Lawyer Well-Being, Psychological Capital Building the Mental Strength and Flexibility to Manage Stress and Boost Performance, 0420 UTBJ, Vol. 33, No. 2. 24

AuthorBy Martha Knudson, J.D., MAPP
PositionVol. 33 2 Pg. 24

Lawyer Well-Being, Psychological Capital Building the Mental Strength and Flexibility to Manage Stress and Boost Performance

Vol. 33 No. 2 Pg. 24

Utah Bar Journal

April, 2020

March, 2020

By Martha Knudson, J.D., MAPP

Lawyering often comes with a generous helping of stress that can wear on the performance, mental health, and continued job satisfaction of the best of us. It’s a byproduct of our role in handling challenges with clients. If increased well-being in the legal profession is indeed a priority, what do we do about stress? We begin by changing our relationship with it. We stop stressing about stress and, instead, we develop our capacity to engage with it in healthy ways.

Stop Stressing About Stress. Understand and Manage it Instead.

A stress-free life is not the secret ingredient for increased well-being. Even if that were possible (it’s not), it wouldn’t be advisable as a certain amount of stress is actually necessary for our happiness. Stress is bound up with the elements of life that many of us value most: personal growth, positive relationships, love, family, achievement, a fulfilling and successful career, and living a purposeful life. Without stress, none of these things would be possible. When you boil it down, stress is what occurs when something we value is at risk. See Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It xxi (2015).

Stress is also not the big bad monster it’s so often made out to be. It’s an adaptive biological response to help our bodies and minds perform better when challenge hits. Stress is also a great teacher, acting to rewire our brains so we can be better at facing a similar demand in the future and can do so with less agitation. See id. at 53–55. Think back to your first few years practicing law. Do the things that raised your stress levels then carry the same power now? If they don’t, that has a lot to do with your stress response doing its job.

The real problem with stress isn’t stress itself. In fact, stress is correlated with things like improved memory, faster brain processing, sharpened hearing, better performance, and increased resilience. Stress can also be cardio protective, lead to a longer and healthier life, and better quality relationships. Id. at 50–56. Stress causes health concerns when our stress response is either chronically over-active or rages on unchecked and without recovery. When this happens, our body doesn’t return to baseline and the physiological processes which are helpful in the short-term begin to burden our system. Over time, this over-active stress response can become harmful to our physical and mental well-being. See id. 1–223; Richard Sutton, The Stress Code: From Surviving to Thriving a Scientific Model for Stress Resilience 26–45 (2018).

The idea, then, is to learn how to manage the reactivity of our stress response and to make recovery a priority. One incredible tool we all have and can develop is the power of our own minds. Let me explain. Challenges trigger our stress response. When it happens, one of the first things our brain does is conduct a quick appraisal process where we assess both the demands of the situation and whether or not we have the resources to cope. The more we believe we have what it takes to handle the matter, the more likely we will perceive the stress as manageable and approach the challenge in a proactive way. This, in turn, results in less persistent worry and more confidence which...

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