Attorneys must deal with the same stressors as the rest of us. Balancing work, family, financial pressures, raising children, dating, marriage, divorce, and surviving Thanksgiving dinner in the age of Trumpian politics. But attorneys also have several special stressors, and some of the stressors that most of us need to deal with, often get handed to attorneys on steroids. Let’s look at the stress in attorney’s lives and some tips for self care.
First, attorneys are often competitive by nature and work in a competitive environment. This is more obviously the case for litigators, who are modern gladiators, using paper, pen and their verbal arguments as their swords and shields. The fight hormones and fight brain and nervous system mechanisms exist in order to get us through fights and are in our basic DNA. But turning them on for the courtroom battle, means that attorneys are switching on their fight and flight mechanisms, and may have difficulty turning them off. Cortisol and other stress hormones enable our fight, but when they stay in the system chronically, they have destructive impact on our health, sleep, and mood.
Second, attorneys often work long hours and may work on difficult life issues where they are witness to life tragedy. This not only adds stress, it may take a toll on exercise, and encourage grabbing fast food, or too many restaurant meetings. Add to this, attorneys may take their work home in their heads, even if they leave their briefcase at work or undisturbed in their home office. They “work” cases in their heads, go over details of what they did, what upset them, and what they may have missed. In our electronic world, we can add to this surfing the web late at night, checking emails, and responding to work issues late into the night or early in the morn. For many of us, our smart phone is the first thing we check in the morning, the last thing we check at night, and even the thing we check in the middle of the night.
Another way that attorneys may take work home is by bringing their adversarial training and experience home to their families. No one benefits from an adversarial stance on the home front. It is the wrong way to be a spouse, partner, friend, or parent. Indeed, this is worse if you are very good at it, as it is a kind of unfair fighting. As an attorney you have been trained to win arguments, and other family members haven’t. So, you are a trained fighter and they are amateurs. Indeed, the very idea that you should “win” arguments at home is the wrong attitude. You should be an advocate for your partner, spouse, friend, children…anyone you care about. You should be looking to see how they can “win” first and foremost and how the whole family, or both friends can “win” together.
Sleep can be a big problem for attorneys. Like any busy person, attorneys might not exercise, often sits sedentary at a desk for hours, and has a lot on their minds. Add to this the adversarial aspect of legal work, and you have a formula for poor sleep. Sleep research shows that we need about 7 to 8 hours a sleep per night. It does not matter if you can perform on less, as many people can, but this takes a toll on physical health and mood. Poor sleep is associated with anxiety, depression, anger, heart disease, weight gain, and diabetes. Genetically, we are endowed with a certain number of hours of being awake. We don’t yet know how to read those genetics, but nevertheless you can use your waking hours as you like. In other words, sleep less and you will live less years.
Poor sleep makes us edgy, agitated, and more prone to anger and depression. If we have something going on with our physical health it interferes with healing and makes for greater pain. And then we sleep even less. When we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies get a signal to slow metabolism, and so we burn calories more slowly, leading to weight gain with the same number of ingested calories. Poor sleep also becomes a habit, leading to chronic insomnia and shortened sleep patterns. These can be very difficult to break.
Given the high stress in many attorneys’ lives, it is no wonder that some might turn to alcohol or even drugs. Alcohol and drug use are all too common among attorneys. How much is too much? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) instruct that for women, low-risk drinking is defined as no more than 3 drinks on any single day and no more than 7 drinks per week. For men, it is defined as no more than 4 drinks on any single day and no more than 14 drinks per week. Prior to driving, 2 drinks may be 2 too many. And of course if you double the alcohol in the glass, that already counts as 2 drinks! Even if you drink less than this, 2 drinks can disturb sleep, which means you may not have a drinking problem, but you may have more impaired sleep.
Tips for Lowering Stress
Finally, if stress, depression, anxiety, agitation, anger, or poor sleep are weighing on you and not very temporary states, seek help. Psychologists and other mental health professionals have effective tools to help you, as long as you have a commitment to change. If depression or anxiety are really severe, seeing a psychiatrist for medication, who might also bring in a psychologist, is imperative. Psychotherapy can be somewhat costly in terms of both time and money, but your marriage, family, children, and your quality of life are worth the investment. I have had the privilege of working with several attorneys at the end of their lives, and I assure you none said, “I wish I had worked more.” If they have any regrets, they are about not living life fully and not enjoying work-life balance. While I wish you long life, the perspective of how one would see one’s life looking back can help us see what is truly important in our lives.
During the early dark days of World War II, German U-boats wreaked havoc on U.S. ships bringing vital supplies to our ally Great Britain. Their ships sunk by torpedo, oddly, younger, more fit sailors would more often drown, but older, less-fit sailors would more often survive. Investigating this strange phenomena offered one of the early keys to our modern understanding of resilience.
It seems that younger sailors would give up more easily. But the older sailors had learned an important life lesson: when met by a major stressful challenge, keep trying and don't give up. Even when it might appear hopeless, don't give up hope. As in so much psychological advice, this does not mean that its easy to keep trying and keep rising to the challenge. Life can bring some incredible hardships and sometimes we have brought these on ourselves. But we also have the capacity to "dig deep" and keep up the fight, to change, and to once again thrive. We have the capacity, sometimes with help from friends or family, sometimes with professional help, sometimes with help from a trusted clergy or through prayer, to cope better, go back at the problem, improve our ways of handling internal and external stress.
As in my earlier post on "dancing the tango," this often means pushing ourselves to act how we know we should, even before we feel motivated to do so. Actually, we do this all the time. We may listen to our kids or a friend, even when we are tired after a long day at work, or just not in the mood. We go to work when we are feeling like getting back under the covers on a cold, rainy morning. And sometimes, when life has hit us really hard, we need to stay at our daily tasks and routines when we would rather just give up, give in, or move on.
So, it's okay to take a break. It is okay to huddle up and regroup. But it's also important to "get back in the game."
As in all my posts, if these small "wisdoms" are not enough to turn around your anxiety, depression, OCD symptoms, drinking, or family conflict, it's time to seek professional help. I have often found that patients and clients that come to me, have worked hard to cope on their own, but are ready to engage professional help to aid their journey. Mental health professionals are trained to support you and help you get through difficult times of life. I can be reached at 216-402-3599 or my confidential email: firstname.lastname@example.org.