When is it too late to get my stress under control?
Contributing Author: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Prosecutor Wellbeing Committee Chair
The other day, I had the honor of giving a presentation to a ballroom full of elected DAs about my favorite topic: prosecutor wellbeing. When I work directly with new prosecutors, we spend a lot of time learning actual stress-reduction techniques. With electeds, I tend to focus on ways leaders can help their employees thrive — intentional workloads, secondary trauma debriefing, and rolling-out local wellbeing programs. I was myopically skipping down this trail when a seasoned, successful district attorney raised his hand and asked me a question I was not expecting. It went something like this:
“Am I too old for this? The stress of this job seems to be getting to me more the longer I am here. You think it would be the other way around, that we’d get used to it and better cope with each trial. I did a murder trial a while back and the stress of it was almost unbearable — not sleeping, worrying, all of it. Is it too late for me?”
I didn’t pivot very well and my answer related back to the young ones and how important it is that as leaders, we recognize how depleting the work can be for the ones we supervise. We need to take steps now so they can stay in the profession for the long haul and then, hopefully won’t end up like us, unable to find peace or solace in the midst of battle or even long after. I was also mindful of the data showing stress hormones can be toxic, especially if accumulated over time, and that the effects of that toxicity can have long-term if not permanent effects on our bodies and brains.
Later, after I rushed through the end of my presentation, the DA’s question was still rolling around my head.
“No,” I reminded myself. “It is never too late.”
I remembered a lesson from the Budda, beginning with his question, “When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. The second-best time to plant a tree is today.”
In late 2016, in the middle of my first term as the elected county attorney, I was diagnosed with metabolic disease — a diagnosis often reserved for special forces and war veterans — the result of poorly managed cumulative work-stress. I’d turned myself into “a big bowl of inflammation soup” — my naturopath’s unofficial diagnosis. By that point, I was fully aware there was a better way to do this business and I knew that I needed to reduce my stress levels, but I was a little short on the “how.”
The good news was that my naturopath could point me in the right direction. The bad news was that getting out of the metabolic hole I’d dug would require a lot of work — my work — and wouldn’t happen overnight. There was no single pill or task I could check off. It would require a crash course in the neurobiology of stress, making a deep commitment to doing things differently in every area of my life, forming new habits, and then being accountable. According to my provider, I didn’t have much of an alternative. On the current trajectory I was headed toward diabetes and heart disease, in addition to the constant anxiety and weight gain. I was desperate and, as a career prosecutor, I was not afraid of work, so I rolled up my sleeves and got busy . . . busier.
The first phase of the remodel was my physiological body. I started doing regular blood analysis, to measure how much over-the-legal-limit my stress hormones were and to gauge the extent of the damage. We began tracking levels of things like thyroid, insulin, glucose, leptin, and lots of other markers as I embarked on a graduated regime of supplements to address things that were fixable. Not everything was fixable; some of the damage is likely permanent.
Next, I did an overhaul of my diet, cut out most of the sugar, cut back on caffeine and alcohol, and infused a whole lot of vegetables. It took a while before I stopped feeling deprived but I kept reminding myself that this work was a necessary investment in better living.
Exercise was the next key piece. I’d always been active, but I used the opportunity to audit my workout plan and be more intentional about scheduling a better variety of resistance, cardio, HIIT, and circuit training.
Possibly the biggest challenge was figuring out how to chill TF out. My naturopath suggested I try meditation. I balked, explaining that I’ve never been much into touchy-feely or woo-woo. With reassurances that meditation was scientifically proven to bestow many benefits, including less stress, better concentration, and even weight loss, I agreed to give it a try. I bought an audiobook called Meditate Your Weight, where the author, Tiffany Cruikshank, LAC, MAOM, teaches the listener how to meditate, a few seconds at a time. Before long, I was hooked. I started feeling better, more grounded, and more resilient in the face of the daily challenges. In fact, my daily meditation practice has been so helpful, that now, seven years later, I can’t imagine starting a day without my 10 to 20-minute recharge.
During phase one of my big remodel, I did a deep dive into science-y literature, articles, and podcasts on neurobiology, plasticity, and brain re-wiring, where I crossed paths with my celebrity mentor, Andrew Huberman, a professor of neurobiology at Stanford Medical School. Huberman hosts hubermanlab.com, a podcast dedicated to delivering cutting-edge science related to human health and longevity to the general public at no cost. I highly recommend that anyone interested in being a better, healthier human check out his easily digestible work.
As I devoured a gazillion sources and worked with Andrew Laue, the facilitator for my Secondary Trauma Program at the office, I noticed that the proven methods for actual stress-reduction and resiliency were falling into three main categories: 1) the ability to self-regulate; 2) the ability to connect with and glean support from others similarly situated; and 3) the ability to see purpose in using our skills to improve the lives of other humans. If you’ve had a chance to see my book, Thriving Through Chaos — Survival Gear for Criminal Justice Professionals, you’ll recognize these three themes as the three legs under the seat of resilience.
I started practicing — every single day — the regulation skills, to the point that keeping my stress levels within the window of tolerance, on most days, has become second nature. I became more intentional about reaching out for support from colleagues, friends, and family and, as importantly, have become better about reciprocating that same support for others, whether they ask or not. Prosecutors are blessed with built in purpose, so it was motivating to go back and re-live the inspirational stories behind our collective “why.”
Finally, I indulged in some traditional self-care and took up painting again, spent more time with my horses, and baked a lot of pies.
How do I fit all of this new-found resiliency into my already packed schedule? I prioritize it, because my life depends on it, and then I get aggressive with my schedule and block it all into my calendar. For seven years now, I’ve been meditating, scheduling workout and deep work sessions, reaching out to loved ones even when I am too busy, getting out into nature, and planning weekly meals. I’ve invested a lot of time and resources into managing my stress. Some days I am all hat, no cattle — just ask my husband — and on some days it seems futile.
But when I look back to that miserable day all those years ago in the doctor’s office that set me on this path toward a better me, I see a different person. I’m still a work-in-progress but the byproduct of all of this ‘stress-management’ was pretty unexpected: happiness. For me, happiness is knowing — and feeling — like everything is going to be OK — not perfect or glorious, but survivable — mid-trial, mid-brief, and mid-campout amongst bears.
Do I wish I’d planted this proverbial tree twenty years ago? Absolutely. But I am grateful that I learned the importance of stress-management, my little secret, even if it was way late in the game. I may not yet be sitting in its shade, but I see it taking root. I may not ever see the full grandeur but perhaps my team members, my kids, my future grandchildren, will be a little better off because I finally figured it out and got started . . . a little bit late.
Kirsten Pabst is the elected prosecutor in Missoula County, Montana, chairs NDAA’s Prosecutor Wellbeing Committee, and is the author of Thriving Through Chaos — Survival Gear for Criminal Justice Professionals. She can be reached at email@example.com.