Pay Attention This Matters

Decoding the meaning of stress


Jennifer is anxious about the upcoming discovery. She’s never handled a file like this before and opposing counsel is a tough senior litigator.

John is stressed out at his firm. The partners he works with take positions on files he is at times ethically opposed to and the competitive office culture is toxic to him.

Jeremy is putting off listening to the voicemail that piled up while he was off sick. There is already too much to do and he fears what might be waiting for him in those messages.

Stress, fear, anxiety: are these signs that something is wrong with you?

Not at all. Stress isn’t a sign that something is wrong. It’s a signal that something is important and needs your attention.

The physical experience of stress is a highly evolved biological reaction designed to give us what we need to make it through.

If you have not yet read or watched Kelly McGonigal of Stanford University’s eloquent summary of the latest insights from stress research conducted over the past two decades, head over here to watch her Ted Talk.

To summarise decades of research, while stress feels uncomfortable, the physical response is equipping us to do our best. The cortisol released boosts our immune response. The adrenaline increases our alertness and mental focus. The DHEA enhances our mental focus, helps us build new neurological pathways and promotes recovery. The oxytocin increases trust and inhibits fear while the dopamine promotes courage, learning, and the formation of memories.

The stress Jennifer is experiencing is a natural part of her learning process. Jennifer can use her stress response to full advantage. It will be speeding up her thinking processes and helping her to perform at her best during the discovery. It will also help her learn from the experience.

The experience of stress can also point to a need to make a change, such as a career or practice transition. John is reluctant to start a job hunt but the stress he is experiencing everyday serves as an alarm bell prodding him into action.

Stress can also be a signal that it is time to invest in mental wellness.

Jeremy’s stress is caused by his thoughts. He dislikes being behind. His fear of missing important deadlines has triggered his procrastination about listening to his messages.

Jeremy’s negative self-talk and fears are entirely normal. Inside all of us lives a harsh inner critic who is alert to every single flaw, potential ailing, and portends disaster. The stress caused by these negative thoughts is a signal that there is something important to investigate, namely, mental wellness.

Mental wellness is one of the best investments in your professional development you can make. This is important for everyone.

Mental wellness is founded on exploring the terrain of your inner landscape, learning how to identify and shift negative thought cycles and how to handle the challenging emotions – anger, disappointment, fear, sorrow and grief.

The best way to explore this terrain is with a guide. The Lawyer Assistance Program is an excellent starting point for lawyers. Coaches and counsellors can also help provide tools and practices to try out.

Negative thoughts, fears, and shame shrink when brought out of the darkness in our heads and into the light with a trusted confidante. This makes speaking with a trusted advisor a wise course of action.

Many respected lawyers have sought this support early on and throughout their careers and this investment in mental wellness has been a pillar of the professional foundation that has supported their success.

As Kelly McGonigal says, “make stress your friend.” Acknowledge its message that something is important and matters. Take action.