Megan Moore and Heather Cheree Johnston


  • Stress can be motivating in small doses and helpful in urgent situations, chronic stress can lead to numerous health issues.
  • Stress can be motivating in small doses and helpful in urgent situations, chronic stress can lead to numerous health issues.
  • Exercise offers a practical and evidence-based approach to managing stress by decreasing stress hormones and promoting relaxation.
Career Development & Wellness—Unlocking the Stress Cycle
skynesher via Getty Images

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Imagine you are settling in for another “day in the life” of a lawyer. You grab your coffee and settle in for what you hope will be a productive day. Then, you glance at your email, your heart rate picks up, and you tense up. A client emergency, perhaps? A panicked client, co-worker, or partner? A filing deadline thrown at you?

These are all scenarios that lawyers know all too well. And although it may not be heart-pounding, being-chased-by-a-saber-tooth-tiger-level stress, it often exists in at least low doses far too much of the time, which can lead to chronic stress.

Chronic stress has been linked to many adverse health effects, including weight gain, cardiovascular disease, a compromised immune system, and impaired cognitive function. Stress is also linked to mental health and professional issues, like depression, anxiety, and burnout. Stress’s effect on the brain is particularly problematic for lawyers, one of the most critical tools we rely on. A 2021 article published by Harvard Medical School titled “Protect Your Brain from Stress” cited evidence that chronic stress may rewire your brain. Research has shown that animals experiencing chronic stress have less activity in their prefrontal cortex, the brain area associated with higher-level thinking and planning. See

This article will explore practical strategies and creative tools for unlocking the stress cycle to help combat chronic stress and keep our bodies and brains healthy.

The Physiology of Stress

Stress is a natural response to challenging situations. Although stress can be motivating in small doses and helpful in urgent situations, chronic stress can lead to numerous health issues. The “fight, flight, or freeze” response is our body’s ancient survival mechanism, preparing us to confront threats, flee from danger, or sometimes freeze like a deer in headlights. In today’s legal world, however, these responses are often activated inappropriately and at sustained levels.

How do we typically deal with stressful emails, client emergencies, or deadlines? Many of us push through the day’s stressors with an activated stress response. Short bursts of stress are expected, and the body is designed to respond to these stressors. The brain triggers a series of events, releasing epinephrine (more commonly known as adrenaline) and glucocorticoids (including cortisol). The body’s muscles tense up, breathing intensifies, and blood vessels rush blood through the body while the heart pounds and the gastrointestinal system reacts, causing butterflies in the stomach. But if that stress continues, it can lead to over- or under-eating, asthma attacks, high blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack or stroke, inflammation, a suppressed immune system, chronic fatigue, metabolic disorders, and reproductive dysfunction. The response that is helpful in the short term becomes extremely damaging if left unchecked.

Not all stress is bad, and interesting research concludes that how you view stress contributes to whether stress is detrimental to your health. The important takeaway is to understand the physiology of stress better, decide how you want to manage stress, and take action to avoid the harmful health effects of chronic stress.

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.