Stress Test

With some trepidation, Jacqueline Simpson agreed to wear a stress belt to assess the impact of two days in a life at the Bar.

As a new tenant and single mother of a five-year-old girl, my diet and fitness regime had somewhat disintegrated over recent years. So I feared the worst when I agreed—albeit for two days—to wear a belt that was supposed to assess my stress level.


The belt, provided by Central Health, monitored three things: my stress reactions (increases in alertness and the level of activation caused by either internal or external stressors); my recovery (decrease in level of activation caused by a decrease or absence of stressors); and my physical activities and other physiological states that are not detected as indicating physical activity or stress of recovery.

External stressors

I kept a diary for the two days, which made for interesting reading when read alongside the results. The test period included my first visit to the Technology and Construction Court, for a case management conference.

This was new territory, and I felt nervous as hell. My opponent was far more senior and I was told that the judge was not the most counsel-friendly. Of course I acted as if I had appeared there before and pretended that it was no more stressful than tying my shoelaces. The test results told a different story. My stress reactions peaked from the moment the judge entered the courtroom until the moment I gathered my papers to leave. As the scientists would say, the judge was something of an “external stressor”—I will remember that.

On another occasion, I received a telephone call from my instructing solicitors on a case which has been brought more out of principle than logic and which might be called less than hopeful. I would normally say that my heart sinks whenever I am required to do work on it, but au contraire: my stress levels were significantly raised during the conversation, which did not bring the glad tidings that the lay client had decided to discontinue.

Recovery period

I was informed by Central Health that the existence of stress was good so long as a person’s recovery was for a sufficient period. The recovery period tends to take place when one is asleep. Indeed, I was pleased to discover that as soon as I went to bed, I would leave the stresses of the day behind me almost immediately and I was ready to do battle with the world from the moment I woke up. This should mean that my chances of suffering from a stress-related illness is slim.

What was really interesting was when the other periods of recovery came. It was a surprise to find that this included reading sets of papers prior to drafting a defence or advice. On the other hand, I was also surprised to find that having a drink after work, supposedly to ease the stresses of the day, was in fact an entirely flawed strategy. My stress reactions in the pub with fellow colleagues were as high as they had been during the working day, even with the benefits of alcohol. I am diplomatically unable to say whether the cause was the company, or the nature of the conversations or the quality of our surroundings.

Psychological and physical states

Whilst I fully expected the time with my delightful but demanding five-year-old daughter to send my stress reactions off the chart, that was not the case: I tended to be in “other physiological states” when I saw her; neither stressed nor recovered. I think I’ll keep that information to myself for the time being.

As for my physical activity levels, I was pleased to see that during my ordinary working day I expended some energy, how, I have no idea. Unfortunately, I was told that that was no excuse for not returning to the gym. However, it was interesting to note that a bicycle ride that I took with my daughter on the weekend was the equivalent to a 30-minute jog. So that’s a new keep-fit ruse.

All in all, the stress test taught me a number of interesting things, but I will name just a few. When appearing in court, for goodness sake, keep looking cool, calm and collected on the outside. A five-year-old child is not an external stressor, and she can come with surprising benefits. And finally, I must stop fooling myself that I have any excuse to go to the pub at the end of the day.

Jacqueline Simpson is a barrister at Hailsham Chambers

Check your stress levels

Interested to see what your stress levels are? The Bar Council Member Services is running a free open day where you can be personally assessed. Central Health, as well as other Bar Council health partners, will be at the exclusive Open Day held at the Bar Council offices on Wednesday 4 February, between 11.30am–2.30pm. During your lunch, choose from FREE consultations, check-ups, personal training assessments, massages, beauty treatments, cosmetic and dentistry advice as well as dietary guidance. The qualified medical, health and fitness professionals include: BUPA, Central Health, Fitness First, Gen Med, London Day Surgery Centre, and Virgin Active. (To book telephone 020 7611 1389. For more details, see Bar News, Events Section, p vii.)

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