The Florida Lawyer’s Guide to Slaying Stress (According to Science)
By Aaron H. Wallace, Esq.
Before we get started, a confession: this article is as much for me as it is for you.
It’s for all of us, really: lawyers who are overburdened by profession, exacting by habit, and often self-demanding by nature.
But lately I’ve found myself in search of solutions to stress, beyond just an understanding of the problem. After all, we’ve spent the last year building a Lawyer Well-Being Resource Center here at Florida Lawyers Mutual, so when it comes to the urgency of stress and doing something about it, I need no convincing. But how?
Well, the IWIL’s second-ever Well-Being Week in Law has given me just the opportunity I need to sit down and figure it out. I want more than platitudes, though. Like any lawyer, I want reasoned arguments and evidence. I want science. I want to shut down stress like Neil Patrick Harris shuts down bad arguments in “How I Met Your Mother,” so the next time anxiety comes at me I can hit it with a full-proof plan and say, “Lawyered!”
Of course, no one ever really gets rid of stress. We just learn to recognize it, process it, mitigate it, and recover quickly so that it cannot steal our joy. Here’s how science says we can do just that.
1. Accept That the World Is Out of Control
Kind of a lofty place to start, I know, but psychologists suggest this simple release is central to slaying stress.
The weather is not within your control. The war in Ukraine is not within your control. Your client’s attitude is not within your control (and opposing counsel’s definitely isn’t). The pandemic, traffic, your laptop freezing, Starbucks getting your order wrong, what Will Smith does at the Oscars, your neighbor being noisy, your kid getting strep throat, the political divide in America, the reality that even very good lawyers get sued, the fact that there will always be more work to do… not a single one of those things is within your control. And we each have to accept that.
What we can do is keep plenty of free space on our hard drives, encourage children to wash their hands, order that double-shot tall skinny light-ice macchiato super sl-o-o-w-ly, observe good risk management practices, carry high-quality insurance, and work diligently on a to-do list. But when things don’t go according to plan, we must not fuel up on frustration inside.
Instead, psychologists tell us to: (1) calmly observe a situation, (2) identify and release what we can’t control, and (3) focus on responding rather than reacting.
To learn more about this powerful science of acceptance, read up on the psychological discipline of mindfulness.
2. Talk to Yourself (The Right Way)
Did you know your brain is as malleable as plastic? Not so long ago, scientists didn’t know that either. But now neuroplasticity is all the rage in neuroscience, which shows that our own thoughts, words, and actions can literally bend our brain wires… for better or for worse.
A recent ABA article cited neuroscience research demonstrating that when lawyers talk down to themselves or push themselves to work harder, harder, and harder, the lawyer’s nervous system actually switches to a reactive state. (Remember, we want to respond not react. See: mindfulness, above.) In a reactive state, the brain’s ability to create solutions to problems is minimized because reaction is all about survival, not creativity.
Optimism, self-encouragement, self-compassion, and intentional “rewiring” of the brain away from familiar but unproductive stress responses have just the opposite effect. They free the brain from fight-or-flight reactions and the stress-inducing chemicals they unleash.
To learn more about changing your brain by changing the way you talk, think, and act, study neuroplasticity.
3. Boost Your Brain Chemicals
Complex as it may be, the brain is pretty darn hackable. There’s a lot you can do to safely and healthfully bathe your brain in feel-good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin (“the love chemical”), and endorphins.
Here are just a few science-endorsed ways to boost your brain chemicals and reduce the daily stresses of being a lawyer:
- Spend time outside
- Put your bare feet on real grass
- Chew gum
- Write a journal (this one is developed by a brain science company to rewire your brain through gratitude exercises in just 5 minutes per day)
- Take a little time goofing around with family or friends
- Spend a half-hour on the couch sprawled out and watching something funny
- Hold, pet, or feed an animal
- Eat a tasty, well-balanced meal
- Have some dark chocolate
- Keep a stress ball at your desk and squeeze liberally (I use these — usually the medium strength)
- Get a massage (I keep this foot roller under my desk for all those times I can’t make it to the spa)
- Pull up a YouTube video for guided breathing aimed at de-stressing and relaxation
- Learn something new (YouTube is great for this too — a lot of the videos are 20 minutes or less)
- Listen to music
A quick note on that last one: music, unlike many of the items on this list, is something you can incorporate throughout much of your work day (every day). While working to a rhythm isn’t appropriate for every person or every situation, don’t knock it ’til you try it! I recently discovered something called lo-fi — a new music trend designed specifically to promote focus, concentration, and productivity all while reducing stress. It is surprisingly effective. The just-released Lofi Minnie: Focus from Walt Disney Records is a good place to start.
Music plays another role too: it alters our energy and emotion. That’s why we created a Music Playlist for Florida Lawyer Well-Being. Right now, there are thirty songs in that playlist hand-picked for Florida lawyers (see why we chose each song here)… and next week, we’re adding 30 more songs for 2022, so be sure to check back during the Well-Being Week in Law “After Party”!
But in talking about boosting brain chemicals, a word of caution: there’s a right way and a wrong way. Alcohol and other substances are often marketed as “unwinders,” but most research shows that they only exacerbate stress and depression in the long run. A cocktail or a glass of wine may have its place for those who do not experience dependence, but keep in mind that they are not the go-to “brain hacks” they sometimes purport to be.
Lawyers Are Smart, So Embrace Your Ability to Work Smarter
Ultimately, being an excellent lawyer who also lives a low-stress life is a challenge worthy of someone smart and determined. It will require practice and discipline. But you know what lawyers are really good at? Practice and discipline.
You can do this. I can do this. And frankly, we need to do this.
The Institute for Well-Being in Law and its now-annual Well-Being Week in Law campaign came about because the levels of stress, depression, unhappiness, and poor health in the profession have risen to crisis levels. It’s the reason that, as a provider of errors & omissions insurance for lawyers in Florida, we at Florida Lawyers Mutual have made lawyer well-being a core value for our brand. Happy, healthy lawyers are better lawyers… and it’s time the profession brings those things into alignment.
I think most lawyers understand this intuitively and feel it on a personal level. But what we know is that if we want to see change, we have to be the change we want to see. So let’s start putting these science-backed stress busters into practice… together.
Come back to www.flmic.com tomorrow for even more Well-Being Week in Law 2022 content!
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