High stress in the legal profession is old news confirmed with recent research sparking the formation of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. Find out how to handle stress better by changing how you understand threat perception.
The dictionary definition of stress is “a state … of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.” Practicing law involves daily work with factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium. How our brains perceive the factors — to what degree we register an ongoing threat — determines how long we feel the resulting bodily or mental tension. The quickest way to disrupt one’s sense of relaxation or equilibrium is to introduce a threat. We all face threats in our lives, some real and some imagined. The body’s reaction has more to do with your perception of the threat and less to do with the objective nature of that threat.
Inherent in our threat assessment is a self-assessment in comparison to the threat. For example, if you perceive getting into a physical altercation (someone you are dealing with becomes so upset they threaten to hit you) and disappointing others (making people feel bad, having others think poorly of you) as the same level of threat, and you see yourself as being unable to handle both threats, your body will have the same “Fight or Flight” reaction (activation of your Sympathetic Nervous System) leading to prolonged stress.
To reduce anxiety related to stress, you can change the way you think about the threat, change the way you think about yourself, or change both. To change how you think about a threat, you have to challenge the thoughts you have about the situation you’re in and its consequences, which can involve unlearning unhealthy patterns we’ve internalized through life. To change how you think about yourself, you have to identify your strengths, what you value, and ways in which you can learn to respond effectively to a stressor.
Scenario 1: me v. THREAT. I feel threatened, overwhelming stress. I fear I do not have what it takes to handle what I’m facing right now.
Scenario 2: me v. threat. I feel adequate to handle minor stressors. I have what it takes to handle what I’m facing right now.
Scenario 3: ME v. threat. I feel confident, not threatened, relaxed. I have more than enough to handle what I’m facing right now.
Scenario 4: ME v. THREAT. I feel confident yet challenged. I have what it takes to handle what I’m facing right now.
Practicing mindfulness can help you change old patterns in how you perceive threats. When you notice warning signs that you’re reacting to a stress trigger, use the STOP Method explained in this post — which also explains how to dedicate small amounts of time to practicing mindfulness proactively.
As humans we can enjoy handling challenges, and yet handling certain types of challenge can involve more pain than others. Facing challenges like vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue require exceptional self-care effort to sustain the resilience you need in addition to a healthy pattern of threat perception in order to achieve compassion satisfaction.
Even with healthy threat perception and confidence in your abilities, you might feel unsatisfied and overwhelmed by your work in a problematic work environment. Lawyers in Massachusetts who need help sorting through occupational overload can start with free and confidential help from one of our clinicians: Schedule here.
Appreciating your place on a learning curve — especially related to your own well-being — can feel like a luxury, as Carol Dweck mentions in her 2014 TED Talk, now approaching 9 million views. Discussed in the context of educating young students, Dweck’s research helps us understand how the performance demands common to legal environments contributes to cultivating fixed mindsets — but lawyers with growth mindsets exist even in those environments. Every lawyer can focus on developing a stronger growth mindset, and it’s critical to handling stress in a healthy way. Take Dweck’s mindset assessment here.
It might not sound easy to make stress your friend, as Kelly McGonigal suggests we do in her 2013 TED Talk, now approaching 19 million views. Discussing recent research that indicates negative health consequences of stress take effect only on those who believe them to be true, she recommends we act on the oxytocin release associated with stress and seek social support to literally strengthen our hearts.
Sources of stress on lawyers can feel isolating. To help with as much as we can, our organization runs a variety of free and confidential groups exclusively for lawyers and law students in Massachusetts — find our full listing of current groups here. And again, lawyers and law students in Massachusetts can have free and confidential help from one of our clinicians: Schedule here.
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This post was updated from its original publication by Dr. Shawn Healy in 2014 as How Threat Perception Shapes Your Stress.