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We generally think of stress as a bad thing. Yet a certain amount of stress can be good for us. Think about a party balloon: When you take it out of the package, it’s flat, lifeless. Blow it up, it takes shape, becomes responsive, attains a kind of vitality. Overinflated, it’s got too much stress and may pop. Properly inflated, it has enough stress to float, which is what it’s supposed to do. What is stress? It is the pressure placed on you by factors in your social and physical environments, as well as by your own perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. Without some stress, we’d all be flat. Too much stress, and we can feel as though we’re about to explode. The right amount of stress can help us to be more productive, accomplish our daily chores, and take on new challenges. And just as reactions to stress aren’t necessarily all bad, neither are the sources of stress. Some of the sources I’ve heard most often in working with lawyers are: irrational yet inescapable deadlines; unrealistic expectations — especially about billable hours; hours spent at the office; mergers and rumors of mergers; adjustment to a new setting or new responsibilities; wondering if this is all there is; worrying about making partner; making partner; evaluating others for partnership. Reactions to stress fall into the same categories as sources to stress. Here are some of the answers, grouped by category, given by attendees at stress management workshops when I ask what they think of as their stress reactions: Physical: I lose sleep. I always have a stomachache. Backaches. I keep knocking into the corner of the defense table. My muscles always seem to be tight. My immune system gets suppressed and I get sick a lot. Social: I snap at my family the moment I walk in the door. The paralegals in the office run the other way when they see me. I’m impatient in contract negotiations. The other lawyers in the firm stop asking me to work with them. What social life? Emotional: Anxiety. Depression. Withdrawal. I lose confidence and become timid in responding, in negotiations and in court. Angry. Indecisive. Cognitive: I get confused more easily. I lose track of where I am in my preparation (of a brief, of a contract). I can’t remember facts, much less what I learned in Contracts. I miss appointments. It takes longer to research matters, and gets harder to retain and use what I find. Of course, each stress reaction can become a stressor in its own right, and thus create and accelerate a cycle. OK, so how do you deal with it? These effects can each be prevented, reversed, or ameliorated. The basic principles of stress management are these: � Be realistic. � Take care of yourself physically. � Give yourself a break. � Remember that you’re not alone. REALISM Distorted thinking leads inevitably to anxiety and depression. Clarity of thought gives you a chance to know what you can and can’t control. Much psychological research over the past two decades has demonstrated that you are what you think. One concept that’s emerged is called Automatic Thoughts. These are the ideas or types of ideas that routinely pop into your mind at potentially stressful times, which can lead down a troublesome road. For example, most firms expect that most attorneys will get involved in marketing, which is something not taught in law school. Tomorrow, you’re joining a lunch meeting with a big client of your firm, and you’re supposed to cross-sell your services to them. You’ve been given a couple of articles about marketing, and some of the rainmakers have given you pointers, but essentially you’re on the spot. You should be feeling confident since you know your work is strong and the client is dissatisfied with their current attorneys for this type of service. But you’re miserable, and in danger of a sleepless night. How come? Maybe this was the unconscious sequence: I can’t do this. I’ve never done it before. I’m going to make a fool of myself. We won’t get the business, my clients will shy away from me, I’ll become isolated. I can’t work alone. The rest of my work will go to pot, I’ll be eased out. Other firms will find out that I can’t market, and I’ll never find another position. My life is over. Instantly, maybe even below your conscious awareness, you create a train of thought that will inevitably lead to unhappiness, self-doubt, and lots of other stressors. From there, the cycle can very well spiral downward. From event to thought to emotion to stressed action — voil�, you are what you think. Here’s the thing, though: It didn’t have to evolve this way. What’s wrong with your thinking in this example? You predicted an outcome without data to support it. Suppose that, before the chain of thoughts got out of hand, you stopped and said to yourself, Wait a minute. I get along just fine at social lunches. What’s really so different about this one? Just because it’s the first time I’m doing it doesn’t mean I can’t. If I made it through moot court the first time, I can certainly do this — and besides, everybody here wants me to succeed. Suppose, in other words, you perceived the situation clearly before you reacted? Here are a few basic guidelines to help you out of the trap of distorted thinking or automatic thoughts: � Anticipate without predicting. Take an educated guess, but don’t box yourself in. Know how you might react when something happens, but don’t have the certain expectation of occurrence, especially of something bad, until events unfold. � Understand without mind reading. Do you really know that that partner has it in for you? How? � Appreciate breadth without overgeneralizing. If you find yourself thinking that’s always the way it is, you’re creating a trap for yourself. Does the event really occur in all circumstances? How can it possibly? If I asked you to prove that statement, could you? Of course not. When you catch yourself thinking or saying all, every, never, always, and their cousins, you’re on the way to a dead end. � Attribute the cause of events accurately. Take the example above. Was it really your fault? Even if you didn’t think quickly enough to stop the spiral before, you could have halted it here. � Use your lawyer skills. You’re ahead of the game because you know how to argue to conclusion. So cross-examine yourself: What did you see with your own eyes and hear with your own ears that persuaded you that (their lawyer is smarter than you/you’re a fraud and don’t deserve this success/can’t make this deadline)? Tell the court again, please, why you are certain that failure always happens, in all settings and at all times? Check the evidence. Get the data right. � Know where control lies. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can control what you can’t, or can’t affect what you can. Think about it: If you believe either, you’re bound to be frustrated and are certain to waste a lot of energy that could be better used. PHYSICAL HEALTH � Sleep. The right amount of sleep is the average you’ve slept over three nights preceding mornings when you’ve awakened fresh and rested. My own view is that sleep is central to physical and psychological health, and is too often undervalued and sacrificed in our society. I’ve seen good sleep habits reverse depressions, improve productivity, and prevent innumerable downward spirals from happening. Alcohol, by the way, disrupts sleep patterns. Caffeine is another chemical that’s not good for you. � Eat regularly and healthily. Do you really need to be told this? I didn’t think so. Your mother was right, and research supports her. � Be active. This does not mean you have to go to the gym every day. That’s fine for some people, especially those who don’t have children, and it’s certainly a good way to relieve built-up physical tension, but it’s an unrealistic expectation for most people. It’s not unrealistic, however, to do something other than sit in your chair all day. Get up and stretch every 20 minutes, for 30 seconds. Take the stairs: up two floors, down three. � Look out the window. It turns out that doing this for five minutes every two hours is good for your brain as well as your eyes. � Meditate. There are lots of techniques available. Here’s a simple, relaxation-focused one I like: Close your eyes. Put your feet flat on the floor. Rest your hands in your lap. Be aware of how the chair you’re in does all the work. Without opening your eyes, focus on a point about 10 feet in front of you. Picture the number 50 in the most pleasant way you can. Take 50 breaths, counting down the numbers you see and letting your breathing become slower and deeper. Open your eyes slowly when you’re done, notice the part of you that feels the best, and smile. Or, with your eyes closed, visualize the best moment of the most pleasant and restorative vacation you’ve ever had — which may be the next one you’ll take. YOU DESERVE A BREAK As it turns out, you’re not really superwoman. Or the smartest lawyer there ever was. So what? You can’t be Oliver Wendell Holmes, but you can be you. Being 100 percent of who you are is much better than being 5 percent of anyone else. And besides, Holmes made mistakes to Does major league baseball really deserve its antitrust exemption? YOU’RE NOT ALONE Feeling isolated, or believing that you have to prove your legal and personal worth, without help from others, in order to succeed is one of the great stressors in a modern lawyer’s life. I’ve found that this is very hard for many lawyers to acknowledge, let alone act on. Perhaps it’s related to the success most of you have had while being self-reliant in order to get where you are. It’s not a question of competence or intelligence. In fact, this may be part of the problem. Overachievers have trouble believing that it really is OK to be uncertain or worried or confused. It’s certainly smart, besides, to ask for help when you’re burdened and the stressors are increasing. In fact, it’s demonstrably one of the great ways to reduce stress. Many, but not all, lawyers are willing to acknowledge their technical uncertainty and get advice on the matters they’re working on, but few are willing to share their fears, even with their families. And it’s the rare firm that acknowledges your emotional life as central to your overall success. Even a managing partner needs someone to talk to; actually, it turns out that the absence of someone to share their thoughts and feelings with is a frequent complaint of CEOs, one reason executive coaching has spread so fast in the upper reaches of corporate America. So how do you prevent bad stress and bad stress reactions? Well, you can’t, completely, so start by having realistic expectations of yourself and the world. Realism, you’ll recall, is one of the stress-managing ideas mentioned above. Many of the others can act as stress-inoculators, too, and point the way to adjusting your life in a healthy way. In fact, just the awareness of stressors and of your own ability to deal with stress is a preventative. There are two concepts I want to leave you with, however, that I haven’t articulated above, though I’ve certainly implied them: balance and pace. By pace, I don’t simply mean slow down, though for most people that’s good advice. I mean specifically the reasonable increase over time in your ability to identify and manage stress and put it in its place: You can’t do everything at once; it’s OK to fall back once in a while, and you can give in now and then. By balance, I mean be aware of the totality of your life, good and bad, work and family, failure and success, and seek to keep an even keel more often than not. For many people, awareness of moral purpose or a larger purpose beyond oneself, a transcendent goal, helps enormously in finding and maintaining balance. Often, the people who manage stress the best are the people who know that when they look back on their lives they will know why they lived the way they did, and that their lives meant something. There’s no reason you can’t be one of them. Dr. Charles J. Fogelman, a licensed psychologist, is principal of Paladin Coaching Services, an executive coaching and organization consultation firm that specializes in working with lawyers and law firms. He can be reached at (301) 587-0005 or [email protected].

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