Stress in Law: Part 1 – Understanding your relationship with stress

Systemic coach and therapist Zita Tulyahikayo and leading barrister James Pereira QC explain the signs of stress related trauma and the need to uncover and challenge norms of working life within the legal profession, in the first of a three part series on improving performance by pro-actively managing stress. 

Stress is everywhere.

A limited amount of stress is okay, perhaps even beneficial. When you are stressed you heart beats faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, your breath quickens and your senses become sharper. This is part of our primitive “fight or flight” response. These physical changes increase strength, speed and stamina and your focus becomes more acute. Stress can therefore help you to rise up to meet a challenge: the critical client presentation, the urgent deadline, or the tough negotiation that extends into the small hours.

Zita Tulyahikayo
Zita Tulyahikayo

However, beyond certain levels, stress can impede your ability to perform. Worse still, it can result in serious damage to your mind and body. What many people do not realise is that the body does not distinguish between life threatening situations causing stress, and work situations causing stress: the fight or flight reaction of the body can be triggered by both. So it is not difficult to see why consistently high levels of stress can be damaging.

Too much stress leaves you in danger of experiencing a more hazardous effect: something therapists call trauma. Many people in demanding jobs are exposing themselves more consistently to this damaging affect of stress. Stress-related trauma leads to a wide array of mental and physical ailments such as impaired judgment, pain, digestive problems, skin conditions, irritability, anger, depression, poor relationships, accelerated aging, chronic illness and disease.

Stress and mental health

The ability to positively and proactively manage your stress levels, rather than merely cope with and react to them, is an indication of the state of your mental health. You can determine the state of your mental health by a few simple parameters. Most notable is the ability to value and accept yourself as you are.

As a quick check, ask yourself:

  • Do you feel that your value as an individual is not dependent on your accomplishments or status, or do you feel that you have to justify your presence?
  • Are you able to look after your physical health, eat well, sleep well, exercise, enjoy and maintain a balanced, harmonious equilibrium between your work and personal life?
  • Do you judge yourself by a reasonable standard, or do you often set yourself very demanding goals or expect a standard of perfection in your work? Does your sense of self-worth diminish when you do not reach your goals?
  • Do you truly care about yourself and care for yourself?
  • Do you love and accept yourself unconditionally, just the way you are?

Understanding your relationship with stress

Many readers may be thinking, “That’s all very well, but I don’t have much choice in this. There are certain things that are expected of me as a lawyer.

Believe it or not, you do in fact have a choice. But in order to make that choice you must first understand where your relationship with stress comes from.

James Pereira QC
James Pereira QC

Now here’s the thing. Stress can also be generated by many factors which may be unknown to you, or may sit just within the blind spot of your self-awareness. Early trauma such as bullying, or severe forms of discipline at school can leave their residual imprint on the way you are conditioned to manage stress, without consciously being aware of what pattern of behaviour you are running. How you learnt to handle stress from your parents is often a major influence on your own behaviour. These factors tend to go unnoticed unless you take the time to uncover them, usually through effective therapy or systemic coaching.

But just as your relationship with stress is influenced by early life experiences, it is also influenced by what you learn from your professional education and training.

The legal system itself, from training to qualifying and then meeting the demands of work, engenders stress as being part of the job. Long, stressful hours are a tradition of work in the legal profession.

You excuse it by referring to it as “life in a City firm” or “life at the Bar”. Since you are part of the system, you are naturally prone to adopt these traditions. You feel a strong sense of loyalty towards the rules and expectations of the group to which you belong. You naturally fear exclusion from the group if you do not live up to the group’s expectations. Potentially damaging self-sacrifices are often made to satisfy the primal need to belong.

All this can make managing stress very difficult indeed. If long hours and a prioritisation of work over personal commitments are an expectation of the profession, how can you belong to the profession if you do not meet its expectations?

This means stress is often tolerated without question, regardless of the personal price you pay. This price is not just the cost to your wellbeing. There is also the hidden cost of how much more you might have achieved were stress not such an influential factor in your work practice.

This “systemic stress” in organisations and large institutions matters, because it will ultimately weaken the system by harming the most valuable assets on which the organisation relies: its people. By contrast, if each individual is supported and allowed to take responsibility for maintaining not only a high standard of work, but also a high standard of self-care and well – being, the organization is strengthened and sustained.

Next in the series…

How you can make choices to address stress by taking some practical steps in your daily life.

The authors welcome any contact on issues arising from this article. Their details are zita@lifetherapywithzita.com and james.pereiraQC@ftb.eu.com