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How to calm your stress response and have better health and wellbeing

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Mel Abbott
Mel Abbott

Being a lawyer can be stressful – difficult cases, demanding clients, sudden deadlines, huge responsibility, large workloads, pedantic checking of legal documents, etc, etc.

In my work I see clients for chronic fatigue, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, bowel disorders and many more, and the leading cause of all these conditions is… stress!

One client was in a wheelchair for four years, unable to even move her hands due to severe pain levels. As soon as she reprogrammed her brain pathways out of stress, her pain went away. She stood up on day 2, walked on day 3… and went rock climbing 10 days later.

One man had had ulcerative colitis for 25 years. He resolved all his symptoms within a week of releasing some underlying shame and stress about something he’d done.

A female client had a tight knot in her stomach for 20 years and was on daily anxiety medication. After dealing with the underlying cause of stress, the knot in her stomach vanished. She said it felt like all her internal organs were suddenly lighter and she thought everyone around her should have been able to see the amazing transformation. Her anxiety did not return.

Stress is fine if you’re running away from a tiger

The stress response causes your body to prioritise heart, lungs and limbs, so that you can run away from a tiger. This is fine in the short term, but if you create this response a lot, your body has to actively steal energy from other systems (such as digestion, immunity, hormone balance, detox and reproduction), in order to generate enough fuel to fire your stress response. This can lead to many chronic illnesses.

Your brain is a big part of your stress response. In the centre of your brain is the amygdala. It is your fear processing centre. It takes information from your senses and from your thoughts and if it perceives danger, it immediately sends a message to your adrenal glands to activate your stress response. The more often you have stressful thoughts, the bigger your amygdala gets, which means it becomes more sensitised to smaller and smaller stimuli.

But you can teach your brain that most perceived tigers are only cute little kittens …

This ability of your brain to adapt to your thoughts and environment is called “neuroplasticity”. Your brain is updating every second of every day in line with all your thoughts. To prove this to yourself, say your phone number backwards. Initially, this will be hard to do, but if you repeat it a few times, it will soon roll off the tongue. This means that we have an incredible ability to rewire our brains, and we need to take some steps to create the wiring pathways that are useful and healthy for us.

Turning off the stress response is vital for enabling healthy brain wiring and a healthy body. I had two lawyers do my training course, The Switch, two weeks apart, and both of them reported that they felt like they were doing a different job afterwards, just because they had reframed how they approached it.

Some strategies to help create a calmer, healthier mind and body

Be clear about your motivations and purpose for doing your job

Research shows that people who have a purpose and who enjoy their jobs have much better health and wellbeing. Be clear with yourself about why you choose to do your job. Is it because you really believe in giving every person representation and a voice, or because you like to see things done correctly, or because you like to make lots of money, or…? Having a clear reason for why you do what you do can help you to feel purposeful and satisfied while doing it.

Wellbeing behaviours

The science of wellbeing has identified correlations between behaviours and good health. We need good quality sleep and diet, suitable exercise, sunlight, downtime, time doing activities, a healthy sex life, someone to confide in, to help others, and to be part of a spiritual community. This doesn’t mean you have to do all these things to be calm and healthy, but it does seem from the research that it is beneficial to have a pretty broad cross-section of these wellbeing behaviours in your life. Which areas have become depleted for you? What can you do to improve them?

“Slow-stops” throughout the day

A very simple way to interrupt your stress response and calm yourself is the slow-stop technique. Whenever you are becoming over-fired on adrenaline and getting into rush mode, it’s a good idea to stand up, place your hands in the air and let them come down at the speed that your adrenaline comes back down. Breathe really slowly – six counts in and six counts out – and say “s…t…o…p” really slowly and softly. Keep repeating the breathing and the stops until your hands are right down by your thighs and you feel calm again. I use this method when I am getting fired up and rushing through my work emails. It’s amazing how calm and focused I am after a simple slow-stop – I type and think slower, and yet I get everything done more quickly.

Set boundaries

A huge part of work stress (and all the health issues that come with stress) is that people have far too much on their task list and are floundering under their workloads. Sometimes you may need to have a meeting with your boss to look at how many jobs you are meant to do, how many hours they would require from you, and see if some jobs need to be taken off your list.

Rearrange your desk

This may seem like a small thing, but it’s a powerful way to rewire your brain. We are subconsciously programmed by our regular environment, so if you reorganise your environment, it helps you to reorganise your neural pathways too.

Task lists

I am a huge fan of task lists. It makes it very clear to me what needs to be done, and I can look at my list and see which things are the most important, and also which tasks are so quick and easy that I should just do them, so that I get the satisfaction of seeing lots of things crossed off.

As well as a task list, I also create a focus board annually. Each January, I choose a theme word for the year and I create my goals for the year (both work and personal). I choose pictures and words off Google, plus some of my own photos and I stick the pictures all over a suitably coloured sheet of cardboard. I look at my focus board so often, it really helps me stay focused on what matters to me that year, and to check that I am keeping up with my goals.

Reassure yourself about your capabilities

One of the sources of stress in the workplace is doubting your own abilities. If this is the case for you, change the self-talk in your own mind about how you perform. Choose to notice the compliments you receive, and the things that you have done well. The more you believe in yourself, the better you will perform.

Tame those tigers

So it’s time to tame those tigers into cute kittens and create a work life that you love, and believe in. Not only will you be happier, but your body will be healthier.

Mel Abbott is a Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) Master Practitioner and founder of Empower Therapies, which teaches mind-body techniques for chronic illness recovery. Most of her work is based on calming the stress response and altering mind patterns, so that the body is able to heal itself naturally.

Sarah Taylor is the co-ordinator of this series, a senior lawyer, and the Director of Client Solutions at LOD NZ, a law firm focused on the success and wellbeing of lawyers.

If you’d like to contribute to this series, please contact Sarah:

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