Stress and summer are words that should not go together. Summer should be about relaxing and recharging and maybe even a vacation. However, this year, fewer Americans (only 37% in 2018, down from 53% in 2017) say they can completely unplug from their work while on vacation.
And then, there are lawyers. Unplugging is not top on their “to do” lists. Stress and lawyers are like peanut butter and jelly. All jokes aside, constant stress is not sustainable. After over 15 years of working in legal aid, I learned that a stress management toolkit is a necessity for lawyers and not an option.
Not everyone deals with stress in the same way. So, it is important that each person has a stress management toolkit that works for them. I am going to share with you what is in my toolkit to help you get started. Additionally, I’ll include other resources that may assist in developing your own toolkit.
Managing Stress Has Become a Hot Topic
Wellness and managing stress have become hot topics in the legal community, so there are now more resources than ever available. Last year, the Illinois Supreme Court amended Rule 794 to require that each licensed Illinois attorney take a 1-hour mental health and substance abuse CLE every reporting period. In addition, in August 2017, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being released its report, “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.” The report includes 44 recommendations on how to create a healthier environment for lawyers.
I can already hear many lawyers reading this say, “I am too busy to manage my stress.” Yes, you are way too busy. I know this reality firsthand. Yet I also know the impact of not taking care of yourself. Constant anxiety, depression, fatigue, substance abuse, etc. is detrimental to your health. There is no doubt that your clients have a lot “on the line.” However, you are not going to be able to assist your clients if you do not take care of yourself first. It is the same reason why flight attendants say, “Put on your air mask first before assisting others.”
Practical Ideas for Your Stress Management Toolkit
During my tenure as a legal aid lawyer, I developed and refined my stress management toolkit. I hope some of these ideas will resonate and be useful to you. Here are my top ten tools for dealing with stress:
- Practice Yoga. I took my first yoga class in law school and continue to practice today. For me, yoga is key for managing stress. It is a great blend of movement, breathing, and mindfulness. If you are interested in trying yoga or getting back to it, search yoga studios in your area. Can’t make it to a studio? There are plenty of yoga classes online for a reasonable monthly subscription such as YogaGlo and Yoga International.
- Meditate. As my yoga teacher, Elesa Commerse says, “Meditation is medicine for the mind.” At a recent bar association event, someone said that meditation gives you more space between when something happens and your reaction to it. This resonates as true for me with my meditation practice. It is also important for lawyers as we are constantly needing to act and react to things under stress. Scholars agree that meditation helps to reduce stress. I know it may seem daunting and you may even wonder where to begin. I recommend Elesa Commerse’s “Sit Comfortably Medication CD” as an excellent starting point.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Robert Emmons, a professor at UC Davis found that if people simply wrote down one thing they were grateful for per day, in just three weeks, they were 25% happier. I like to do write down 3-5 things I am grateful for at the end of my day. It helps to focus on what was good in my day rather than only focusing on a negative thing that happened at court, the office, etc. Buy a cheap notebook and give it a try or check out some gratitude apps to use such as the Mojo App.
- Spend time in nature. When everything around seems “out of control” with stress, being in nature helps to ground me. You can even touch the grass and hard ground and remember the stability of the ground below you. There are so many places to go and be outside such as a local park or forest preserve. If you are near Chicago, the Botanical Gardens and Morton Arboretum are great options to be in nature.
- Sleep. Not getting enough sleep puts you at greater risk for depression, stress, irritability, anxiety, and forgetfulness. If you already have too much stress as a lawyer and you compound that with not getting enough sleep, the impact on you and your clients is immense. The Mayo Clinic recommends 7-9 hours of sleep for adults. I notice that when I am getting enough sleep, I have better ideas, I am more productive, and overall, I feel better.
- Eat well. When stress is high, it is easy to let cooking healthy meals “slide.” It’s easier to grab something “quick” and not think about it. Also, when you are stressed out, you crave richer foods. Turning to unhealthy options over the long-term is going to negatively impact your health. Some ways to curb the urge are meal planning on the weekends, making breakfast the night before (smoothie or overnight oats) as well as lunch, and occasionally buying some of the Trader Joe’s frozen pre-made dinners, which are healthier than you might think. Finally, make sure to sit down and take the time to eat rather than eating in front of your work computer, phone, or TV. This will help you better digest your food.
- Exercise. Exercise has been a great stress reducer for me over the years. Trust me, I do not always want to exercise. Therefore, I try and pick things that I enjoy. I used to run a lot and found that “banging the pavement” really helped deal with stress. As time has gone on, I no longer like running as much as I did, so I now walk and do some personal training classes. Still not buying my exercise promotion? Check out this Huff Post article for some good ideas for exercise and ways to stick with it.
- Do what you enjoy. I recently spoke with law students about how to survive law school and I found myself saying, “Don’t give up what you love to do.” It might be seeing live music, playing soccer, traveling, etc. This also applies to lawyers. Taking time to do something you enjoy will take your mind off all the stress at work and allow you to come back to it with a fresh perspective.
- Reach out to friends and colleagues. Don’t forget you are not alone. There are colleagues down the hall from you who are dealing with the same kind of stress you are. It always helped me to talk to colleagues, brainstorm ideas, and laugh. Also, even though you are busy, make time to see your friends. These relationships help you feel connected to others, which can help to decrease stress. Pick up your phone today and instead of texting or checking Instagram, call a good friend.
- Say “No.” This still is a hard one for me. I also know it is hard for lawyers because you tend to be extra helpful by nature. However, if your “yes,” is not an enthusiastic “yes,” resentment tends to build up. Also, if you continue to say “yes” to people and things, you have no room for the things that fulfill you (see #8 above). Over the next week, pay attention to what you say “yes” to and how you feel after you say it. If you notice you are dreading the project/case, or beginning to feel resentment, it is time to reevaluate your commitments.
I hope this gives you some thoughts on what you need in your stress management toolkit. Depending on the situation, I may need just one or two of the above tools and other times, I need all ten. Don’t delay in developing your toolkit. It’s important your tools are ready when you most need them.
In the comments, please share other ideas for tools needed in a stress management toolkit.