Stress is a physical, mental, and emotional response to life’s demands. The hormones cortisol and adrenaline and the neurotransmitter norepinephrine are secreted to keep a person sharp and aware when facing a particular stressor. This can be taxing on one’s physical and psychological presentation. Physically it may present itself as a tensing of muscles, most notably jaw, neck, shoulders, or stomach. Mentally one’s thinking may accelerate and thoughts may jump from topic to topic. Emotionally one may feel upset, angry, or in despair. Behaviorally it is often characterized by darting movements and impulsive decision making.
When stress reaches a clinical threshold, confusion sets in, and we use the term anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorder, affecting 18.1% of the population every year. Anxiety reflects a chronic pattern of worry and a difficulty achieving a calm and comfortable state. Sometimes anxiety reaches a threshold defined by racing thoughts, increased heart rate, and dysregulated breathing patterns. The term “panic” is used to describe this confusing state, sometimes accompanied by physical pain. While not typically dangerous, the fear it creates can lead a person to avoid stressful situations, reducing their ability to engage in activities that are important to them.
Solutions for stress involve improving one’s ability to compartmentalize stressors; relax both physically and mentally; understand personal triggers; and identify multiple effective coping strategies. Preventive measures can include getting enough sleep; eating healthy; exercising; and meditating. One current conceptualization of stress is based on how we attribute negative associations with these demands. This TED talk by Kelly McGonigal views stress as proof we care about a challenge and not something to avoid.
Lawyers, of course, are vulnerable to stress and anxiety. This is largely a response to multiple demands that need to be met in a short time frame. In addition, performing in high-stakes situations like courtroom litigation, a deposition, or an important meeting with clients and partners inevitably will cause stress. The Member Wellness Program offers frequent trainings for CLE credit to help legal professionals to manage stress. For a deeper dive, consider reading the conceptualization provided in the book “The Happiness Trap."