Stress is bad. This is a message we hear over and over again in discussions about attorney burn-out and resilience.
There is some truth to this message. Stress, after all, is one of the most powerful forces leading to substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and even suicide. The numbers are shocking. For example, in a 2018 survey of 200 leaders at American law firms, 79% of respondents cited stress as the primary culprit for substance abuse and mental health problems.
Attorney stress has become such a pressing concern that the ABA’s Wellbeing Working Group launched a pledge last fall to encourage firms to begin working toward solutions to the epidemic of substance abuse and mental health problems among attorneys.
These efforts are extremely important. It is essential that we take seriously the powerful stressors that attorneys face. And yet it is also important that we begin to see how the current discussion of the “problem of stress” can actually make the problem worse. Put differently, by placing so much attention on how “stress is bad,” we may promote a stress mindset that makes it even more difficult for attorneys to skillfully navigate the stressors they face.
The Science of Stress Mindset
The idea that our mindset around stress matters might sound like conjecture. But consider the research of Stanford psychologist Alia Crum. During the height of the 2008 economic crash, Crum and her team ran a stress mindset experiment at the investment bank UBS. They recruited 164 employees and gave all participants online training about stress.
To better understand the power of people’s stress mindset, Crum’s team divided the subjects into two groups. The first group — call this the “stress is bad” group — received training that emphasized the harmful effects of stress. They were told stats like “stress is America’s number one health issue” and “stress is linked to the six leading causes of death.”
The second group — call this the “stress is enhancing” group — received very different training. Their online materials emphasized the benefits that experiencing stress can hold for performance, health, vitality, and productivity. Stress, they were told, is often an opportunity to rise to peak levels of mental and emotional performance.
At the end of the intervention, researchers found significant differences between the two groups. First, they found that employees in the “stress is enhancing” group had developed a different, more positive, understanding of stress. Employees in the “stress is bad” group, by contrast, we’re still stuck in the conventional view of stress as inherently harmful.
The second finding, however, was even more fascinating. Crum’s team found that the employees in the “stress is enhancing” group reported significant changes in the way they experienced stress. Their level of stress did not change. They still faced the daily stress of navigating one of our nation’s worst economic collapses. However, their level of anxiety, depression, distraction, and other negative emotional states dropped significantly. Simply changing their mindset toward stress toward the “stress is enhancing” view, in other words, made them far more effective in managing it.
Shifting Your Stress Mindset
The implications of this research are clear: our stress mindset matters. If we get caught up in the conventional narrative that stress is inherently bad, we will be less equipped to deal effectively with the pressures of modern legal practice.
In fact, the research suggests that by taking on this “stress is bad” mindset, we increase our risk of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and, well, stress. If, on the other hand, we can shift from “stress is bad” to something more like the “stress is enhancing” mindset, we open the door to greater resilience, productivity, and focus.
And yet the practical question remains: In the midst of everyday life chaos, how can we make this shift?
The key is to become increasingly aware of when we slip into our ordinary habit of the “stress is bad” mindset and then train our ability to shift toward a “stress is enhancing” mindset. One of the most powerful tools for making this simple but profound shift in awareness is what we call Notice-Shift-Rewire.
The first step is to Notice. Simply notice when your thoughts slip into this narrative of “stress is bad.” The experience of anxiety, irritation, anger, or the desire to “check out” can be helpful cues that you may be in the midst of this ordinary stress mindset.
Noticing opens the door to shifting toward a new, more productive, stress mindset. To Shift, simply ask yourself the question: “What if I viewed this situation as having something I wouldn’t want to miss out on?”
Take just a few seconds to reflect on this question. This simple reframe is based on the psychological technique of cognitive reappraisal — it’s designed to instantly open your mind to new possibilities. In this case, this simple question allows you to shift from the “stress is bad” to the “stress is enhancing” mindset.
The final step is to simply take a moment to Rewire. All you have to do is take a single breath and savor this radically new, radically productive, new perspective. Then, see if you can stay in this mindset for the next day, the next hour, or even the next 15 minutes.
The great thing about Notice-Shift-Rewire is that you can do it anytime, anywhere. You can do it while riding on an elevator, waiting in line at airport security, or riding in an Uber.
And yet the benefits of shifting our stress mindset are profound. By shifting our habitual tendency to view stress as bad, we not only take on a different view of stress, but we also enjoy greater levels of mental and emotional resilience as well as enhanced productivity and focus.
Changing the way we think about stress, in other words, might just be the ultimate hack for experiencing peak performance at work and in the rest of your life.
This blog post was authored by Nate Klemp, PhD, is the Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer at Life Cross Training (LIFE XT), a company devoted to giving professionals the tools to train resilience, wellbeing, and peak performance. Along with Eric Langshur, he is the co-author the New York Times Bestseller Start Here: Master the Lifelong Habit of Wellbeing.