Reasonable Doubt: Strategies to manage your inevitable stress in 2016

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      Happy New Year, readers! This year we welcome back Mike McCubbin, Kevin Yee, and Sherry Baxter as our regular writers. We are looking forward to another year of delighting you with our incisive wit and legal commentary.

       Here is my prediction for 2016: there will be good times and there will be bad times. Even more likely than good times and bad times is that there will be stress for all of us at some point or another.

      Since starting law school in 2007, stress has become a fact of life for me. I vaguely recall experiencing stress before 2007 at various times in my life, but nothing like the stress I experienced starting September 2007. Through law school, the stress I encountered was largely my own and the stress of my colleagues. Since being in practice, I have been dealing with my own stress from working in my profession, but more importantly the acute stress of my clients going through some of the hardest times of their lives.

      Six years in, I have developed my own strategies for dealing with my stress and helping my clients work through their stress. We’re all very different, we have different problems and we all have different ways of dealing with problems, so there is no catch-all plan for managing stress.

      If you are experiencing acute stress, as in all day every day, and you cannot get it under control, see your doctor and sign up for counseling. If counseling is not your thing, turn to your support network. Talk to someone. Stress can be very isolating; isolating yourself in your stress bubble will only make it worse.

      For those of you going about your daily lives and experiencing stress here and there, but are generally happy and healthy, these strategies may help you get your stress under control when it happens.

      My first strategy is identifying a stress response. It took me a long time to learn the way my body and mind changed when I was stressed. After some time, I began to identify various behaviours I had. I start by hunching my shoulders, then I start clenching my jaw, then my breathing quickens, my thinking narrows, or perhaps goes a mile a minute, and I become very irritable. At other times, I become very absent-minded; I forget things that I do not normally forget.  

      Once I started identifying ways I react to stress, I started realizing that I was stressed when I didn’t even realize it. I would be so caught up in the stress and didn’t realize it was happening. This is more common than you’d think; working with clients in stressful situations has shown me that many people cannot identify when they are under stress.

      So, once you identify your stress responses, throughout the day practice identifying when you’re stressed. By identifying my stress responses, I stopped blaming others for my bad feelings and started looking at my own thought process that led to those negative feelings.

      After you’re adept at identifying your stress response, go one step further and ask yourself in any particular situation, what caused your stress? Did you get a nasty letter from your ex? Why does that stress you out?

      This is my second strategy: identify and reflect on your triggers for stress. There will likely be patterns.

      For example, it may be that throughout your relationship with your former spouse, he or she was constantly taking control of all parenting decisions. You took that to mean that your spouse was implying that you were not capable of making any parenting decisions. Secretly you’ve started to believe this or at least feel very insecure about your parenting. When he or she explicitly or implicitly critiques your parenting after your relationship is over, you react quickly and you react negatively.

      For me, and I believe many lawyers and other professionals, stress occurs when you feel insecure about your abilities. Once I recognize that my stress comes from feeling insecure about my abilities, I directly challenge this thought.

      This is my third strategy- directly confront your stress trigger in a constructive manner. Once you reflect on your triggers for stress, you will be able to deal with them a bit more directly, rather than reacting blindly every time they occur.

      Perhaps your stress is simply because you are avoiding doing various tasks; confronting them head on means sitting down and doing those tasks.

      On the other hand, if your stress is because of a negative view of your own abilities in some arena, look around. How are other people doing things? Are you holding yourself to an impossible standard? Are there things you can do to improve your skills? If there are, don’t punish yourself, accept this as a learning moment. This is the only way we can develop and improve our skills, whatever they may be. You were not born knowing everything.

      You will not be able to stop other people from doing things that trigger you, but you can control the way you react to these triggers. Eventually, what used to trigger you will not register with you in the same way and you will stop handing control of your emotions over to other people.