Taming Stress

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Most people coming to a lawyer bring with them the most important problem in their lives. It is usually a problem that causes stress. Sometimes the stress itself is part of the legal claim.

I am not a doctor. I do not even play a doctor on TV. Yet, I have learned some techniques that help to tame stress. Some of the techniques, such as meditation, I have pursued and enjoyed making part of my life. Other techniques have felt forced upon me during the stressful events of my own life.

The first step is available to you right now: think that you can do it. The movie What the #$*! Do We Know? helped me realize that chosing to direct our thoughts in a positive direction can affect our choices, and our world (even though the movie's claim of a scientific basis in quantum physics is completely unscientific). By turning your thoughts to That which is loving, believing, and hopeful, each of us can lighten the load, and make the world a better place.

  1. Consulting a counselor.

    Let's first check to see if professional help might be right. For people experiencing physical signs of stress, a medical doctor can provide unique services. The physical signs can include eating or sleeping disorders, nausea, nervousness, panic attacks or depression. Only a medical doctor can check for physical causes of these symptoms, and provide legal protection from work or other responsibilities that may provoke the stress. If you are concerned about any adverse legal effects of consulting a doctor or mental health professional, feel free to consult your lawyer about the legal privileges and consequences.

    An assessment from a licensed counselor can also screen for treatable conditions. A professional counselor can be especially helpful in difficult cases involving children, or where evidence of emotional distress will be needed in court. Of course, most people experience an episode of depression or anxiety in their lives. Even a short assessment from a counselor may prevent years of unsuccessful coping behaviors.

    Where can you find a counselor? Tate & Renner maintains a referral list with the names, addresses and phone numbers of counselors who have been helpful to our clients. Every county is served by a public or non-profit counseling agency that provides services on a sliding scale.

  2. Meditating

    Meditating comes in several forms. Each of them requires a conscious and focused effort to clear one's mind of thoughts. Reading or watching TV are not forms of meditation because they fill the mind with a stream of thoughts. Sleeping is not meditating because it is not conscious. Even just sitting and relaxing is not meditation because it is not focused. Prayer may or may not be meditation. I am moved by Matthieu Ricard's description of "training the mind." One cannot expect to play chess without practice. One cannot expect to master the mind's direction without practice.

    Yoga and Zen are eastern forms of meditation. Western culture also includes several traditional forms of meditation. Although not meditation, Progressive Muscle Relaxation serves to calm down the entire body, from head to toe.

    I suggest starting by picking a specific number of minutes to sit. Set a timer so you will not be thinking about when to stop. Sit comfortably with your back forward. Start by exercising your breathing and trying to focus your thoughts just on breathing. Try counting until you think about something else. Each time you think about something else, start over at one. When you think about how excited you are that you got past the number two, start over at one.

    Try this simple exercise a couple times each week, or a few minutes every day. How can we control our stressful thoughts if we cannot control our thoughts at all? How can we control our thoughts if we do not practice?

  3. Exercise.

    Scientists increasingly find links between our level of exercise and our physical and psychological health. Regular exercise promotes better eating and sleeping habits. Disruptions in eating and sleeping can create a vicious cycle of inability to control our thoughts.

    Consistent with each person's abilities and medical limitations, exercise should be vigorous enough to raise one's heartbeat for a sustained period of at least 20 minutes.

    As part of my step aerobics class at the Y, I enjoyed stretching first, warming up, and then combining aerobic bench work, weightlifting (for toning and strength) and music with an upbeat tempo. Occasionally I enjoy jogging, roller skating, racquetball and unicycling. What is the best form of exercise? Whatever will get you up and moving regularly.

  4. Sleep

    If you are not getting enough sleep, exercise and eating well may help.

    Continued inability to get enough sleep is a symptom that requires a doctor's help. Without enough sleep, stress builds up in a vicious cycle that makes sleeping harder.

    Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on the weekends. No napping. The bedroom should only be used for sleep, and if individuals have difficulty sleeping (e.g., more than 45-60 minutes after going to bed), they should get out of bed, go to a different room, and do something different, such as reading a book.

  1. Focus on what you can control.

    I have heard that 85 percent of what we worry about doesn't happen, and that a large portion of the other 15 percent can be changed or improved by taking some action. Perhaps what we fear is something that already happened in the past.

    Don't invest major energy in minor problems. Ask yourself how important the problem will seem a year from now. If its importance will be minimal, why waste a lot of time and energy on it now?

    Tackle major stressors head on. Identify the one thing that causes you the most stress each day and take steps to eliminate or alleviate it. For example, if you find arriving home from work to be stressful because you have to simultaneously prepare dinner and deal with your children, plan to order in or go out for an inexpensive dinner one night a week. Or make double portions of whatever you cook on the weekend, and then just heat up the extra portion later in the week so you don't have to spend an hour in the kitchen when you first arrive home.

  2. Write it down.

    Record your thoughts and frustrations in a journal. This will give you a healthy outlet for expressing your feelings. However, you will also benefit if you analyze the patterns in the problems or situations that seem to challenge you repeatedly.

    Note, though, that if your stress is related to a pending legal matter, the opposing lawyers might ask for a copy of your journal. If you wrote your journal just for your own personal use, then it is not legally protected, and can be subpoenaed. If, however, you wrote the journal for the purpose of consulting with your lawyer, for example, then the court can recognize it as part of your confidential attorney-client communications, even if you never actually showed it to the lawyer. You might want to consult with your lawyer about confidentiality of your journal if this is important to you.

  3. Help from our friends.

    While I enjoy my fear of intimacy, stressful situations require me to break down and trust a friend. The process of explaining my fears and conflicts is helpful in itself. With awareness of my friends' perspectives, I have a more complete picture of my situation and options. As soon as the stressful event is over, I can return to being a self sufficient android.

  4. Help to others.

    A good way to feel appreciative for what you have is to give to those in need. Consider a service project. Exercising the ways of giving can also expand our capacity to receive. Practicing gifts to others can help us move away from anger. Give blood. Become a Big Brother or Big Sister. Volunteer your talents with Habitat for Humanity. Do you want to pursue a legal claim out of a spirit of vengence, or out of a call to lost love ones to become more responsible and accountable for what they have done?

    Conclusion.

Stress is caused by many factors. Changes in family and work life remain prominent. Physical injuries cause immediate stress, and anxiety about the uncertainties of healing. Stress is compounded when it is the result of another's negligence, or even willfulness.

A recently reported study suggests that African-Americans have a greater risk of high blood pressure in part because of employment discrimination.

Think about the steps you can begin to take to resolve these situations over the long term, rather than continuing to let them cause you stress.

When stress is part of a person's legal claim against another, the victim has a duty to mitigate damages. That means you cannot sue another person for causing your injuries if you sat back and did nothing to stop or limit the damages. Who wants extra stress anyway?

If you want more information, I can suggest a number of good books about healing, family relationships, and meditation. Hopefully, your biggest stress factor will become the adjustment to a reduced-stress life!

SALLY: Richard, do you practice all of these techniques for avoiding stress?
RICHARD: Uh, no, why do you ask?
SALLY: I thought I should make a note of it for our readers here in the sTATEr.
RICHARD: You skunk!

Another web page with advice on coping with stress is at: http://www.workplacefairness.org/index.php?page=coping
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Email: rrenner@igc.org