Strategies For Coping With Stress In The Legal Profession
An estimated 1 in 4 Americans started the new year with the intention of improving their mental health in 2022.1
In the legal profession, good intentions on Jan. 1 often face an early test, when work obligations—and the potential pressure they present—resume and increase after the holidays. Attending to such obligations, of course, is nothing new for attorneys. But due to improvements in technology and an accelerated flow of communication, attorneys may face more demands than ever.
Addressing the daily ups and downs that those demands invite may take more than a once-a-year resolution. This article therefore considers the benefit of fast, accessible strategies for stress management that can be used almost as quickly as an unexpected stressor can arise.
Stressors, Stress and Coping Strategies
Most people—if not all people—who read this are already familiar with stress, and much has been written elsewhere about it. That said, briefly reviewing a few concepts might be helpful.
The American Psychological Association defines stress as "the physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors."2 This definition includes two key concepts: (1) internal and external stressors that can create a potentially stressful situation, and (2) the stress response that an individual actually feels.
Everyone experiences stress at times, and some stress can be beneficial. Short-term stress can help us avoid danger and increase our motivation and productivity.3 A person's most positive life experiences or accomplishments often entail some stress.4 And stress has been found to be more common among people who report living a meaningful life.5
All things considered, some amount of stress is not an inherently bad thing.
Chronic and severe stress, however, are a different story. Chronic stress may contribute to serious health issues, including heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety and substance use issues. Severe stress, even when acute, can impair a person's functioning and interfere with daily responsibilities and relationships.6
People respond to stress with coping strategies. The coping strategy a person uses depends on many factors, including the stressor, the surrounding circumstances, the person under stress and other factors.7
Coping strategies are often healthy and effective, but that is not always the case. A person might respond to stress with behavior that does not address the stressor or reduce the stress response—e.g., ignoring the problem or inappropriately withdrawing from a stressful situation.
And some coping strategies might be detrimental or increase the number of potential stressors—e.g., responding to stress with inappropriate anger or substance misuse.8 Making an effort to adopt positive, effective strategies is one way to help avoid an approach that is harmful.
Positive coping strategies can take many forms. Some coping strategies involve problem-focused coping that addresses the stressor itself—e.g., asking for an extension on a project—and some use emotion-focused coping that seeks to mitigate or alleviate a person's actual stress response—e.g., breathing exercises.9
Before considering positive coping strategies for stressors that arise unexpectedly in the workplace, let's consider the source of those stressors and how they have evolved.
Technology in the Legal Profession and Its Impact on Stress
The proposition that attorneys experience job-related stress needs little elaboration or documentation here.10 Some stress seems all but inevitable in a profession that frequently involves deadlines, competing obligations, adversarial relationships, uncertain outcomes and high stakes. Because these features are intrinsic to the practice of law, attorneys likely have experienced some forms of stress for centuries.
At the same time, stressors in the legal profession have changed as the profession itself evolved. This is especially true when one looks at the last 30 years, which have witnessed an unprecedented proliferation in communication and information technologies, including the internet, email, laptops, smartphones, tablets and videoconferencing.11 And the need to work virtually during the course of the pandemic has only escalated the importance of these tools to one's daily practice.
These technologies have revolutionized the way that attorneys do their jobs. Correspondence that previously took days to send by mail is delivered instantaneously, and filings can be submitted, served and received any hour of the day. Meetings that once occurred only during daytime hours after advanced planning take place spontaneously by video, and conversations are had around the clock with technology that fits in our pocket and travels everywhere.12
The result is a drastically accelerated flow of communication that includes more exchanges, with more people over a greater portion of the day.13 More than ever, attorneys must juggle multiple tasks and quickly shift focus from one thing to another.14
The information available to attorneys also ballooned over the past 30 years. Opinions, statutes, regulations and other authorities migrated from shelves in law libraries to electronic databases accessible anywhere. These databases increase exponentially the amount of potentially relevant materials available to attorneys. On top of that, an increasing volume of records and data has made discovery more complex and time-consuming.15
These advances serve many good purposes. But they are not without potential downsides, one of which is creating an environment where would-be stressors can arise more frequently and unexpectedly, and over a longer portion of the day, than 30 years ago.
Research on technostress — a term referring to stress produced by information and communication technology — backs this up.16 The technology described above is especially likely to produce two kinds of technostress: techno-invasions, which refers to a constant connectivity that invades life, and techno-overload, which refers to simultaneous, different streams of information that increase the pace and volume of work.17
Just like traditional forms of stress, technostress can result in anxiety, fatigue, skepticism and inefficacy—among other issues.18
Assuming that work-related stressors have increased in number and frequency and may arise with little notice—and it appears this would be true for many—it begs the question of what attorneys might do in response. Some answers are offered below.
What Does This Mean—and What can Attorneys Do?
People often think of daily activities, such as exercise or meditation, when considering ways to manage stress. Those are great approaches. But with potential stressors arising quickly and unpredictably during the workday, it also may help to have strategies on hand that take just a few minutes and are readily available at a moment's notice.
It is important at the outset, however, to reiterate that some stress is normal and not always a bad thing. Accordingly, there is no reason to feel threatened just because stress arises or to be reluctant to acknowledge those feelings. In fact, simply identifying a stressor can provide a better path forward by letting one look at the stressor more objectively and focus on a solution instead of the stress itself.
According to the Centre for Studies on Human Stress, "The trick is to get your brain to understand that the situation you are in is not so threatening. So, process the information or think about something positive, this new message will dampen your stress response."19
Adjusting our feelings when under stress by reframing the situation sounds good in the abstract, right? But it can be easier said than done. Many times, unexpected stressors will elicit a response that demands more than just naming it.
One possibility in those situations is to turn the tables and use the same electronic devices that allow these unexpected stressors to lessen their impact instead. The internet houses a wide array of resources aimed at reducing stress, which are easily located using one's go-to search engine—which include among other things videos, apps, recordings, reminders and other tools that incorporate proven stress relief strategies.
The ubiquity of electronic devices means these resources are literally at our fingertips and almost always available, and thus can provide benefits in just a few minutes or less.
Technology also has expanded our ability to communicate. The resulting accessibility may produce some potential stressors, but communication also can relieve stress. If a person is challenged by an unexpected stressor, they might try to connect with individuals who can listen and provide support—emotion-focused coping—or instead contact someone about the stressor itself—problem-focused coping.20 Either way, technology again can relieve stress just as quickly as it produces it.
This notion of using technology to promote better well-being is consistent with principles of positive technology. Positive technology is an approach to technostress that grew out of positive psychology and, among other things, considers how technology may generate positive experiences, support individuals in reaching engaging and self-actualizing experiences, and improve connectedness between individuals or groups.21
Technology, however, is by no means the only way to address unexpected stressors—far from it. Physical movement, for one, can play an important role in those efforts. With people and information more accessible through electronic means, the amount of walking a person may need to do in the course of a day has declined. Our stress response has not changed with it.
Immediate stressors tend to activate our autonomic fight-or-flight response, producing an increase in our energy that, without an outlet, can impact us physically and inhibit our ability to cope.22 Even a few minutes of brisk walking, a few exercises or some stretching can help prevent this.23
In addition, if physical movement is not an option, deep breathing, meditation, guided imagery, body scans, positive self-talk and mindfulness are all well-supported approaches for addressing stress that can be done anywhere, both quickly and spontaneously.24
Finally, with the practice of law accelerating, many people's daily planers have become even more organized. Even with a full day, a structured calendar does not have to inhibit one from responding to stress and may do the opposite. Looking ahead at one's day in the morning might reveal a small window to set aside for assessing the day is and taking a momentary break from all devices, which of course is another way to monitor and respond to stress.
The strategies above are just examples. People experience stressors and respond to stress differently, and no two situations are alike. As a result, no single coping strategy is perfect for every situation and what works for one person may not work for someone else.
The good news is that, unlike a New Year's resolution, one need not wait until next year to begin anew if a certain approach does not work. They need only wait for life to produce another situation with the potential to produce stress. In today's fast-paced, well-connected legal profession, it is likely that situation will happen soon enough.
American Psychiatric Association, One in Four Americans Plans a Mental Health New Year's Resolution for 2022 (Dec. 20, 2021) (https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/news-releases).
American Psychological Association, APA Dictionary of Psychology, stress (2020) (https://dictionary.apa.org/stress).
American Institute of Stress, Using Key Communication Skills to Manage Stress (July 22, 2019) (www.stress.org/using-key-communication-skills-to-manage-stress).
Parker, C, Embracing Stress Is More Important than Reducing Stress, Stanford Psychiatrist Says, Stanford News (May 7, 2015) (https://news.stanford.edu/2015/05/07/stress-embrace-mcgonigal-050715/).
American Institute of Stress, supra.
Baqutayon, S.M, Stress and Coping Mechanisms: A Historical Overview at 479-80, Mediterranean J. of Social Sciences (March 2015); American Heart Association, Three Tips to Manage Stress (Oct. 4, 2021) (https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/3-tips-to-manage-stress).
Men's Health, History of Stress (June 2, 2004) (https://www.menshealth.com/health/.a19534696/history-of-stress/); Baqutayon, supra.
Baqutayon, supra; American Heart Association, supra.
Black, N., ABA Survey: Lawyers Are Stressed Out, Above the Law (Aug. 5, 2021) (https://abovethelaw.com/2021/08/aba-survey-lawyers-are-stressed-out); Scharf, S., et al., Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward 2021 at 14-21 (American Bar Association 2021) (https://americanbar.org/initiatives).
Krause, J., 100 Innovations in Law, ABA Journal (Apr. 1, 2015) (https://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/100_innovations_in_law).
Berg-Beckhoff, G., et al. Use of Information Communication Technology & Stress, Burnout, & Mental Health in Older, Middle-Aged, & Younger Workers—Results from a Systemic Review at 160-71, Int'l J. Occup. Environmental Health (April 2017).
Bondanini, H. et al., Technostress Dark Side of Technology in the Workplace: A Scientometric Analysis, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health (2020).
Centre for Studies on Human Stress, Coping with Stress: Quick Tricks (2019) (https://humanstress.ca/stress/trick-your-stress/fight-or-flight/).
Using Key Communication Skills, supra.
Brivio, E., et al., Preventing Technostress Through Positive Technology, Frontiers in Psychol (2018).
Men's Health, supra; Centre for Studies on Human Stress, supra.
American Heart Association, Three Tips to Manage Stress (Oct. 4, 2021) (https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/3-tips-to-manage-stress).
Corliss, J., Six Relaxation Techniques to Reduce Stress, Harvard Health Publishing (Sept. 10, 2019) (https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/six-relaxation-techniques-to-reduce-stress); Dolgoff, S., 15 Stress-Reducing Activities You Can Do at Home, According to Experts, American Stress Institute (May 1, 2020) (https://www.stress.org/15-stress-reducing-activities-you-can-do-at-home-according-to-experts).