Stress is a natural feeling of not being able to cope with specific demands and events. These demands can come from work, relationships, financial pressures, and other situations, but anything that poses a real or perceived challenge or threat to a person’s well-being can cause stress. It’s not always possible to avoid stress, but it is possible to change your response to stress. In fact, the human body is designed to experience stress and react to it. When you experience changes or challenges (stressors), your body produces physical and mental responses. That’s stress. Stress can be positive, keeping us alert, motivated and ready to avoid danger. Stress can be a motivator, and it can even be essential to survival. Stress is the body’s natural defense against predators and danger. The body activates resources that help people either stay and confront the challenge or get to safety as fast as possible. It causes the body to flood with hormones that prepare its systems to evade or confront danger. The body’s fight-or-flight mechanism tells a person when and how to respond to danger. For example, if a person has an important test coming up, a stress response might help their body work harder and stay awake longer. But stress becomes a problem when stressors continue without relief or periods of relaxation. When the body becomes triggered too easily, or there are too many stressors at one time, it can undermine a person’s mental and physical health and become harmful.
Stress has driven evolutionary change (the development and natural selection of species over time). Thus, the species that adapted best to the causes of stress (stressors) have survived and evolved into the plant and animal kingdoms we now observe. Man is the most adaptive creature on the planet because of the evolution of the human brain, especially the part called the neo-cortex. This adaptability is largely due to the changes and stressors that we have faced and mastered.
Therefore, we, unlike other animals, can live in any climate or ecosystem, at various altitudes, and avoid the danger of predators.
According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, the relationship between stress and performance can be measured on a bell curve. It is only when stress goes beyond the peak of the bell curve that people suffer from stress-hormone-overload and performance suffers. Sustaining an overload for a long period creates imbalances in our nervous and immune systems, leaving us more vulnerable to illness.
In general, stress is related to both external and internal factors. External factors include the physical environment, including your job, your relationships with others, your home, and all the situations, challenges, difficulties, and expectations you’re confronted with on a daily basis. Internal factors determine your body’s ability to respond to, and deal with, the external stress-inducing factors.
Internal factors which influence your ability to handle stress include your nutritional status, overall health and fitness levels, emotional well-being, and the amount of sleep and rest you get.
But just how much stress is “too much” differs from person to person. Some people seem to be able to roll with life’s punches, while others tend to crumble in the face of small obstacles or frustrations. Some people even thrive on the excitement of a high-stress lifestyle.
The body produces larger quantities of the chemicals cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. These trigger the following physical reactions:
Common indicators of stress include (but are not limited to):
Sleep disruption: struggling to drift off, waking up throughout the night;
Feeling easily irritated;
Having difficulty staying focused;
Pulling away from colleagues, friends and family;
Putting off things that need to be done, or conversely feeling as though everything must be done now;
Developing unhealthy eating habits;
Avoiding doing things which we know are good for us (e.g. running, working out, yoga, meditation etc);
Increasing our use of alcohol;
Turning towards addictive relaxants, e.g. cigarettes, benzodiazepines.
Environmental factors that trigger this reaction are called stressors. Examples include noises, aggressive behavior, a speeding car, scary moments in movies, or even going out on a first date. Feelings of stress tend to increase in tandem with the number of stressors.
Factors that influence your stress tolerance level include:
a) Network: A strong network of supportive friends and family members is an enormous buffer against stress. When you have people you can count on, life’s pressures don’t seem as overwhelming. On the flip side, the lonelier and more isolated you are, the greater your risk of succumbing to stress.
b) Attitude and sense of control: Your perspective of stressful office events is typically a subjective interpretation of the facts, often seen through the filter of your own self-doubt. If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges, it’s easier to take stress in stride. On the other hand, if you believe that you have little control over your life, that you’re at the mercy of your environment and circumstances, stress is more likely to knock you off course. The way you look at life and its inevitable challenges makes a huge difference in your ability to handle stress. If you’re generally hopeful and optimistic, you’ll be less vulnerable. Stress-hardy people tend to embrace challenges, have a stronger sense of humor, believe in a higher purpose, and accept change as an inevitable part of life. If you don’t know how to calm and soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or troubled, you’re more likely to become stressed and agitated. Having the ability to identify and deal appropriately with your emotions can increase your tolerance to stress and help you bounce back from adversity.
According to the findings, produced by insurance firm Protectivity, 63% of respondents active in the legal industry are reporting stress on a daily basis.
According to a recent study from legal mental health charity Law Care (entitled ‘Life in the Law’), the majority of participants surveyed (69%) had experienced mental ill health in the 12 months before completing the survey. In 2017 the Law Society surveyed their members about resilience and wellbeing. The results indicated that 90 percent of junior lawyers were experiencing work related stress and that 1 in 4 had suffered a mental health problem in the previous month.
The Law Society Junior Lawyers Division’s (JLD) annual resilience and wellbeing report reveals that one in 15 junior lawyers have experienced suicidal thoughts. Of more than 1,800 respondents, 48% said they had experienced mental ill-health in the last month, up from 38% last year. Some 93.5% of respondents said they experienced stress in their role. A quarter of those experienced ‘severe/extreme’ levels of stress. The survey results also showed that the pressures of practicing law, some of which are self-imposed, can take their toll and lead to burnout. For example, when lawyers were asked to describe their work week and how they approached time off, the data showed that lawyers rarely cut themselves a break: 38% said they often work long hours, 9% said they “never stop working”, 25% said they failed to take adequate breaks during the workday, 32% said they feel pressure to not take vacation time. Given those responses, it’s no wonder that lawyers have high levels of burnout.
Common causes of workplace stress include:
Keep a journal for a week or two to identify which situations create the most stress and how you respond to them. Record your thoughts, feelings, and information about the environment, including the people and circumstances involved, the physical setting, and how you reacted.
Diet and exercise:
Instead of attempting to fight stress with fast food or alcohol, do your best to make healthy choices when you feel the tension rise. Exercise is a great stress-buster. Yoga can be an excellent choice, but any form of physical activity is beneficial. Also, making time for hobbies and favorite activities, whether it’s reading a novel, going to concerts, or playing games with your family, make sure to set aside time for the things that bring you pleasure. Getting enough good-quality sleep is also important for effective stress management. Build healthy sleep habits by limiting your caffeine intake late in the day and minimizing stimulating activities, such as computer and television use, at night. “Eating badly will stress your system, and when you’re not sleeping well, you’re not getting the rejuvenating effects.” says Sharon Melnick, Ph.D., a business psychologist and author of just released Success Under Stress who advises eating a low-sugar, high-protein diet.
“Most of us are bombarded during the day,” says Melnick. Emails, phone calls, pop ins, instant messages and sudden, urgent deadlines conspire to make today’s workers more distracted than ever. While you may not have control over the interrupters, you can control your response.
Melnick advises responding in one of three ways: Accept the interruption, cut it off, or diagnosis its importance and make a plan. Many interruptions are recurring and can be anticipated. “You want to have preset criteria for which response you want to make,” she says. You can also train those around you by answering email during certain windows, setting up office hours to talk in person or closing the door when you need to focus. Establish some work-life boundaries for yourself. That might mean making a rule not to check email from home in the evening, or not answering the phone during dinner. Although people have different preferences when it comes to how much they blend their work and home life, creating some clear boundaries between these realms can reduce the potential for work-life conflict and the stress that goes with it.
Taking time to relax:
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or are coming out of a tense meeting and need to clear your head, a few minutes of deep breathing will restore balance, says Melnick. When possible, take time off to relax and unwind, so you come back to work feeling reinvigorated and ready to perform at your best. When you’re not able to take time off, get a quick boost by turning off your smartphone and focusing your attention on nonwork activities for a while.
Choosing the right legal software:
For example, automating repetitive aspects of work can help to alleviate lawyers’ workload, giving them more time to work on other important tasks so that they can leave the ‘office’ at a sociable hour. As such, technology can help transform the way that lawyers manage their ever-growing workload. Collaboration technologies can also help with the growing calls for an increase in flexibility in work. Choosing the right legal software can assist in increasing the speed and accuracy of work which can lead to a decrease in stress. It includes tools for legal workflow automation, secure document management, law firm cloud storage and customer relationship management which saves up on a lot of manual tasks that makes the tasks of lawyers easier and faster, leading to a reduction of stress and more time for social and other relaxing activities.
Ritu Kaushal, ‘Importance of Case Management Software’, Cogneesol (2021) at https://www.cogneesol.com/blog/legal-case-management-system-for-law-firms/