How good are you at handling the day-to-day stress you experience? Would you say that you have stress resilience? Resilience is defined as your capacity for stress-related growth and it has two parts:
The vast majority of written materials about resilience focus on the first aspect of resilience – what to do when you’re faced with a big life trauma;1 however, it’s just as crucial to develop resilience for life’s regular hassles. After all, it’s not every day that you experience death, divorce, or other traumatic events, but you do frequently have to deal with work stress, the stress of raising a family, traffic, family conflict, and more.
Technology and Stress
If you had a choice between breaking a bone or breaking your phone, which would you pick? Does it surprise you that 46 percent of people who responded to this question said they would prefer to break a bone?!2 What’s more, this was not an easy decision for the other 54 percent of respondents – they agonized over it. The latest statistics show that people average three hours per day on their phones; in the pre-smart phone era, that average was 18 minutes.
In a recent 60 Minutes episode, experts explained that when you hear a ping or feel the buzz of an incoming text or email and can’t check it, you feel stressed. Even when unable to hear or feel those signals, people feel uncomfortable if they can’t check their devices regularly. Your body responds to each of those micro-moments by shooting out a little bit of the stress hormone cortisol. That’s not a bad thing until it happens hour after hour, day after day.
Everyday Stress and Your Mental Health
One study investigated the long-term health implications of the levels of negative emotion people experience along with how they respond to everyday hassles. Researchers asked participants to assess whether any of the following types of stressors had occurred in the past 24 hours: an argument, a situation in which the participant could have argued but decided to let the issue pass, a problem at work, a problem at home, a problem in the participant’s social network, or any other experience that occurred that most people would consider stressful but which was not one of the other five categories.
Paula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is the founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm focused on enhancing resilience, well-being, and engagement in the legal profession. She is the author of the e-book, Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint for Burnout Prevention.
Ten years later, the participants completed an interview. What the researchers discovered is that the way these participants reacted to everyday stressors and hassles predicted changes in mental health outcomes across the 10-year span. The chronicity of frequent negative emotion and the inability to process everyday stress takes a toll on your mental health.3
In another study, researchers found that the frequency and perceived intensity of daily hassles showed a significant relationship with overall health, a relationship that was stronger than the correlation between major life events and overall health. Both the frequency and the intensity of day-to-day hassles were associated with illness.4
The Telomere Effect
New research in the area of chronic stress reveals that it actually ages human beings at the cellular level.5 Telomeres (tee-lo-meres) are repeating segments of noncoding DNA that are housed at the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres look like the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces, and their function is to keep DNA safe. Telomeres shorten each time cells divide, and they help determine how fast cells age.
The latest research in this area shows that telomeres can be lengthened or shortened, making aging a more dynamic process than previously thought – a process that can be accelerated or slowed. Although everyone gets older, how an individual ages is very much connected to the person’s cellular health. Your goal should be to have more days of cell renewal than wear and tear.
What Helps? Stress Resilience Strategies
I’ve developed a number of STRONG strategies – my acronym for STress Resilience ON the Go – that are easy-to-implement, research-based tips to help better manage stress on the fly, particularly when you’re busy. Here are three of my favorite STRONG strategies:
1) Activate a “can control” mindset by asking yourself this question: “Where do I have a measure of control, influence, or leverage in this situation?”
Psychological research over the past five decades has demonstrated that perceived control (often referred to as self-efficacy) is a big predictor of psychological health and general well-being and is a main ingredient of resilience. According to one study, when people feel a sense of being in control, they show greater optimism, sustained attention, better problem solving, and higher levels of resilience. They are also more productive at work, especially during times of threat and uncertainty.6
2) When you’re stressed out and stuck, phone a friend. I’m a card-carrying member of the “I can do it all on my own” club, yet a cornerstone of resilience, well-being, happiness, and just about every positive life outcome is having solid relationships – a few people you can count on. My daughter just turned one, and it seems like I learn a new parenting lesson every week (sometimes every day). It really helps to know that I can reach out to my sisters-in-law and other friends for help and advice.
3) If you want to put limits on your tech use, use the “butt-brush effect.”7 This is an example of a stopping rule – a cue in your environment that gets you to stop something. In the 1990s, psychologist Paco Underhill was asked by certain store owners to help them identify why people suddenly stopped shopping. Underhill noticed that when strangers brushed up against each other, they left the store. The shoppers couldn’t explain their behavior, but the “butt brush” served as a cue to stop shopping and move on to something else.
Lawyers need to improve their ability to manage the stress common to the practice of law, and stress resilience can help busy professionals live longer and healthier.
1 Anthony Mancini, George A. Bonanno & Andrew Clark, Stepping Off the Hedonic Treadmill: Individual Differences in Response to Marriage, Divorce & Spousal Bereavement. 32(3) J. of Individual Differences 144-52 (2011).
2 The information in this section comes from Adam Alter, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2017).
3 Susan T. Charles et al., The Wear-and-Tear of Daily Stressors on Mental Health, 24(5) Psychol. Sci. 733-41 (2013).
4 Anita DeLongis et al., Relationship of Daily Hassles, Uplifts, and Major Life Events to Health Status, 1(2) Health Psychol. 119-36 (1982).
5 The information in this section comes from Elizabeth Blackburn & Elissa Epel, The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer (New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2017).
6 The studies supporting the statements in this paragraph are summarized nicely in So-Hyeon Shim, Alia J. Crum & Adam Galinsky, The Grace of Control: How a Can-Control Mindset Increases Well-Being, Health & Performance. 2016 in submission.
7 Alter, supra note 2, at 184.