Relief for Stressed Out Lawyers and Law Students


Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

20140407 Relief for Stressed Out LawyersThe countdown to the bar exam has started and I’m hearing about stressed out law grads. I frequently get calls from lawyers who need new tools for coping with stress. Sometimes, even as a coach, I get overcommitted or “life happens” and I find myself feeling cranky, anxious and struggling to sleep.

Stress negatively impacts our optimal cognitive functioning. That means that we may tend to forget what we already know about how to relieve stress. So for my own benefit and yours, I’m going to list some of my favorite (and not so favorite) ways to relax.

1. Exercise. I might as well swallow the bad-tasting medicine first. I’m one of those people who hate to exercise just for the sake of exercise. Nevertheless, according to Harvard Medical School, moderate exercise can reduce the production of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Exercise also stimulates the production of endorphins which are the body’s mood elevators.

If you feel the way I do about exercise, find ways to make it more fun. Walk along a beautiful trail or work out at the gym while chatting with a friend.  Take a dance class or play a sport. Reward yourself with a protein smoothie after your workout. Do something to make it more enjoyable, or you’ll just wind up stressing over your failure to keep your commitment to exercise.

2. Yoga. While yoga can be considered a form of exercise, and holding a yoga posture for an extended time can definitely raise your heart rate, it can also be practiced as gentle stretching. The stretching and breathing exercises of yoga have been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, according to the Mayo Clinic. The stretching loosens up my tense muscles, as well as helping my mind. YouTube, Hulu and Netflix have instructional yoga videos.

3. Progressive muscle relaxation. This involves tensing and relaxing small groups of muscles step by step from one end of your body to the other. The Harvard Medical School article referenced above also has directions for the progressive muscular relaxation process.

4. Meditation. Numerous studies have shown that meditation helps reduce stress, including from chronic pain, anxiety disorders and environments like medical school or law school. Professor Leonard L.  Riskin wrote a law review article about the positive impact that he believes mindfulness meditation can have on lawyers and law practice.

5. Nature. Studies corroborate what you probably know intuitively. Natural settings are more relaxing than pavement and computer screens. Interacting with nature has a restorative impact on mental fatigue. Exposure to green surroundings refreshes the ability to concentrate and cope with stresses. So take a stroll in the park or at least take a break to stare out the window at a green space.

6. Massage. Do you really need convincing that massage can help you relax? Here’s a massage industry publication citing several studies to support the conclusion that massage therapy reduces stress. I frequently recommend to my clients that they engage in some self-care and book a massage, in order to be more effective at work. They gratefully comply. With so many demands on our time from home and the workplace, sometimes we just need permission to take care of ourselves.

There’s an App for That!

What if you suffer from “monkey mind” like me, and have difficulty meditating? Or what if you want to do yoga on the go? There are quite a few smartphone apps to help out. The yoga apps demonstrate postures and take you through a routine of yoga exercises. The meditation apps guide you through meditations of varying lengths. I have found them to be much more effective than the meditation tapes and CDs that I tried over the years, and they are infinitely more portable, too.

Following are a few of my favorite apps. Most of them are available in both iPhone and Android format.

Headspace – has a free “Take 10” program which teaches you to meditate 10 minutes a day for 10 days. There are additional subscription programs like Take 15 and Take 20. Each day has a different guided meditation progressing toward increased familiarity and comfort with meditation. The structure holds my interest and motivates me to be more consistent in a daily meditation practice. I notice that when I meditate in the morning for as little as 10 minutes, I have more resilience during the day.

Take a Break – a free app from Meditation Oasis that provides a choice of a 7-minute or a 15-minute guided meditation break to help keep you fresh and centered during your work day. You can choose to listen to the meditation in voice-only format, or with music or nature sounds in the background. Meditation Oasis sells several other meditation and relaxation smartphone apps, including the iSleepEasy app to help “monkey minds” get the rest they need.

Deep Sleep and Relaxation Hypnosis contains hypnotic suggestions and muscle relaxing steps for helping you to slip into a sound sleep. Getting adequate rest is also important for stress reduction.

Serenity the relaxation app is a really cool app ($1.99) available for iPhone and iPad only. It plays beautiful hypnotic nature videos with associated sounds like ocean waves rolling in, hanging leaves dancing in a gentle rain, a crackling fire or a slowly swirling galaxy with space age music. You can set a timer for the app to turn off because the hypnotic images and soothing sounds are certain to put you to sleep if you watch them long enough.

Daily Yoga and Simply Yoga are free apps with yoga instructions. Simply Yoga takes you through a series of yoga postures in a set order for selected workout lengths. Daily Yoga has more user-friendly options about how to view the yoga instructions. The white background of the videos makes the demonstration images clearer, but the narrator for Daily Yoga has a slight Asian accent that might make understanding the instructions more challenging for some users.

What Else Works?

If you get through the daytime hours just fine, but bedtime is your problem, some of the apps described above can help, even in the middle of the night when you don’t want to turn on the light. Also, check out the blog post I wrote a while back, which contains some additional ideas for lawyers about getting to sleep.

You may have your own techniques for stress reduction. Please share them in the comments below. Your idea may be the perfect solution for a frazzled reader.

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