The life of a lawyer isn’t a cakewalk. Constantly judged in terms of winning and losing, and existing in a culture of attack and counterattack, lawyers face countless pressures. The emphasis on perfection that starts in law school seldom lets up once a lawyer is in practice, and the resulting stress only multiplies with impatient clients and exacting bosses.
The accumulated pressures have damaging effects, if left unchecked. Practical tips for managing stress and developing the resilience to bounce back from stressful events.
You say that a key to dealing with stress is addressing anger and anxiety. Tell me more about the connection and the long-term costs of unchecked stress. Lawyers’ lives are rife with stressful situations such as tight deadlines, angry clients and financial pressures. You may enjoy some challenges but lie awake at night worrying about others. If you are constantly faced with situations you find frustrating or worrisome, you will eventually feel stressed. Anger and anxiety are both associated with strong physiological responses in our bodies.
Chemicals such as cortisol and epinephrine are released to allow our bodies to respond to a perceived threat. This system works really well in circumstances where a physical response is needed, such as jumping out of a crosswalk when a bus is barreling down on you. You escape the threat and your heart rate and breathing return to normal in a matter of minutes. But when the stressors is chronic, like a difficult boss or billable hours you can’t quite meet, that’s a different story. Your body keeps producing stress hormones because it thinks you’re in danger.
So you spend months or years in this state of heightened physiological arousal that, over time, causes a lot of wear and tear on your arteries, immune system and even your bones. People who live with a lot of stress are more susceptible to serious health problems than those who don’t. In addition to physical problems, chronic stress makes you more vulnerable to behavioral health problems such as depression and substance abuse. We just weren’t built to withstand unremitting stress.
What are some techniques for effectively coping with anger and anxiety?
My first suggestion is to step back now and then and reflect. You can’t cope with stress effectively if you don’t recognize what’s going on. This may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how many lawyers run their lives on autopilot, oblivious as to what’s going on in their minds and bodies. They may not “wake up” until an illness forces them to slow down or they lose someone important to them. If you’re not tuned in to yourself, it’s almost impossible to be tuned in to others, so you’re missing a lot of important information.
So every now and then take a break and ask yourself, where am I going? How’s my body feeling? Do I feel tense or relaxed? How do I want to feel? Am I content with my life, or do I need a course correction? You may be reluctant to ask the questions for fear of getting an answer you don’t want to hear. Ask anyway.
Second, does work that’s a good fit for you, preferably work that takes advantage of your strengths rather than weaknesses. Some lawyers love what they do and have the ordinary stresses of the profession to deal with. But if you’re doing work that’s not a good fit for you—for whatever reason—you’re doubling your stress load. I saw this over and over again in my work with lawyers. Because of huge investments they’d made, it was very difficult to
Acknowledge that they were square pegs trying to fit into round holes. Sometimes a change of practice area or setting was enough to remedy this problem; others decided to leave the practice altogether.
Third, keep your focus on what you can do and not on what you can’t do. We have control over a lot of stuff—the quality of our work, what we feed ourselves, how much we exercise—but there’s a lot more stuff we can’t control directly. You can’t make the traffic jam go away, the judge rule differently, or your client change her personality. You create a lot of your own stress by thinking things should be different. You will soon become angry, depressed or anxious if you keep banging your head against this wall. The good news is, you don’t have to. Accepting the reality of things is fabulously liberating and gives you more energy to work on the stuff you can change.
Many lawyers who seek services are depressed and/or anxious; others have a substance abuse issue, career difficulty, and relationship/family problem or health crisis, to name a few. You’ll find a LAP in almost every state and some large cities. Levels of confidentiality vary, so call your local LAP to learn what services are available and the degree of confidentiality you can expect.