It sounds like a prescription for disaster: select the kind of men and women most apt to suffer from stress, put them into positions where they must quickly make decisions affecting millions of dollars or the freedom -- or even lives -- of others, and insulate them from criticism, correction, or a gentle easing aside if they begin to crack.

That is just what the U.S. judicial system does with judges. And while the wonder is that, in fact, the pressures have seldom turned into disasters, the inherent physical and psychological problems in that scheme are getting increasing attention.

The American Academy of Judicial Education recently teamed up with the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia to assess, first of all, what sort of lawyers get elevated to the bench.

Working on a five-point scale separating the most stress-prone individuals from those least stress-prone, they analyzed the behavior patterns of 92 judges, most of whom sit on courts of general jurisdiction.

They found not a single person in the sample fit into the least stress-prone quintile, but that 10 percent came out at the other pole -- the most likely to suffer from stress.

Most significantly, another 62 percent showed a strong -- but not extreme -- tendency towards stress. These are the kinds of persons who are hard-driving and competitive, punctual and impatient when waiting for others, and likely to bottle up their feelings.

In a recent report on the study, psychiatrist C. Robert Showalter and psychologist Daniel A. Martell said of the combined 72 percent figure for the top two categories: "This finding is alarming, given the expected rate of approximatelly 50 percent found in other white-collar populations."

The results at the end of the scale -- where about a third of the workers in most other occupations would fit -- are even more dramatic.

Not only were none of the judges in the least-stress prone category, but only 2 percent were rated as relatively stress-free.

The personality characteristics that it takes to be selected as a judge just don't seem those that it takes to maintain a relaxed, laid-back view of life. This was especially true for judges who have to enter the hurly-burly of political life and get elected to office. "The selection for judgeship by election correlated with increased levels of stress among judges," the study said.

The problem is compounded by the role judges are expected to play in society, not just the intense pressures of the job itself. Washington psychologist Isaiah M. Zimmerman, who has counseled many judges and former judges, calls this extra dimension "the importance of appearance and substance of behavior of judges."

They feel that the public expects them to be always in control. Starting with a group disinclined to show personal feelings, this extra demand by society makes it even harder for judges to find a way to blow off steam.

The fact is, the sort of problems that judges come to Zimmerman about are not very different from the problems that bug other middle-aged, middle-class lawyers: personality clashes with the boss (in this case, the chief judge of the court), a deteriorating marriage, a vague disillusion because life and work are not as stimulating as they once seemed to be. What's different is that the judges find it difficult to find channels to talk out those problems.

One answer has been the development, as part of the UVa project, of special seminars in stress management just for judges.

The lessons taught at those seminars are not very different from those at other stress-management sessions: cut down on caffeine, alcohol and red meat: make meal times an oasis of relaxation; get in a sustained exercise session at least three times a week; program some time into each day to simply lie quietly with closed eyes, and keep sight of what is really important to you as an individual. What is different is that the judges are there with no one but other judges, and so feel that they can let their guard down.

Another, similar, program is set to start up next year in Massachusetts. Eleven district court judges there have been trained by Zimmerman in how to cope with the pressures of their jobs, particularly the heavy caseloads.

That vanguard of 11 will then be available to the other 142 judges on the District Court to provide expert advice and counsel. They will advise the new judges on how to handle the work, and console the older judges who are worrying about their career choices. It's more than collegue-to-collegue small talk because the judges are letting it be known that they are willing to listen, and because they have the training to make useful suggestions.

Look for more such programs to help judges handle stress. In the long run, it might be nice if the politicians in charge of judicial selection reduced the inate problem by seeking out for judgeships a few more lawyers who have learned to stop and smell the flowers -- but don't look for that to happen any time soon.