Dena is a regular contributor on the Huffington Post and "The Legal Intelligencer," America's oldest daily journal for lawyers.

Stress Is On the Rise: Take Steps to Manage It

The other day, I began typing the word “coping” into a Google search and before I could even finish, Google began to populate search results which included coping with Hurricane Harvey, coping with the mass shooting in Las Vegas, with sexual harassment, with grief, with panic, with the death of Tom Petty and coping with a loss by your favorite sports team, just to name a few.

For people I know and those I coach, the world now feels like an especially scary place. Many things that were once considered bedrocks of our society and political system are changing and threats by foreign countries escalating. There is a constant drumbeat of rhetoric and spin provided by a 24-hour news cycle, which never rests, to examine, explore and explain every handshake, twitch and tweet.

Besides all of that, we have our finances, families, homes, careers, pets, chores and aspirations, etc. and on any given day may be coping with something in those arenas. No wonder Google has so many search results for coping.

It turns out that this feeling—that there is more stress in the world now—is not subjective. The American Psychological Association (APA) has been annually measuring stress through surveys since 2007. It released a report titled “Stress in America—Coping with Change” in February. It shows that prior to 2016, the top sources of stress for Americans were money, work and the economy.

Lately, new and less traditional strains are starting to invade our psyches as well.

In spring 2016, psychologists began reporting an increasing concern and anxiety among their patients toward the presidential election. This led to the APA adding election-related questions to the annual poll conducted later that August.

The August survey showed that 52 percent of Americans reported the 2016 U.S. election was a “very or somewhat significant source of stress.” By January 2017, the number was up to 57 percent of Americans reporting “that the current political climate is a very or somewhat significant source of stress.”

In a world where Democrats and Republicans cannot seem to agree on anything, stress is a rare bi-partisan issue.

“The January survey also found an increase in the percentage of Americans reporting stress related to safety and the future. Since August, the percentage of Americans saying personal safety is a very or somewhat significant source of stress increased from 29 percent to 34 percent—the highest percentage noted since the question was first asked in 2008.”

The survey looks at the link between constant use of technology and stress. Frequent use of social media “has paved the way for the ‘constant checker’—those who check their email, texts and social media accounts on a constant basis.” Do you know someone like that?

Stress runs higher for constant checkers than for those who do not engage with technology as frequently. The average reported stress level for constant checkers is 5.3, compared with 4.4 for those who don’t check as often. Americans who check their work email constantly on days off, report an overall stress level at an even higher 6.0.

According to the data, other major areas that cause anxiety include terrorism, the economy and gun violence.

All of these stressors have an impact on health. In the August survey, 3 in 10 Americans report that their stress increased in the past year and more Americans reported experiencing at least one physical or emotional symptom of stress, which could include headache, feeling overwhelmed, feeling nervous or anxious, and feeling depressed or sad.

Americans are struggling with stress management as well. Many of us wait for a physical symptom to appear before we do anything about stress. When I was a young lawyer, I started noticing shortness of breath and went to the doctor expecting him to prescribe something. He recognized immediately what I did not—the relationship between my health and anxiety. Somewhat snarkily, he offered to write a prescription for me to exercise three times a week and asked if I would do it. That was my first lesson in the difference between stress medication and management.

Managing stress may have an impact on your children, too. Consider the recent article in the New York Times titled “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” The piece cited studies that have found an anxious parenting style can induce anxiety and risk aversion in kids.

“Coping” means taking action rather than passively accepting the existence of stress. It is the act of facing and dealing with responsibilities, problems or difficulties in a calm or adequate manner. We cannot eliminate stress, but we can reduce it with proven techniques.

Here are some tips for taking the pressure down a few notches:

  • Get a physical examination and consider a referral to a therapist. Knowing your baseline is important in managing your stress response.
  • Find social support. Sharing your worries or feelings with another person alleviates stress. According to the APA report, “loneliness has been associated with a wide variety of health problems including high blood pressure, diminished immunity and heart disease.” Don’t be isolated.
  • Exercise regularly. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise of almost any kind can act as a stress reliever. Being active can boost endorphins and distract from daily cares. A walk in the woods is one of the most calming, rejuvenating activities I know.
  • Take a break from your devices. According to the APA, 65% of Americans agree that periodically “unplugging” or taking a “digital detox” is important for their mental health.
  • Meditate. The research on its benefits are stunning. You can learn how to do it by taking a course (where you may also find social opportunities with like-minded people) or from a book, article, and the web. Here’s a simple meditative exercise you can do anytime, anywhere and in any position: 4-7-8 breathing. Simply breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7 and exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. Do this 4 times or more, practice every day, and use it whenever something upsetting happens.
  • Do something about what concerns you. Identify one source of anxiety, be proactive, and get involved.
  • Try yoga. According to the American Osteopathic Association, the relaxation techniques incorporated in yoga can lessen back pain, arthritis and headaches as well as lower blood pressure and reduce insomnia.
  • Laugh more. Hang out with funny people, go see a comedian and find the funny wherever you go. We hold stress and tension in our faces and necks and having a chuckle can ease that.
  • Experience live music. According to a study from the Centre for Performance Science at the Royal College of Music in London, going to concerts can actually reduce anxiety. Anecdotally, I can attest that this works.
  • Reconnect with old hobbies or start a new one such as journaling, gardening, reading, sports, crafts, dancing and music.

We are a stressed-out nation. The findings of the APA are a reason to take stress seriously and create steps to manage it. Your health, productivity and outlook will improve when you choose to get a handle on stress and you will be in a better position to discern options, find solutions and make better decisions.


Reprinted with permission from the October 25, 2017 edition of “The Legal Intelligencer” © 2017 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, reprints@alm.com or visit www.almreprints.com.

About the Author:

Dena Lefkowitz is a veteran attorney and certified professional coach who helps clients reinvigorate their careers, polish business development skills and rediscover their sense of purpose. A former board member of the International Coach Federation’s Philadelphia chapter, Lefkowitz has successfully coached a best-selling author, lawyers, and chief executives. Firms have also hired Lefkowitz, a former in-house counsel, to work directly with entry level lawyers to improve performance and increase their early contributions to the firm. She holds her BA and JD from Temple University and Temple University School of Law.

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