You’re probably running all day, trying to handle conflicting requests from multiple clients, colleagues, and/or opposing counsel, managing staff, facing deadlines, and hoping to maintain your personal life, perhaps wanting to address family needs as well. Law practice is a breeding ground for stress. And we’ve all had days that just start off wrong — the alarm doesn’t go off, your coffee cup explodes in the microwave, you spill breakfast down your last clean shirt; you get to the office only to find that your secretary is in a vile mood and you have 25 new emails and 15 new voicemails, all wanting immediate activity. As the day marches on, you begin to feel that you’re living the lawyer’s version of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
How do you handle that kind of stress? Hint: you may feel stress, but you don’t have to marinate in it.
Many activities are helpful in minimizing stress — time management, strong organizational skills, adequate sleep, good nutrition, etc. But these activities help only prospectively. They aren’t rescue tools when stress kicks up.
When a stressful moment arises, whether it’s a deadline, discovery of a mistake, trial preparation, or simply having too much work and not enough day, many techniques are useful to reduce stress. I’m going to focus on the top 5 tactics here.
1. Breathe. Stress is a by-product of the “fight or flight” response, which is a biologically-driven response to a perceived danger signal. The “fight or flight” response causes the body to make certain physiological adjustments, including tightening muscles and increasing the rate of heartbeat and breathing, so that our bodies are ready to fight off the danger or to run away from it. The stress we feel is a consequence of this response, which is well designed to help us survive if we spot a tiger but not so well designed to help us cope with a pressing deadline — there’s nothing in a deadline to fight or to run from. Engaging in deep breathing can interrupt the “fight or flight” response by relaxing the body and releasing stress so we can do the necessary tasks to face the more “civilized” threats that we tend to face today. The quickest way to release tension is to take deep breaths that fully inflate your lungs and provide your body with sufficient oxygen, alternating with slow exhalations. Try breathing in and out to a count of 7.
2. Move. It’s important to get up and walk around when you’re feeling stressed. Two reasons for this: first, it allows you an opportunity to release some of the tension in your muscles, and second, moving allows you to shift your perspective in a tangible way. Make sure you get up and walk around at least every other hour.
3. Relaxation exercise. Find an audio guided visualization or develop a meditation practice. It only takes 5 or 10 minutes to feel relaxed once you’ve become accustomed to the relaxation process. You can close your office door, pop in a CD or turn on your iPod, sit comfortably in your chair, and relax. A good resource for short meditations is Meditative Moments, which offers a free daily meditation that takes less than 3 minutes or so to play.
4. Anger release plus frame shift. This is my favorite way to move through stress based on anger and frustration. Go somewhere private (a parked car is a good place) and allow yourself 2 minutes to rant about whatever is making you angry. Begin with a cadence: “I am angry, I am angry, I am angry because…” and just let loose for 2 minutes. The idea here is to release the anger in a safe place (i.e., somewhere that won’t create negative repercussions). DO NOT do this in your office. Following your anger release, shift your perspective by moving to gratitude instead, beginning again with the cadence, “I am grateful, I am grateful, I am grateful because…”
5. Laugh. Yes, it’s hard to do when you’re in the moment of stress. But make time to watch a funny movie, read a funny book, or listen to a comedy performance that makes you laugh. You might even want to keep a list of things that make you laugh (such as a TV series, a great website, a friend who always makes you laugh, etc.) so you don’t have to think it through when you need to laugh. You might even try to take a humorous look at what’s causing you stress and see whether you can reframe the situation in a way that allows you to find the comedy. Getting a guffaw going can take as little as 5 or 10 minutes, and you’ll feel like a new person.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to avoid stress. These tactics will allow you to perform emergency stress reduction, but you must also be aware when you’re beginning to feel stressed. Do a self-check periodically (when you get up and move, for instance) so you can notice stress build-up so you can take these stress reduction steps before the stress level becomes unmanageable.