Anxiety is the most commonly self-reported mental health issue in the legal profession. While all lawyers experience at least some stress as a part of their job, 61% of attorneys report struggling to manage anxiety at some point in their career, according to the seminal study of the issue, the 2016 Hazelden Betty Ford survey.
A 2021 ALM survey revealed that the COVID pandemic only exacerbated the issue. The isolation and uncertainty during the pandemic led to increased levels of anxiety, substance use, and burnout. While we're no longer in the midst of a pandemic, anxiety remains an issue throughout the legal profession.
Considering that most attorneys struggle to manage stress, below we have provided several effective ways of coping. And because we're lawyers, there are also links to empirical studies to show you that these tips aren't a waste of time.
Types of Anxiety
Anxiety can manifest in various ways. The most common is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which is chronic anxiety, worry and tension, even when there is nothing immediate to provoke it. Excessive anxiety can also result in obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
While the medical conditions above are separate from regular stress (we all knew lawyering was stressful when we signed up) it is important to remember that these techniques can be used before anxiety becomes a significant problem. Too often, lawyers wait until mental illness is firmly established before taking action. That doesn't have to be the case.
You've no doubt heard ad nauseum about the benefits of meditation. But what is meditation, and why is it good for you? Is it just another corporate fad?
There are various types of meditation. In general, however, meditation is referred to as anything that involves getting into a relaxed physical and mental state. This can include guided visualization, mindfulness meditation, tai chi, yoga and others.
The commonality between meditation methods is a focused attention that reduces jumbled and racing thoughts. Instead, through meditation you are able to focus on your breath, posture, or a word or phrase, which is naturally calming. Mindfulness meditation, perhaps the most popular form, also includes refraining from judgment, asking you to merely observe emotions and thoughts as they come and go, not to dwell or view them as negative or positive. It has proven effective time and again at reducing stress.
Guided meditation classes are widely available. There are also countless meditation apps, many of which offer free guided meditations. FindLaw does not endorse any meditation app, but a few options include:
The Mindfulness App
Other Practical Tips
Meditation isn't for everyone. Other practical and proven activities to reduce stress include:
- Exercise. It produces endorphins, lowers the symptoms of anxiety and depression, relaxes muscles, and offers numerous other benefits. If you don't have much time, consider just doing a little bit when you can. Taking the stairs instead of an elevator counts - and really does help.
- Read a book, not a brief. Reading for pleasure is one of the fastest ways to reduce stress. The benefits are similar to meditation. Reading has been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate after just six minutes.
- Avoid excessive coffee, alcohol and nicotine. Coffee and nicotine are stimulants, as is alcohol in small amounts. In larger amounts, alcohol is a depressant, but heavy drinking is associated with increased anxiety.
- Sleep. Insomnia and sleep deprivation have long been thought to cause anxiety. Getting a full night's rest is vital to your health for a number of reasons. While anxiety can cause insomnia, the above tips can help with both anxiety and better sleep, which will in turn lower your anxiety.
Empirical evidence shows that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people manage anxiety. Newer treatments, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EDMR) has been shown to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder. You can always try different types of therapy to see which one works best for you. The same is true of the various types of medication available, such as SSRIs. The important thing is to talk to a healthcare professional about what might work for you.
The stigma associated with anxiety and stress reduction techniques has lowered dramatically in recent years. Still, it can be hard to admit to others anxiety is becoming a problem. But while you don't need to shout it from the rooftops, taking the time for your mental health does not need to be a source of embarrassment.
If your law firm culture does not currently seem supportive of mental health treatment, remember that every state offers confidential free support to attorneys. If for whatever reason lawyer assistance programs do not appeal to you, therapy is, of course, confidential, and can even be done from home over video if complete privacy is important to you.
If you currently feel in crisis, the below hotlines also offer immediate confidential support.
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