Tips for Relieving Holiday Stress

Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

December often brings added stress to many lawyers. Some associates worry whether they have billed enough hours, and whether they can possibly make up the shortfall in the remaining weeks in the year. Other attorneys work long hours, struggling to meet hard and fast deadlines, as multiple clients try to close transactions or settle cases before year end.

Holiday shopping, traffic jams, and commitments to friends and family create additional demands on our time, and fray our nerves in a season that should be filled with laughter and good will. This year’s financial woes in the legal industry just seem like piling on.

If you feel stress during the holidays or any other time, here are some reminders about how to keep it down to manageable levels.

1. Engage in self-care.

We all know that we get cranky when we are hungry or tired, and that exercise helps relieve stress. Nevertheless, self-care is often the first thing we sacrifice when time is in short supply. Shorting self-care may actually cost us more time, however. We need fuel and rest to think clearly and process efficiently, so without them, our work takes longer to complete, or we make mistakes that cost time to correct.

In periods of stress, our bodies generate hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to prepare us for fight or flight. Because they are intended to support bursts of activity, movement helps to dissipate them. If stress hormones build up chronically, they weaken our immune system and impede brain function, resulting in illness and cloudy thinking.

Unless you like being sick, dumb and irritable during the holidays, find a way to incorporate movement into your day. If you hate exercise, at least do some stretching and deep breathing. Stock your desk with some healthy snacks like fruit, nuts, protein bars and protein drinks, to refuel when your energy drops, instead of pumping it up with caffeine or sugar that will cause a worse crash later. Give yourself permission to rest when you are tired. Even a 15 minute catnap at your desk or in your car can make a surprising difference.

2. Delegate whatever you can.

We lawyers tend to be a bit perfectionistic and controlling. It’s an occupational hazard with some justification. Nevertheless, there are many areas of our work and in life outside the office where “good enough” will do. There are also many situations where someone else can actually do a better job than we can. Wherever possible, delegate tasks that don’t require your level of experience, expertise or personal touch. Make a fresh review of your to-do list to identify which items can be handed off, at least partially, if not completely.

Remember that many tasks outside of work can also be delegated. Use concierge, catering, cleaning and delivery services as much as possible. Shop online to avoid getting out in the traffic and crowds, and to take advantage of small pockets of time that become available. Let someone else pick up the cleaning, wrap presents, set up decorations, address greeting cards, prepare food, drive carpool, grocery shop, etc. If you feel financially strapped this year, you may be able to negotiate a discount, or barter for services (with your return services to be rendered after the holidays).

3. Adjust your self-talk.

A great deal of stress and unhappiness comes from what we tell ourselves about a situation, rather than from the actual situation itself. By way of example, most of us would probably expect living with paralysis to be stressful and negative. Yet 84% of people with extreme paraplegia consider their life to be average or above average. (Source: Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, Ph.D.)

Studies indicate that the majority of lawyers have a pessimistic style. (Source: 2004 report published by the North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program). When we take on a pessimistic perspective, we may tend to assign callous motivations to other people. We underestimate our own capabilities to generate the results we desire. We fail to notice or devise additional options, often getting stuck “between a rock and a hard place” by engaging in limiting either/or thinking. Pessimism may cause us to catastrophize or worry about potential criticism. These perspectives increase our stress level, and can negatively impact our success rate.

Here are a few strategies to overcome stressful pessimistic self-talk:

  • When you encounter obstacles, remind yourself that there must be other ways of looking at this, with additional options or solutions that you just haven’t seen yet. Be determined to find them, and if necessary, seek out a brainstorming partner.
  • Don’t make a helpless victim out of yourself by villainizing others. Try to imagine why reasonable persons might behave the way they have.
  • Remind yourself of times in the past when you have succeeded, or things turned out better than you expected.
  • Make a conscious effort to change the words coming out of your mouth. If you hear yourself say, “I’m sick and tired of these problems,” follow that immediately with “Cancel that. I’m healthy, energetic and ready to tackle this challenge.” It may sound silly the first few times you try this, but with repetition you will begin to notice that new options and more productive attitudes come to you more quickly.

4. Focus your senses on something soothing.

When you start feeling irritated or stressed, try to engage your senses in a different, more calming way. Turn on some soothing music, and actually listen to it for a few moments before letting it fade into the background. If you are in the office and don’t have a radio, stereo or iPod there, you can play your favorite soothing music on your computer for free at

Look at something green and living in your environment or out the window. Gaze at clouds, blue sky or a distant vista. Focus on the face of a loved one, in person or in a picture. Look at your own screensavers or Google “soothing photos” for images that calm your mind. Is there some artwork you can take a moment to appreciate?

Touch something soft, downy, silky, furry, feathery or smooth, and appreciate its texture. Petting a cat or dog has been demonstrated to lower blood pressure. If you are in your office and can’t find some velvet or silk fabric to touch, be creative. Notice how smooth the surface of your desk feels as you run your fingers across it. Feel how soft the hair on the back of your head is or the skin on the underside of your arm. Do you have a box of soft tissues on your credenza? Can you rub soap or lotion between your fingers? Best of all, wherever you are, if you have a loved one or good friend near by, get a hug.

5. Find something to laugh at.

Laughter is the antithesis of stress and tension. Watching a funny movie can shift your mood, but if you don’t have that much time to invest, there are plenty of other options. Read the funny papers. Call your funniest friend and ask him to tell you a joke. Google “joke” or “comedy” and check out any number of sites for what tickles your funny bone. Subscribe to a “joke of the day” or “cartoon of the day” email or RSS feed. Go to YouTube and search on funny videos. When I think I’m having a bad day, my favorite stress reliever is Mom’s Bad Day.

6. Make a gratitude list.

To help ward off stress, regularly spend a few minutes in the morning or before going to bed to list at least five things you are grateful for. When you need immediate stress relief, start counting your blessings. Start with small matters like hitting three green lights in a row on the way to work, having a good hair day, having an assistant who never takes off all her sick days. Don’t forget the big things you may take for granted, like not needing to use the wheel chair ramp to get into your building, having a job in turbulent economic times or the ability to start your own practice if you can’t find employment, and having enough to eat and a safe place to sleep. Think of persons you appreciate and tell them thank you or write a note of gratitude. When we focus in on what we have to feel grateful for, it counterbalances the fears and negativity that create stress.

If any of these tips seem unworkable or foolish to you, lay them aside or use them as a starting point to generate better ideas. Hone in on what will work for you. Don’t launch into criticism. That’s what creates stress in the first place.

Remember that holidays are for celebrating what is good in life. Put your focus there.

Adapted and reprinted with the permission from the author’s article in the December 10, 2009 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2009 Incisive Media US Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.


Got something to say?