Hans Selye (1907-1982), widely considered to be the founder of the “stress” theory, once said “it’s not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it.” Decades of studies, papers and presentations have proved his quote true.
It’s no secret that most lawyers are “stressed.” We procrastinate, we become apoplectic, we all have “radiator files” – files that we look at but rarely touch. We work long hours, usually at the mercy of our bosses and clients, and we often take our stress out on our loved ones at home. We eat more and exercise less. Eight hours of sleep seems like a fading memory.
Lawyer burnout is real. And if you don’t take care of yourself, your burnout can lead to a total breakdown.
In 2019, LexisNexis conducted The Bellwether Report, which indicated that almost two-thirds of all attorneys’ experience “high levels of stress.” Causes of this stress include outstanding student debt, working long hours, lack of mentor support, managing large caseloads, and handling difficult clients. The COVID pandemic certainly elevated some of these stressors.
You can’t eliminate stress, but you can change how you respond to it. To begin, you must understand that it is not the stressor that is damaging to us mentally or physically, but it is our response to stress that is harmful to us, hence the title of this article. This cannot be emphasized enough! You are not managing the stress – you are managing yourself and, for most, this is an important paradigm shift to undertake to create a healthier lifestyle.
Without waxing scientific, and I am only providing this to explain what is going on in your body, a stressful situation activates a cascade of hormones in the sympathetic nervous system that triggers what is known as the “fight or flight” response. This makes your heart beat faster and your breathing quicken. To make a very long story short, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on your body and can contribute to high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and, sadly, addiction.
STEPS FOR MANAGING YOUR RESPONSE TO STRESS
Remember, stressors will never go away – your response is what is important.
- The “Stress Meter”
Before even attempting to manage your stress, it is important for you to “categorize” the stressor and measure your reaction to it. It is natural for us to exaggerate our reactions to stressful situations, and learning to understand that stressors can vary from grave to minor will allow you to respond more effectively.
In 2012, I began going through a contentious divorce. I was constantly worried about the well-being of my children as well as balancing the stress of going through custody litigation while managing my solo law practice. It got to the point where I would be sending groups of emails to my then-wife and lawyer wondering why I didn’t get appropriate shoes and sneakers for my kids during visitation transfers. In discussing all the issues and many more with my therapist, it became clear that my response to all my stressors were the same – I exaggerated everything. My response to all stressors were the same. My therapist introduced me to the “stress meter,” where my brain was to assign a number top each of my stressors from 1 to 10. I was tasked with writing a list of all the stressors in my life, and I was to assign a number from 1 (being the least of my stressors) to 10 (being the worst thing that could stress me out). Once I completed the list, I realized that none of my stressors was over a 7, and I realized over the next months that stressors labeled 1 or 2 were not actually stressors at all, and the tips below allowed me to remove them completely from my stress meter.
“Stress Meter” Tip: Make a list of everything that causes you stress at work. It can be as small as getting to work on time and as great as being fired or laid off. Think about the stress of your clients, your job responsibilities, your hours, your salary. Once your list is done, take some time and think about how you respond to this stress. Then assign a number from 1 to 10. Over the course of a few weeks, review the numbers you assigned and revise them if necessary. In time, you will find that most of your stress at work will be much closer to the lower numbers, and with the tips below, you may never find those stressors to be stressful again.
- Take Care of Yourself
This is broad, and you can find all kinds of resources online for how to take care of yourself. I am bundling this together and you can determine what works for you.
- Exercise – the scientist in me will tell you that exercise helps you relax and combat stress by stimulating endorphins and reduces levels of stress hormones. The normal person in me will tell you that regular exercise keeps your body healthy. Stress and eating can be a vicious circle – you eat because you’re stressed, and you can’t exercise because you’ve eaten too much, and you’re stressed. To end this, you must break the cycle! I make sure I either walk at least 10,000 steps per day or walk 5,000 steps and do 30 minutes of either aerobic or anerobic (weights) activity. I get a good sweat, and I feel good.
Exercise Tip: When you are feeling a stressor coming on, get up and walk. It does not have to be 10,000 steps at once. If you are working from home, go outside and take a brief “nature walk.” Walk up and down your stairs a few times. If you are working from an office, do the same. Just take some steps and get some “fresh air.” However, do not think about the stressor! Be in the moment and focus on what you see and what you are feeling during your walk.
- Do What Brings You Joy – think of this as giving yourself a prize for something you’ve accomplished. Work on responding to discovery. Speak with the difficult client. Have that discussion with your boss about managing the large caseload. Once you’ve done that, do what you love when you get home. Work on a puzzle, listen to music (go to a concert?) perhaps you enjoy online games, or take a cooking class. Think about the times when you were the happiest and work on finding ways to get back there. As a fan of classical music, I always have a classical station playing in the background when I am working. I also have an Apple Music playlist of songs that make me smile, so if I feel a bit imbalanced, I close my door and play a few of those songs to get me back in focus.
- Take breaks – Whether you take a break during the workday, or take an entire day off, it is essential for you to take breaks to recharge both your mind and body. For taking breaks during the day, I suggest the “Pomodoro Principal.” Without taking a deep dive into its origins, the Pomodoro Principle was developed by an Italian who named this technique after a timer that looked like a tomato, and this tomato has formed the basis of a rather devout following. The basic premise of the principle is this:
First, you choose a project. Then, set a timer for a specific interval of time – traditionally 25 minutes – and you work on the project without any interruption that entire interval. No phone calls, and no peeking at your emails. Once the timer goes off, you can stop and take a 5-minute break. Each interval represents one “pomodoro.”
In the traditional “pomodoro” method, you would do four consecutive “pomodoros,” and then take a longer 15-30 minute break after the fourth pomodoro.
If you complete your project while the timer is still ticking, you can use the additional time in the “pomodoro” to review your work or plan tasks for your next pomodoro. Of course, there are all sorts of variations of this technique, and you might choose to make your pomodoros 60, or even 90 minutes long.
What you do during the break is up to you, but I suggest getting up and moving before starting the next “pomodoro.”
For an excellent discussion on the application of the “Pomodoro Principle,” I recommend that you read and listen to Allison Shield’s short presentation here.
If am personally fond of taking an entire day off as a break. You have heard of this as a “mental health day.” However, there is absolutely no stigma to this if you apply it correctly! If you work in a small firm or as a solo attorney, taking a mental health day is possibly one of the most productive ways to remove stress. This is not so much of a tip as it is a suggestion – set a goal! If you get projects “x,y and z” done by Thursday, you can take off Friday (or even take a half-day).
While potentially not as easy when you are working in a firm, the same principle applies – focus your time when you are working and get more work done in less time. Avoid distractions, don’t answer every call or email that comes through immediately, and finish your projects. As with the example of working in a small firm, you will soon be attuned to working “smarter, not harder,” and you will have earned yourself some free time from the stressors of the office.
- Practice Mindfulness – No, this does not mean putting yourself in a state of Zen until a bell chimes. Mindfulness is a concept that requires you to pay attention to the “now.” When drafting a complaint, do you find yourself thinking about the steps you are going to take down the road to litigate the matter when you are still just drafting the complaint? When you are meeting with your new client, does your mind wander and think about the interrogatories on another matter that are due tomorrow? When you are on the phone with opposing counsel, are you thinking about steps you can take in the future to outsmart them?
Another way to think about mindfulness is that mindfulness is the practice of learning to pay attention and stay present in a particular moment. While it sounds simple, the legal profession and the obstacles that come with it make it challenging to focus and slow down a stressed mind. If you have a stressed mind when meeting with a client, you really are not providing the client with the service they deserve.
A Simple Mindfulness Tip: While many articles on the web educate lawyers on mindfulness, an easy way to get started is to devote five minutes in the morning to yourself. Find a quiet spot in your house or office, sit in a comfortable position, rest your hands on your legs, and close your eyes. Start by breathing slowly – in through the nose and out through the mouth. Once you have done this for 30 seconds or so, try to listen to your breathing. What does it sound like? Can you feel your chest moving in and out? Now, notice your hands – what are they doing? Can you touch your legs with each finger and say to yourself “pinky, ring finger, middle finger, index finger, thumb?” If your mind starts to wander about breakfast or the first calls you need to make, tell yourself to return to touching your fingers. When you recognize a distraction, you are practicing mindfulness!
Once you get used to this practice, employing mindfulness at work can be a simple process – if you are working on a project and you feel the temptation to read your emails or browse the web, understanding these temptations and focusing on your project is practicing mindfulness.
Many apps are available, such as Headspace or Calm, which provide meditations ranging from 60 seconds to 60 minutes. These apps are good tools to assist in finding the right environment to begin practicing mindfulness.
- Speak with Someone – there is no taboo in seeking third party to address issues that you are not comfortable discussing with friends or loved ones. Investing in your mental wellness is one of the most important steps you can take in reducing stress and becoming the best version of yourself. At a minimum, a trusted therapist can serve as a sounding board to your feelings and will most likely offer valuable tips in managing stressful situations.
Absolutely nothing mentioned in this article is a “must do” to help you manage stress. However, it is critically important that you find a way for you to respond to stressful situations to maintain a healthy mind and body.
There is, and there always will be, only one version of you. Many people in your life will look up to you; they will respect you and will likely follow whatever examples and advice you pass on to them. If you live your life responding poorly to stressful situations, they will likely do so as well. More important, poorly responding to stressful situations will adversely impact you. It is easy to take small steps towards turning this trend around. Be it exercise, diet, sleep, taking breaks during the day, practicing mindfulness, or one of the many alternatives suggested in the large library of articles in dealing with stress, you must take care of yourself before taking care of others.
About the Author
Alan Klevan is the principal of The Law Offices of Alan J. Klevan, P.C. in Framingham, Massachusetts. He concentrates his practice in the fields of workers’ compensation law, automobile tort law, and general negligence law. He is also the owner of Summit Law Practice Solutions, a legal consulting firm focused on assisting solo practitioners and small law firms leverage their skills with technology to maximize efficiency and profitability.