By Julia Batchelor-Smith, from Balancing Work and Life: A Practical Guide for Lawyers (LexisNexis, 2014)
Regulating your breathing is an excellent first line of defence to stress, because it is physically very difficult for your body to remain in a stressed state after a period of diaphragmatic breathing. Effective breathing will interrupt the fight or flight response and trigger your body’s relaxation mode by allowing more oxygen into your lungs, which in turn slows your pulse and limits the amount of cortisol and adrenaline entering your system. Effective breathing takes practice, but it’s a skill worth mastering for lowering your stress levels.
Pay attention to your breaths. Are they short and panicked? Or are you drawing slow, deep breaths? Practice taking long, slow, deep breaths through your nose into your abdomen without allowing your chest to rise. Hold the breath, then exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat until you feel yourself calming down.
First and foremost, stop what you are doing, sit down, close your eyes if it helps, and focus on your breathing.
Pinpoint the source.
Invest the time in writing down all the things that are stressing you out. Then, more importantly, next to each cause of stress note down how long that stress is anticipated to last.
If it’s a work deadline that’s inducing those sleepless nights, you can take heart that a little stress now will get the task completed, the deadline met and an abatement of that particular worry. If it’s a personal concern, writing it down may help you think of a different way to approach the problem. Getting clear on what’s worrying you may even provide you with much-needed impetus to resolve an issue rather than letting it fester.
In order to effectively limit your stress, you need to know precisely what your stressors are and why they are causing you stress.
Finally, remember to factor in seasonal considerations when assessing your stress levels. For example, coping with stress in winter requires an extra dose of self-care. Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder, meaning your mood may be negatively impacted by gloomy weather. A lack of sunshine means it can be difficult to get your daily dose of vitamin D, which can impact you physiologically and mentally. On top of this, immune systems can be easily compromised in cooler weather so sickness abounds, people are absent and deadlines slip. All this can add up to unhappy winter days in the office if stress is not managed effectively.
Is your natural inclination to write off the stress in your life by attributing it to external factors outside your control? If you’re up to your eyeballs at work, do you see it as just the way things are?
Take responsibility for the role that you play in causing your stress. Say that weekday mornings in your house are completely shambolic. Instead of accepting as a fait accompli that you will embark on a panicked search for the car keys before spilling out the door and eating your breakfast at the wheel, could you instead devise strategies to remove each of those stressful situations from your life?
Waking up in a cold sweat at 2am is usually the result of worrying about a missed (or looming) deadline, or a task that has not been completed when it should have been. And often, this is a direct result of your own procrastination or inefficient use of your time.
If procrastination is an issue for you, the first step to curbing your procrastinatory tendencies is to recognise that you have a problem. Characterise it as a health issue (which it really is).
Be honest: how much of your current stress is directly attributable to you not doing what you should be doing, when you should be doing it? Are you being judicious in allocating your time? Or are you allowing yourself to routinely veer off on tangents that divert your attention from the most pressing matter at hand?
Resolve to do what you can to reduce your own stress by managing your time as effectively as possible. For example, writing a ‘to-do’ list at the end of each day, rather than the beginning, can be an effective means of leaving work stresses at work and avoiding gnawing nocturnal concerns.
Find a positive outlet.
Find a way to channel your stress positively. It may be that taking a walk to clear your head really helps bring your stress levels down. For some people, a run or gym session are exactly what they need to recalibrate themselves. And for others, creative outlets like painting, writing or playing an instrument really help. Think about what it is that you love to do and try using that activity as a means to combat stress.
Talk about it.
If you feel as though you are drowning, never be afraid to ask for help from someone you trust. That may be a person in your network, or a health professional. Remember that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Don’t be afraid to reach out to those around you — both in times that you need help and when you can see that someone else does.
At a minimum, another person is able to offer a more objective take on things. And by articulating what’s stressing you, you may even realise that the problem is not as big as you feared, or can be resolved in a different way.
While most of us have no problem with complaining about how busy we are, there is still a general reluctance to have a meaningful conversation about stress and its effects. Busyness, oddly enough, still carries perversely positive connotations (if you are busy, the common misconception is that you must therefore be engaged and productive and, by extension, successful). But to admit that you’re stressed and you are having trouble seeing a way through is a different kind of a conversation to have.
Understand we all have limits.
As classic ‘Type A’ personalities, many lawyers find that they thrive on a high-stress lifestyle. It’s true that stress can be a useful driving force when channelled correctly. There’s a lot to be said for a little stress keeping you on your toes and at your most productive best. We all have our limits. Only you will know what yours is — and it may well change over time. Take responsibility for assessing it regularly.
But everyone has a limit as to how much they can live with before their health is compromised. It’s critical to identify your own personal limit before you feel overwhelmed, because if you can’t read the signs before a meltdown happens then it will be all the harder to recover from.
We are all different, and our capacity to withstand stress is simply another facet of our individual makeup. So while it is valuable to talk to others about the stress that you’re experiencing, recognise that defining your limit is an intimately personal exercise. And the key to managing your stress effectively is recognising that not only does everyone have a different stress tolerance level; everyone also has a limit.
Do the 10-year test.
Too often, we fail to keep things in perspective. Sweating the small stuff is an easy trap to fall into, but making a concerted effort to see things from a wider viewpoint is a worthwhile goal. Because continually looking at the big picture is hands-down the most effective means of managing the stress in your life.
Take a critical look at the list of things that are currently causing you stress. Be honest: are any of these things really going to impact your life in 10 years’ time? How about in five years? Most of the time, the reassuring conclusion that you’ll come to is that most of those stressors simply won’t matter in time. And even if they genuinely will, the chances are that they won’t affect you to the same extent as they do right now.