A Fresh Perspective on Overcoming Stress In The Legal Profession

For the majority of lawyers, stress is seen as a normal part of day to day life within the high pressure, performance focussed legal profession. Work can be highly complex and time sensitive, with cases that can be nerve-wracking and potentially distressing when dealing with divorce, bankruptcy, probate disputes, and other life events. Concerns such as billing, targets, and time tracking all potentially play a part in ramping up the perceived intensity of the job.

But what is stress, how does it arise, where does it come from, and what impact does it have on the body and brain? The common view of stress is that it is an uncomfortable agitated feeling caused by external events, people, activities and situations. The lines, “my boss is really stressing me out”, or “this case has got me totally stressed”, are common utterances in my office.

A body in a state of stress is not necessarily a bad thing. From an evolutionary perspective, experiencing a degree of physical, mental, and emotional stress can provide a useful challenge that leads to growth and development, as long as we are aware of the presence of that stress. However, in most instances it is not the stress we feel that causes a problem, it is the invisible stress that resides outside of our conscious awareness that can wreak havoc within body systems. A recent client of mine working in a large law firm, reported being perfectly happy at work. Yes, there were the usual pressures, but nothing he couldn’t handle, he didn’t report feeling ‘stressed’. However, his body was telling a different story. Symptoms of chronic fatigue and anxiety were plaguing his performance at work and had resulted in significant time off work. Understanding that the body never lies is the first step to recognising that invisible stress may be causing a problem. The second is being receptive to the notion that our conventional ideas about external triggers of stress may be not quite right.

Stress – The Manifestations

How does stress present itself and what are the signs? In truth, the list is significant. Behavioural indicators can include lateness, incomplete or poorly executed tasks, apathy and diminished motivation, mood swings that can impact relationships at work and at home. There can be increases in coughs, colds and viral infections. Other symptoms can include anxiety and depression, cognitive difficulties such as concentration and memory problems, and a whole host of medically unexplained physical symptoms including groggy fatigue, muscular tension, heart palpitations, stomach upset, headaches, insomnia and sleep disturbance, and back or chest pain.

Stress – The Science

There are two extremely important facts about stress that are frequently overlooked. First, stress is a set of objective, measureable, biochemical events that take place throughout the body and brain. Far more than the nervous agitated feeling that people often associate with being ‘stressed’, a body can be in a state of stress in the absence of conscious awareness. This essentially means that it is entirely possible for an individual to ‘think’ that they are perfectly happy and that all is well, while at the same time their body is registering the stress response in the form of elevated heart rate and blood pressure, amongst other things.

The second important point is that stress is not merely a psychological phenomenon. The stress response triggered in the body is exactly the same regardless of whether the ‘trigger’ is a physical injury, such as a car accident, an illness, such as a case of flu, or a build-up of emotional energy inside the body and brain. There are a whole host of potential ‘stressors’ ranging from ingested toxins, including drugs and alcohol, poor nutrition, excessive exercise, and lack of sleep, that all have the potential of kicking the body into a state of prolonged stress.

A long-term build-up of invisible stress, particularly emotional stress, locks the stress response ‘on’ causing a ‘re-wiring’ of neural pathways in brain regions – structural changes in neuron-neuron connections. When the brain begins to re-wire the negative states or experiences that arise are amplified and accelerated. The phrase frequently used to describe the brains neuroplasticity is, ‘neurons that fire together wire together’. In effect, this means that the more something is perceived in a negative light the more potent the negative response will be, and the more this will be seen as ‘reality’ rather than merely a state of consciousness or mind. In practice, this can result in a spiralling down where the higher thinking centres shut down. When this happens gaining a sense of perspective and logic can become increasingly illusive.

Emotional stress is in most instances the biggest concern because it can remain undetected. Emotion itself is not the problem, quite the contrary, emotion is a useful feedback mechanism; however, it is entirely possible for us to tune-out of our emotional feedback and when this happens it gets backed up, blocked, and out of balance. Tangible stressors such as physical injuries and illnesses tend to be few and far between. Sleep disturbance, poor diet, overly strenuous exercise, and excessive alcohol intake can be identified and managed or rectified. Emotional stress, however, is different. Unlike other external stressors that can easily be identified, emotion is not directly caused or triggered by external events, rather it emerges from within us as a result of our interaction with the world around us and the meaning that we place upon it. Neuroscience tells us that our experience of reality comes from inside us and is fluid and flexible. Our overall feeling state comprises our emotion, our mood, and any other physical sensations that may be present. How then can we effectively manage or deal with our emotional feelings? The first step is to understand that our feeling state emerges from within us and can shift and move without there being any change in external circumstances. This is a radically different idea from the notion that what goes on ‘out there’ directly causes how we feel ‘in here’.

Stress – The Solution

It can appear that the uncomfortable or stressful feelings that seem to arise following tight timescales, managerial pressure, the need for perfection, expectations of others, are all coming from outside us. But have you noticed that what ‘stresses’ one lawyer may not stress another? Or even that a case you felt stressed about yesterday does not seem to stress you today?

When we can begin to embrace the notion that our feeling state arises from within us and can either be processed and regulated or blocked and supressed by us, it offers an entirely new perspective on the nature of emotional stress.

Research suggests that organisational culture, work overload, and poor management skills are the primary causes of workplace stress. These ‘causes’ are all external to the individual lawyer looking to improve focus, wellbeing and reduce overwhelm and stress. If we change perspective from these external ‘triggers’ and begin to understand the very nature of emotion and stress and how they arise, we can begin to how to effectively process and regulate these internal experiences without them impacting health and performance.

Human beings have an in-built resilience that enables us to bounce back. Understanding and allowing our emotional feelings and moving beyond the desire to block them, label them or control external circumstances them all facilitate this ability to bounce back quickly. Too often we see ourselves as broken and requiring major action to remedy the damage. The horrible irony in many instances is that these fixing strategies are the very things that keep our locked in the stress mode.

Despite the natural tendency to block uncomfortable feelings, when we recognise that our emotional feelings are never a problem, never need to be solved, or analysed, we begin to see them as guides, inviting us to be who we are. They are not about other people, places or situations, they are invitations to be authentic. Fixating on environmental factors that simply cannot be changed only serves to intensify the negative feelings and stress experienced. Embracing this new inside-out perspective on stress and emotion is the path to health, wellness and high performance.