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Developing a healthy relationship with stress

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To live a healthy life in a fast-paced world, we have to develop a healthy relationship with pressure and stress, explains Julian Hall

No one would deny that a career in law can be very stressful, and a career as an in-house lawyer presents its own particular challenges. But regardless of the trigger – which may not be the same for all of us – the ways we attract stress and perpetuate it in our lives (yes, that does imply that a great deal of our stress is our own responsibility) are much the same.

In this article, I will take a quick look at common causes of stress for in-house lawyers, how the body responds to this stress, and how we can each develop a healthy relationship with the stress we experience. I will also present an easy stress relief technique that can help provide immediate relief.

The stresses of working in-house

When I asked some friends who work as in-house lawyers what stresses they regularly encounter, they came up with the following list:

  • workload
  • change - both the speed of it and the imposition of it
  • employees / clients are more ready to litigate (or at least threaten it)
  • cost / resources pressures
  • bullying
  • unrealistic expectations

Unsurprisingly, two of the stresses mentioned in my brief survey, workload and bullying, featured in the top three of self-reported reasons for stress according to the National Labour Force Survey 2011/2012.

The internal stress response

As most of us now understand, stress is our internal response to a threat, perceived or real. When we feel threatened, or in other words, scared, our amygdala activates and our sympathetic nervous system kicks into action, pumping our body full of adrenalin and cortisol. This combination of complex chemicals can be quite intoxicating, which is why many of us enjoy bungee jumping and roller coasters.

Evolution designed this system for dealing with short-term, high-risk life or death situations

However, evolution designed this system for dealing with short-term, high-risk life or death situations. The hormones we produce are only really meant to be in our bodies for about 20 minutes, by which time our balancing system, the parasympathetic nervous system, restores balance and processes these activators away.

In the 21st century, due to the evolution of technology and the revolution of health and safety, most of us will experience life and death situations only once in our lives. We still, however, have the life and death technology in our heads and, since it does not like to be made redundant, it activates for other threats as well. While the threat of redundancy, an increased workload, or a change programme in the workplace altering our terms and conditions are not life threatening, our amygdala reacts to them as if they were.

When we have stress response hormones coursing through our bodies, we can experience the euphoric high of being ‘in the zone’, which is the positive side of stress. If, however this goes on too long or too far, we can feel overwhelmed. Neither state is healthy for prolonged periods; adrenalin and cortisol were designed for short-term threats and not meant to be there for long. They form a toxic combination for the immune system, meaning people in stressful occupations become ill more often.

Developing a healthy relationship with stress

If we are going to live a healthy life in this fast-paced world – or in a team with limited resources and increased workloads – we have to develop a healthy relationship with pressure and stress.

To do this we have to develop a healthy relationship with those aspects of ourselves that attract and perpetuate stress in our lives. At Calm People, we call these ‘the five pillars of stress’.

The five pillars of stress

In essence, the five pillars are the ways that we attract and perpetuate stress in our fast-paced and complicated lives. The more pillars involved in supporting the stress in our lives, the more stressful our experience.

1. Approval

This is our need for approval from others. It starts in childhood and carries on into our adult lives. Of course, there are plenty of people in the world that it is valuable for us to have the approval of: colleague, bosses, partners and so on. But when the need for approval becomes a key part in feeling stressed, it is likely that it has become unhealthy.

2. Trust

This is a particularly challenging area for many people, and there are two sides to it. The first is our issues trusting others, and the second is whether, deep down, we actually trust ourselves. Lawyers who have issues trusting others may fail to delegate responsibility in big matters to juniors, be suspicious of colleagues’ intent in meetings, or it may drive them to repeatedly check detail, causing extra workload and stress. Often more toxic, is the deep-down and hidden mistrust of ourselves and our own ability. The fear that we may have been promoted beyond our experience or capability level - a form of imposter syndrome - is common. This can lead to us working excessively long hours or, in extreme cases, paranoia that we are continually being scrutinised.

3. Pressure

This pillar recognises the ability we all have to put pressure upon ourselves. In this case, it is not the pressure others put us under - and there are plenty of people willing to do that - this is about the different ways we put ourselves under pressure, whether it is by having unrealistic expectations of ourselves, or wishing to progress our careers at the fastest possible pace.

4. Control 

Inability to let go of control is a challenge we all face. We have many different ways of fooling ourselves into thinking that we have control over situations when we don’t. The worriers among us are past masters at associating days and nights of worrying with a positive outcome and thus ‘it was all worthwhile’. There are many situations where we have absolutely no control and, therefore, worrying and stressing about them will do no good. Yet we still do. There are other situations where we can influence but not control, and at some point we have to acknowledge that we have done all we can do and the rest is out of our control. To the control freaks among us, this is a very difficult thing to truly accept.

5. Priority

In pressurised, client-focused environments – particularly when the client is in the same office – it is often difficult to manage our own boundaries and maintain a healthy balance between workplace pressure and the rest of our lives. This area is characterised by people who do not realise – or have stopped thinking about – their own sense of worth and give everything to the organisation. Their inability to recognise, set, and manage healthy boundaries leads to overworking and, eventually, underperforming or ill health. Clients all want the fastest result and the utmost attention to detail at the lowest cost; these are three mutually incompatible goals. Recognising the need for healthy boundaries in and out of work can often be a key development area.

Most of us will have a relationship with each one of those pillars. Developing a healthy relationship with them is how we orientate our lives towards a healthy relationship with stress.

The more pillars associated with each stress, the more stressful we experience it

As you read this, please take a few moments to go back and review the stress you are under at the moment and see which of those it relates to. A rule of thumb is that the more pillars associated with each stress, the more stressful we experience it to be.

It is only by gradually dismantling those pillars that we will take control back. With focus and effort we can all coach ourselves through this. But that’s a medium-term strategy for making attitudinal and cultural changes. In the meantime what can we do about these toxic chemicals we appear to willingly fill our bodies with?

A quick fix

Have you noticed what happens to your breathing when you are stressed? It speeds up and is shallow. Healthy deep breathing is one way we can start to take control of our bodies; it can kick-start the parasympathetic nervous system thereby starting the processing of those toxic hormones and restoring balance to our physical form.

7/11 breathing

Sit upright and fix your gaze or close your eyes. Take a deep, slow breath in, allowing your abdomen to expand. Breathe in to the count of seven. Then pause and exhale slowly, releasing the breath from your body to the count of 11.

The key is slow breaths, exhaling for longer than you inhale and counting all the time.

This techniques can be useful if you feel overwhelmed but a better, more regular use is this: if your role allows it, set an alarm to ring once every hour. When it does, stop and concentrate on your breathing as above for two minutes.

If you do this you will return to whatever task you were performing with clearer focus and, crucially, you will have reduced your stress levels. Do this regularly and it will be effective.

The 7/11 breathing technique is very simple and can be found almost anywhere on the internet. The challenge with that is people begin to associate ubiquity with something ordinary and of little use. That is most certainly not so in this case – it is simple, but very effective. The only thing you have to do with is try it and stick at it. Once it becomes part of your routine, you will be effecting positive change.

Conclusion

We all experience stress at some time in our lives. The presenting trigger or the situation that seems stressful may not be the same for all of us; however, the impact on us can be similar and quite unhealthy – whether or not we’re enjoying the associated highs. Managing our relationship with stress is essential for our wellbeing in a fast-paced, challenging environment.

Julian Hall is founder director of Calm People, who are stress, conflict and anger management specialists. To find out more about their emotional resilience and their executive resilience programmes visit the site. If you prefer to watch and listen to content, you could visit the media section at www.lawcpdsolutions.co.uk where various webinars are available including one entitled ‘Taking the Stress out of Law’. 

Julian is the author of a book on the five pillars of stress, which will be published soon.

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