GPSOLO October/November 2007
Anxious and Depressed or Energized and Motivated
Most lawyers’ lives typically are neither placid nor relaxing, as most of us share a relatively adversarial existence. As evidence, simply walk down the hall outside lawyers’ offices: Hear the yelling, see the frustration-induced fist-hole punched through the office door (true story!), note the lights on late at night and on weekends, and see associates cringing outside partners’ offices (arriving or departing). But which came first: the “chicken” of essentially needing a substantial level of stress to fulfill ourselves, or the “egg” of dealing with the daily stress inherent in our career choices? Do we seek out a fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled, demanding career option, or do we simply happen to fall into it, and then find that we can adapt to our minute-to-minute obligations—and perhaps learn that in doing so, it somehow benefits us? Do we seek it, simply deal with it, or try to avoid it? Stress is a proverbial double-edged sword. How much control do we have over it, and how much does it control us? What stress is harmful, and what stress is actually beneficial?
Why Should We Care?
In 1992 a United Nations report characterized stress as the “20th-century epidemic.” Four years later a survey by the World Health Organization termed it a “worldwide epidemic.” Experts estimate that workplace stress alone causes up to 1 million employees to miss work each day. Lawyers are not immune. Not by a long shot.
Nearly a century ago, Harvard scientist Walter Cannon identified the “fight-or-flight” syndrome: Facing danger, the body prepares by releasing adrenal hormones that afford capacity to take enhanced action. The same system activates in the presence of daily stress at work, home, and elsewhere. Hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released, speeding heart rate, slowing digestion, diverting blood flow toward muscles, and providing a burst of energy and strength. When the stimulus abates, so does the response. If stress is chronic, workaday tensions deplete the body over time.
Insurance claims for stress, depression, and job burnout are the fastest-growing disability category in the country. Various surveys agree that the substantial majority of doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments. Many Americans tend to cope with stress in all the wrong ways: watching bad TV, skipping exercise, overeating unhealthful foods, or drinking to excess. These poor coping mechanisms add to, rather than relieve, stress and its sequelae: decreases in performance, tolerance, endurance, immunological function, and homeostasis; increases in sleeping problems, fatigue, agitation, stomach trouble, illness (including diabetes, heart disease, hyperthyroidism, obesity, sexual dysfunction, high blood pressure, ulcers, cancer, depression and anxiety disorders, gum disease, and even hair loss), headaches, irritability, mood swings, chest pain, and hopelessness.
The law is not a laid-back profession. Lawyers in a wide range of practice settings experience considerable stress in their lives and work. Although the particular sorts of stresses vary from job to job and person to person, the effects of stress on our mental health is a fact of life in the legal profession. So, how best to reduce, or at least manage, the harmful stress (distress) and gain advantage from the beneficial stress? Beneficial stress? Yes, and there even is a term for it: eustress. But we’ll come back to that after addressing ways to deal with negative stress.
Many seek relief through various stress reduction techniques, the effectiveness of which varies greatly from situation to situation.
Exercises and therapies. Examples include tension-taming techniques such as Zen meditation, yoga, Reiki, deep breathing, massage, chiropractic therapy, acupuncture, hypnosis, journaling, and positive imagery; physical exercise programs such as jogging, spinning, weight lifting, boxing, Pilates, and biking; sessions with a coach or psychologist/psychiatrist; taking the stairs instead of the elevator and walking instead of riding; herbal treatments or anti-anxiety medications by prescription; music therapy; and sleeping well, eating nutritiously (increasing the proportion of healthful foods, minimizing caffeine and alcohol), taking vitamins, quitting smoking and drugs, and drinking plenty of water.
Hobbies. Examples include golf (caveat: this can cut either way); attending music or comedy concerts, theater, and movies; going to restaurants; creating artwork or crafts; doing crossword puzzles; reading the real estate listings while fantasizing about the properties advertised; window-shopping; wine tasting; reading; hiking; cleaning and organizing; knitting; fixing things; cooking and baking; making homemade beer; traveling alone or with companions; watching sports live or on TV; donating time to charity or pro bono work; learning to speak Italian or Greek as a precursor to travel; learning Sanskrit or Esperanto for no particular reason; and camping.
Planning and organizing. This includes so-called time-management techniques such as ditching the cell phone or PDA temporarily (i.e., putting down the “crackberry”), setting aside regular blocks of time devoted to getting certain tasks done, and shifting most communications to a preferred mode such as from telephone to e-mail; strategizing the workday in advance to the extent possible; tackling the most difficult and important tasks first; managing others’ expectations in part by underpromising and overdelivering; using technology to improve efficiency; setting realistic rather than unattainable goals; leaving pen and paper at your nightstand to make notes about nagging issues and relieve your mind; prioritizing the demands on your time and attention; devoting your main efforts to those matters that are both urgent and important (and not merely “urgent”); dividing unmanageably large tasks into smaller tasks; clearing out clutter; analyzing whether there are particular times of the day, week, month, or year when you are more vulnerable to stress and anticipating those times when it is most important to avoid or minimize stress; working additional hours as needed to reduce immediate pressure; making lists and crossing off accomplished tasks; choosing your clients and cases carefully; and being willing to “fire” clients who cause you more stress than they’re worth.
Refocusing work/life balance. This includes being fair to both family time and business time; melding business relationships with your personal life; vacation planning to get that much-needed change of scenery; taking workday lunch breaks or walks to clear your head; taking a short sabbatical if your job allows; setting limits on what you take on; socializing with friends from outside your professional life; attending religious or spiritual services; taking someone out for a special evening; being flexible and allowing for differences in the opinions of others; focusing on the rewarding aspects of what you do at work and home; reframing situations with a more positive approach; taking a nap on occasion; generously helping others (surprisingly restorative); using time stuck in traffic to relax rather than stress out (an example of developing coping skills); managing your anger rather than the other way around; having regular medical checkups to diminish hypochondria; avoiding excessive, unnecessary competition; talking things out with people close to you; learning to say “no”; adding humor to your life; paying attention to your circadian rhythms or body clock; sleeping sufficiently; and most of all, recognizing what you can and cannot change.
Spending money or capital. This includes investing in more staff; joining a gym; taking on additional office space; vacationing; and changing your ownership interest and responsibilities (i.e., entering semi-retirement).
It turns out that taking breaks may be more important than most of us realize. According to a 2001 article in the Harvard Business Review (“The Making of a Corporate Athlete” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz), professionals such as lawyers can learn from physical athletes that recovering energy expended during sustained high achievement is crucial to perpetuating that achievement. Breaks of various sorts (vacations, lunches, walks, even just looking up from your computer screen) are essential to recovering energy and setting the stage for continued performance.
The investigators examined training and practice for world-class athletes and worked with high-level executives and professionals—the parallels between what works in these two superficially different arenas are startling. Broad concepts and minute details alike in such aspects as ideal performance state, physical capacity, emotional capacity, mental capacity, and spiritual capacity applied similarly to both groups, athletes and executives. For example, in the context of physical capacity, weight lifting stresses a muscle to the breaking point; given an adequate recovery period, the muscle will heal and grow stronger, but chronic stress absent rest results in significant damage. Conversely, failure to stress the muscle at all results in weakness and atrophy. In both instances, the enemy is not stress but rather the failure to oscillate between energy expenditure and recovery. Taking breaks is that important. Applying techniques from the sports world to the lives of executives and professionals proved highly successful in enhancing their performance and well-being.
In our 24/7 arena of business across time zones, supported by PDAs, cell phones, portable notebook computers, and other mobile devices, taking a truly beneficial break is harder than ever. Each individual must develop his or her own particular techniques for disconnecting from work obligations. Experiment, then set rules that work for you and follow them. Break free from slavery to your mobile devices. Adamantly refuse to “salivate” when the auditory beep signals the arrival of yet another e-mail. Plan for unplugged time by delegating and by preparing others for your absence, whether measured in hours or days. Treat your social appointments as though they were work appointments. Find a change of scenery (spa resort, ashram, or retreat), even if only for a short while (a walk or movie). Force yourself to disconnect by choosing relatively signal-free activities such as cruises, kayaking, or mountain hiking.
Eustress Is Good for You
The focus on reducing or managing stress implies that all stress is negative. True, excess stress taxes us physically, psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally. However, stress can have positive effects on mental health and personal performance. Beneficial stress, as noted earlier, is known as eustress. This is defined as stress that is healthful, fun, and stimulating, that provides fulfillment, and that keeps us vital. Eustress involves the stress of excitement or anticipation created by positive or happy events. Eustress is important and useful because it provides thrill, excitement, and motivation; helps achieve peak performance; and maintains focus.
The terms distress and eustress refer to the stressor, not to its impact. Different people may react to the same stressor in different ways.
Common examples of eustress include job promotions, successfully meeting a challenge, purchasing a new home, bungee jumping, marriage, foot or car racing, anticipation of a vacation, preparations for a wedding, starting a new project, awaiting the birth of a child, opening your own business or practice, watching horror movies or thrillers, riding a roller coaster, holidays, and parachuting. Examples of distress include intense work demands, death of a friend or family member, political concerns, uncertainties about important matters in one’s life, car trouble, personality conflicts, caring for an ill loved one, financial issues, medical issues, and either too much or not enough chocolate.
Stress is an inherent motivator: When under some stress, many people perform better, possibly because they are more focused, stimulated, energized, channeled, and competitive. And at the far end of the human bell curve exist those who cannot thrive absent considerable quantities of diverse pressures. Most would agree that a life devoid of stress would be dull, unstimulating, and frustrating.
Eustress often is controlled stress that provides our competitive edge in performance-related activities such as athletics, public speaking, or trying a lawsuit. For any such activity, there exists an optimal amount of stress and, naturally, levels above and below that which reflect too much or too little, respectively. During a job interview, you will benefit from the level of stress that provides you with sufficient focus and energy to enhance your competitive edge with quick and clear thinking and expression. Too little stress and you might be dull and lackluster; too much and you might be paralyzed with fear. Similarly, exercise usually is a good stressor, but overtraining can cause injury and debilitation.
Eustress boosts the immune system. In this connection, acute or active stress (e.g., meeting a tight deadline, roller coaster riding) typically is beneficial immunologically, causing the release of helpful chemicals into the bloodstream, whereas passive stress, over which we lack control (e.g., watching the 9/11 attacks on TV) is not. Chronic stress, which seems never-ending and inescapable (e.g., a bad marriage or taxing job) can lead to burnout. However, all types of stress are cumulative, and even too much eustress causes a drop in performance and other harmful effects resembling those of distress. The old adage about “too much of a good thing” applies here. Constant stress of any type at high levels brings about changes in the balance of hormones in the body. To keep things in balance, one should seek to discover where one’s optimum level of eustress lies, and what one’s stress vulnerabilities are. This occurs principally through a process of personal perception, analysis, experimentation, and decision making. Including the participation of those close to you can enhance the process and render it more accurate and effective.
Balance Your Eustress and Distress
So what we really need in the context of stress is (as with pretty much anything else) just the right amount—homeostasis, balance, equilibrium. Too much, or even too little, can be detrimental and lead to lawyer burnout. What constitutes the right amount necessarily varies from individual to individual. Tweak your work life and keep track of how the changes affect you, and over time you’ll likely find the right formula for yourself.
Restore, rejuvenate, revitalize, replenish. No, this isn’t the text of a TV advertisement; rather, it’s sage advice for overcoming the negative effects of stress and enabling peak performance. And who wouldn’t want that?
David J. Abeshouse practices business litigation and alternative dispute resolution law in Uniondale, Long Island, New York. His website is www.bizlawny.com, and he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.