It’s no secret that lawyers are stressed out, anxious, and struggling with mental health. In the 2022 ALM survey on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, 35% of respondents said they felt depressed, two-thirds reported having anxiety, 64% said their relationships have suffered due to their work, and a whopping 75% admitted that the profession has had a negative impact on their mental health. Nearly a quarter of respondents had contemplated suicide.
In the face of such grim data, it’s easy to feel discouraged. Many of the factors contributing to these challenges can’t be fixed simply through individual behavioral change. But even so, we shouldn’t do nothing. Managing stress as a lawyer is hard, but your personal choices and actions can make a big difference. As the saying goes: the best defense is a good offense.
Taking a realistic approach
You already know the basic steps to help reduce stress: exercise, limit screen time, set boundaries, get good sleep. Sadly, following those methods isn’t always realistic in the workplace, especially for lawyers. Acknowledging the inherent constraints of the profession, here are some realistic suggestions on how to disconnect and manage stress.
Move your body — even a little bit
Maybe you can’t make it to the gym for an hour every day. But did you know that physical movement releases “hope molecules” directly into the bloodstream, in as little as 13 minutes? According to Kelly McGonigal, PhD, “every time we move our muscles, we give ourselves an intravenous dose of hope.” Other studies have shown that physical movement can replenish the neurotransmitters in the brain that, when depleted, are associated with major depressive disorders.
Just 10-13 minutes of vigorous exercise can release “happy chemicals” in the brain. Not a fan of intense exercise? Can’t make it to a yoga class? Try “joyful movement,” which is exactly what it sounds like: moving your body just for fun. On a long conference call but not doing much talking? Put the phone on speaker, stand up, and lightly move. You can walk in place, swing your arms around, stretch your neck, etc. Leave a resistance band in your office and use it to stretch between calls. Short walks around the office are a great idea, and don’t even get me started on the mental health benefits of sunlight (go outside!).
Regulating the nervous system
The idea that humans can rewire their nervous systems isn’t new, but it’s increasingly talked about in wellness circles. Long story short: the brain’s function is to keep us safe, not to keep us happy. When the body perceives a threat, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released to prepare to “fight or flight.”
The fight or flight response was essential in helping our ancestors evade predators, but it’s harming us in modern life, where the stressors are more like heavy traffic, an important deadline, or too many emails. Research now shows that such long-term activation of the stress system can have a hazardous, even lethal, effect on the body, increasing the risk of obesity, heart disease, and depression.
While we can’t entirely shut off the body’s stress response (nor would we want to), we can train the brain and body to perceive and respond to “threats” with greater accuracy. A growing number of studies show that meditation and diaphragmatic breathing (aka “breathwork”) are incredibly effective for helping regulate the nervous system, thereby eliminating feelings of stress. Next time your thoughts begin to race, your temperature rises, and you sense your heart rate increasing, try practicing box breathing. Slow and steady deep breathing communicates to the body and brain that you are safe, helping to eliminate the stress response.
Be intentional with your free time, and use money to buy more of it
It’s a given that lawyers work long hours and have limited free time, so be sure to use the little time you do have to create habits and routines that can boost your mood and actually help you disconnect from stress. Instead of doom scrolling on Instagram every morning, take that time for yourself to practice gratitude, stretch, or meditate.
Another thing you can do is use your golden handcuffs — I mean, salary — to expand your free time. Delegate tasks like cleaning and meal prepping by hiring a professional service. Spend the additional free time (and some more of that money) on effective wellness modalities that aren’t typically covered by insurance, like acupuncture. Alternatively, use your purchasing power to test out some gadgets that may boost mental health: shakti mats, LED therapy lights, infrared sauna blankets, or wearable devices like heart rate trackers. If money keeps you attached to an environment you know isn’t the best for your mental health, at least use that money to invest in yourself and stave off burnout.
Often, it is our own racing or negative thoughts that trigger the body’s stress response. Inner self-critique, self-judgment, and worry about the past or future can easily activate fight or flight. Luckily, mindfulness can help. By using some of the tools mentioned above (like wearables, or breathwork and meditation), lawyers can become more present, and thus more aware of their own internal dialogue, nervous system, and mood.
At the end of the day, stress responses cause cognitive dysfunction and an inability to problem-solve. So, worrying, stressing, and beating ourselves up will never lead to a better outcome in a situation where something can or has already gone awry. In contrast, being intentional with time, regulating the nervous system, and practicing mindfulness are scientifically proven to get you back on track quicker, so you can be more effective at navigating stressful situations and solving all those mounting problems — even the ones you created.
Also, it is important to bear in mind that a proficient recruiter can assist in improving your circumstances if your present firm is causing you stress, anxiety, and depression. Should you require guidance or resources for your legal career, please do not hesitate to personally contact me or one of my colleagues at Lateral Link.