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Bar News - May 18, 2016

Get Tough: Strengthen Your Stress Resilience


Stress is no stranger to lawyers, whether you are negotiating with a tough adversary, preparing for court, or marketing yourself. But what exactly is stress? Stress is any uncomfortable “emotional experience accompanied by predictable, physiological and behavioral changes,” according to the American Psychological Association.

Too much stress can detrimentally affect the immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and central nervous systems, creating a variety of physical ailments and causing mild to severe psychological distress.

However, some amount of stress is actually good. Stress can aid in your success. And the good news is you can strengthen your stress resilience, or ability to deal constructively with stress.

“I embrace stress to help me prepare and perform. I use stress to get tuned mentally for the battle ahead. In fact, I get nervous when I am not nervous,” says former NH Bar President Patrick Hayes of Baker and Hayes. He believes, “Stress should be not avoided but embraced.”

Neuroscience research backs his approach. A study by Matt Lieberman, of the University of California in Los Angeles, found that just labeling an experience as stressful moved the brain’s neural activity from the amygdala (emotional) region of the brain to the prefrontal cortex (conscious and deliberate thinking center). In their 2015 article in Harvard Business Review, “Stress Can Be a Good Thing if You Know How to Use It,” authors Alia and Thomas Crum write that “purposefully acknowledging stress lets you pause your visceral reaction, allowing you to choose a more enhancing response.”

Additionally, you can positively manage stress by owning it and using it for motivation, acknowledging that you stress about important issues, such as doing a good job for your clients, the Crums write. Finally, you can use the energy of stress to perform. Stress increases adrenaline and dopamine, creating a state of “increased energy, heightened alertness, and narrowed focus,” all of which can be channeled into strong performance.

So how can a lawyer have a healthy relationship with stress?

Hayes believes his laid-back attitude helps him be a better lawyer. He believes it is critical to do your best in representing a client, and to be objective about it. “You win some cases and you lose some, depending on the facts and the law,” he says. Expecting to always prevail is unrealistic and can make practicing law overly stressful.

“If managing stress well doesn’t come naturally, you have to develop a good work-life balance,” Hayes advises. “Don’t work at night or on weekends. Keep private time for family and friends. Bike or take a break at lunch. The people who are the happiest are those who have interests. You really can’t be a good lawyer if you are not involved in the community. Involvement makes you a better lawyer and a better human being.”

Hayes follows his own counsel. He has long been involved in his community of Lebanon, serving as mayor and on the City Council for six years. And he is no stranger to stressful moments. In the middle of his tenure as NH Bar Association President in 1996-97, his law partner died. And at the onset of his legal career in 1977, three of life’s greatest stressors happened simultaneously – studying to take the bar exam, preparing for the arrival of his first child, and building a house. He thought at the time, “If I can survive this month, I can do anything.” This ability to have perspective and to learn from your experiences is very helpful for managing stress.

Jennifer Parent, also a former NH Bar Association president, who practices at McLane Middleton, notes that a variety of activities can serve as stress-relievers, to assist with work-life balance, from cooking a meal, eating with family or talking on the phone with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. In a Bar News piece written during her tenure as Bar President, she noted that just as our technological devices need recharging, so do our own batteries. Referencing the NHBA-adopted “Work-Life Canons,” she reflects: “We do not have a blinking light to alert us to our own depleted energy level. We must determine when our batteries need recharging. It is up to each of us to recognize when it is time.”

Parent reports the importance of outlets – habits and hobbies you pursue, to consciously reset. “An outlet activity may be something done daily, once a week, or once a year and offers different levels of energy or charge.” She finds a walk on the beach on a summer evening can help her reset and start over before she heads back to work.

Her observations points to a critical aspect of stress management – self-knowledge. Observe what works well for you. If just the idea of stopping work to walk on the beach creates stress, and you’d rather wait until the stress has passed to take a break, perhaps a shorter reset option would work better for you, such as walking around the block or taking a deep breath and looking out the window. All techniques, whether bird-watching, power lifting, watching the sunrise, vacationing in the Alps – share one characteristic: mental discipline, the willingness to act.

To have a healthier relationship with stress, you can first use stress to your advantage, to be focused and energized, and second, manage stress by cultivating outside interests and habits of self-care.

Betsy Black

Betsy Black is law school graduate and a business and life coach.

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