I first noticed it in law school. One of my professors could not sit without bouncing her foot or shaking her leg. During my summer clerkship I noticed it again with a couple of lawyers at the law firm. As we got close to graduation, my fellow students began to bounce their feet. Then I became a judicial clerk, and daily I saw lawyers come into court, sit down, and legs start to bounce. Perhaps this is just an American thing? Nope, first day sitting in court in New Zealand, and one of the lawyer’s feet were bouncing along.
So what is this cross-cultural foot bounce infusing the legal profession? Absent-minded stress!
Stress is a lot of things, but one of those is a release of hormones, a release of energy. In evolutionary terms, stress is what allows us to run away from the lion that is attacking us – the fight-or-flight response. Thus, when our stress response kicks in, we are ready to run. The problem is that we are forced to sit. We are forced to sit in long meetings, forced to sit at a desk, or forced to sit in court. As much fun as it might be, and probably good for everyone, to have a little stretch or a short walk, it is probably frowned upon to stand up in the middle of a court hearing and walk around the room. Thus, the energy has to get out another way.
Imagine one of those squishy toys, where if you squish one part, it pops out in another area. Our stress is the same way. If we do not release it the “normal” way, by running away from an attacker, it must come out another way – by tapping the foot. We become prisoners to our stress and its need to release while we try to force it to stay inside by sitting and not moving. It finds a way to move, and most of the time, we do not even notice.
Thus, it becomes absent-minded stress. We are so used to being under the stress, so used to living in a state of chronic stress, that it just becomes normal to need to get out the energy. So while we are exhausted from the overexertion, the stress hormones continue to release, and we continue to need to release them. It becomes second nature to the point where we can sit right next to someone and not even realize that we are tapping our foot at them.
Luckily, there is a way to stop this cycle, and it is actually fairly simple, though not necessarily easy. The first step is awareness or mindfulness. Ask yourself, what are your stress-induced habits? What are your nervous habits? What do you do to let out the energy when it would be uncouth to run around in circles? Once you notice the habits, notice how often you do them. Is it every time you sit down? Just in particularly stressful situations? Just when you are around one particular person?
The next step is a bit more difficult, and it involves beginning to change patterns. But if my ability to look right before I cross the street is any indication, changing patterns can be done. Once you know how and when your stress response kicks in, the next time you notice it, stop and take a deep breath. The breath moves energy, and it has the added benefit of counteracting the stress hormones and beginning to slow them down. Thus, the necessary energy is moved, and the need to continue moving energy is reduced.
This will, of course, take time to begin to change. You may find yourself taking a deep breath and tapping your foot at the same time. Most importantly here is to not stress yourself out more by getting upset. Forgive yourself and take another deep breath. Allow yourself to feel the stress reducing, and see what possibilities open.
What stress responses do you want to change?
© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved