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Bar News - January 19, 2007

Work-Life Balance - The Trouble with Adrenaline


The more present and conscious you are as an attorney, the better counsel you will provide and the happier and healthier you will be. What is adrenaline and what are its negative—and positive—effects? And, how do you manage it for your own health and the benefit of your clients? Read on.


First, a quick assessment: Do you…


  • Drink an excess of caffeinated coffee or tea?
  • Smoke cigarettes?
  • Focus on crises?
  • Find yourself chronically late and stressed?
  • Regularly exceed the speed limit?
  • Feel excessively aggravated at others while driving?
  • Have difficulty stepping away from the most urgent matters in your life to see the big picture?


If you answer yes to any or all of the above, you may be over-relying on adrenaline. Stress, which releases the hormone adrenaline, is a normal physiological response which developed as a survival mechanism for humans to escape danger. As the hormone adrenaline is released, the heart beats faster, the breath quickens, blood pressure rises, the liver increases output of sugar, and blood flow in the body is diverted to the brain and large muscle groups. That is why during times of great stress you may experience tremendous mental clarity to complete a brief, or be able to pick up a piano if it falls on your child. In a real-life crisis, your body responds, and then returns to a relaxed or normal state once the crisis has passed. Stress is designed to be a positive coping mechanism to ensure survival.


However, adrenaline can rob you of your highest performance if you are chronically behaving in response to the illusion that you are in a life threatening situation when you are not. You can become conditioned to responding as if a saber-tooth tiger were chasing you (ancient life-threatening situation) when in fact you have received an e-mail about a new deadline (current non-life threatening situation).


But who cares? Maybe you like feeling this way.


Long-term or chronic stress occurs when your body too often thinks you’re in danger and you have difficulty unwinding or relaxing. In other words, you’re jazzed all the time and you cannot easily switch gears and relax. Unfortunately this condition has a cost which may include irritability, difficulty sleeping, eating too much (or too little), and/or lacking joy in life.


Potential negative long-term negative physical health effects are numerous and worth noting:


  • According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 90 percent of illness and disease is stress-related.
  • Greater risk of heart attack, hypertension, diabetes.
  • Suppression of the immune system, increasing susceptibility to viral and bacterial infections.


There are also psychological risks associated with chronic stress. There is a greater risk of depression and anxiety. There can be the sensation of being on a treadmill that keeps going faster and faster and you need to go faster and faster to remain upright.


The Good News Is…


According to the Center for Disease Control, 83 percent of all deaths of those aged 21-65 is related to lifestyle and up to seven-tenths of the leading causes of premature death can thus be reduced through lifestyle changes. The bottom-line is that you are in the driver’s seat, as you have some control over your stress level and health through your behavioral choices.


What Can You Do?


The first and most important step is self diagnosis. Develop an awareness of your own pattern of accelerated stress. Second, act in your own self interest by being proactive. Unhooking from adrenaline means remembering to step off the treadmill, take control, and set priorities rather than react to events.


Here are a few specific suggestions for addressing over-reliance on adrenaline:


  • Assess (and adjust) caffeine usage.
  • Address physical health, including regular preventative health care.
  • Take short breaks—walk outside, talk to a colleague, get a glass of water.
  • Engage in any activity that uses the right/creative side of the brain, such as physical exercise, fishing, walking, bird-watching, golf, spending time with children.
  • Resist the temptation to always multi-task. Can you discipline yourself to be occasionally bored?
  • Do things that make you laugh. Laughter reduces your stress level.


Running on adrenaline is like running on empty. Take time to refuel by resting and you’ll be more grounded and able to counsel your clients.


Betsy Black, J.D., A.C.C., is an accredited executive and life coach and lawyer who’s left the practice of law. Contact her at or call her at 603-228-6195.

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