Identifying and managing legislative stress: Science-based tips from a former lawmaker

Guest Author: J. Scott Raecker | BILLD News | May 2021

May 19, 2021

I vividly remember the legislative session cycle as starting with high energy and focus. The demands of balancing family,  work and public service brought a full complement of stress — and yet, it seemed manageable.

By the end of the session, I was tired and weary, and the motivating factors of good stress moved past a tipping point and took me to distress. I was not at my best. My energy tank was empty.

In the legislature, I saw evidence of the destructive force of distress, which erodes energy and enthusiasm, saps patience and civility, and undermines optimal performance.

I wish I would have known then what I know now about the new science of stress.

Stress is real. And the research around stress indicates that “good stress” can improve focus, motivation and endurance, creating optimal performance. Distress, though, leads to mental, physical and emotional lapses that negatively impact performance.



Look for patterns that indicate signs of high stress, including irritability, headaches, low energy, misuse of food and alcohol, and an overall sense of dragging yourself through the day. It’s easier to monitor yourself when the topic is open for discussion amongst your colleagues. So, break the silence and share what you are going through with a person of trust.



Responses are the actions you take, both proactive and reactive. Proactive responses are done in preparation of high-stress moments: adequate sleep, hydration, nutrition, exercise and down time, for example. Reactive responses take place in moments of high stress, when you need to take a moment for quick introspection on what you are going to say or do next. A quick walk outside or a moment alone to concentrate on your thoughts with intentional breathing can minimize negative responses to stress.



A major contributor to stress is your mindset and how you approach your public service and life. Science is also clear here: A growth mindset is beneficial in managing stress. Understanding that mistakes and challenges are opportunities to learn and grow is essential to managing stress. Learn to let go of the things that are sapping your energy and negatively impacting your optimal performance. Your stressors may not change, but how you approach them can. As renowned psychologist Viktor Frankl once said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

J. Scott Raecker is executive director of The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University. Scott was a state representative in Iowa from 1999 to 2012 and served in various leadership positions, including as chair of the House Appropriations Committee and Ethics Committee. He is a 1999 graduate of the BILLD program, past co-chair of the BILLD Steering Committee, and a current faculty member of BILLD.