We can’t avoid stress as humans, and the legal profession is particularly stressful. Fortunately even as a lawyer or law student, two simple steps can guide you to thrive with stress.
Ultimately, the ability to experience stress in a positive way is a question of resources. Stress typically connotes distress — but when we’re not overwhelmed by a threat, pressure can feel positive. Eustress describes when we’re outside of our comfort zone but haven’t exhausted our resources before we’ve handled the threat and our bodies can move into recovery mode. When we’ve exhausted our resources and haven’t eliminated or distanced ourselves sufficiently from the threat, we experience distress.
How you perceive threats and supports influences whether your resources feel sufficient. If we inflate a threat — which our fairly old-fashioned brains routinely do in modern society — we often jump to conclude our resources will be overwhelmed. Then, we often don’t even consider using any or many of them. And it doesn’t help to have resources we could use in theory — but don’t actually even consider using.
When we don’t have an opportunity to recover from stress before we encounter our next threat, we’re infinitely more likely to perceive it as overwhelming and risk entering a problematic cycle of chronic distress. Our bodies (starting with the brain) process threats with two systems — Respond (sympathetic nervous system) and Recover (parasympathetic nervous system). Our response mode pumps our blood carrying a heightened levels of the chemicals that our muscles need for fighting or fleeing. We need to recover from our response mode to get back to balanced — and if we never stop responding, we can never recover.
Following two straightforward steps can help us shift our experiences with threats from instant overwhelm to productive pressure. Finding and creating resources helps us perceive threats that once would have felt overwhelming as opportunities to feel eustress. Creating and accessing new resources require us to to make real changes. You need a growth mindset to feel motivated to make change. Find more on how developing a growth mindset can give you better control over your threat perception here.
STEP ONE: Inventory Strengths.
Strengthening our sense of self is the foundation of balanced threat perception. It requires intentional effort to take the time to appreciate our strengths, especially if you work in an adversarial system like the legal profession. Increasing your confidence in your abilities to respond to threats will best prepare you to handle serious threats and recognize when threats appear bigger than they truly are. The first step is to take an inventory of your strengths. When we feel overwhelmed with stress, we tend to solely focus on our weaknesses and we quickly lose sight of our strengths.
Training our brains to recognize more abilities and supports alone can make us feel more confident and perceive threats less as less likely to overwhelm us. Making a list of your strengths — what you do well and who you can rely on — can change your self-evaluation to a positive, strength-based picture.
Making a list of strengths can also help you identify and access the resources you already have in your “toolbox” for various situations. Do you have someone you can ask for help? Do you have good listening skills? This can be used to defuse someone’s frustration by letting them know that you understand and care about what they are saying. Are you good at setting boundaries? This can be used to help establish structure in situation that has too many potential options. Do you have good organizational skills? This can be used to help organize clear action steps to help with getting things accomplished.
STEP TWO: Identify Opportunities.
The second step is to commit to adding resources to your “toolbox” by sharpening existing and learning new skills — especially resilience. Building resilience is a fundamental package of skills that help us identify opportunities that includes internal and external supports. We’ve published a few tips on building resilience here, along with more guidance on how to develop both internal resources and external resources.
Learning and practicing new skills give us more resources and increases our capacity to handle threats. Learning certain skills can have a big impact depending on the nature of the threat. The more equipped you feel, the more confident you will become to handle whatever situation arises, which leads to seeing threats as less threatening, which leads to less distress. Skills that are useful in a wide range of commonly overwhelming situations include:
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (particularly the STOP Method) — Find more here.
- Active Listening Skills — Find more here.
- Other Communication Skills — Find more here.
- Boundary Setting / Assertiveness Skills — Find more here on setting boundaries here.
- Conflict Resolution Techniques — Find more here.
- Cognitive Restructuring — Lawyers and law students in Massachusetts can find more on scheduling a Free & Confidential meeting with a therapist here to help you get started.
- Perspective-Shifting — We’ll publish tips on how to start shifting your thoughts to focus on the other person’s position soon, and in the meantime, our therapists can help.
Another way to add to your toolbox is by moving to more supportive environments. Like any professional, lawyers can find themselves in toxic working environments that would exhaust even the most extensive resources. And other environments that don’t rise to the level of toxic might still fail to offer a requisite level of support, including offering adequate appreciation and autonomy — which shape our own perceptions of our resource. Building the soft skills above and hard skills for specific jobs can open new employment opportunities — and here are a few more soft skills that can empower you to find environments more conducive to experiencing eustress:
And to determine what hard skills (and more!) will help you navigate the legal profession more smoothly, we’ve published a Career Development for Lawyers Workbook Series. The first workbook focuses on building strengths through identifying existing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. From there, you’ll work through identifying your Values, Brand, Passion, and Path — all of which can help you stay committed to using your strengths to your benefit. “Even if you are momentarily good at it or even consistently good at it, if it drags you down and drains you, then we can’t call that a strength, can we?” Marcus Buckingham cautions in an episode of Adam Grant’s Work Life podcast with TED.
Finally, you can also find more on Happiness Basics for Lawyers and Law Students: Positive Psychology, Values, and “Work-Life Balance”.
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This post was updated from its original version by Shawn Healy, PhD, titled How to Turn the Tables and Gain the Upper Hand on the Stresses You Face, which now redirects here.