Stress and Resiliency
The adversarial system places litigators in conflict with another lawyer, a judge, and often, a client and his family. This basic nature of law practice is one of the things that makes our profession so different and so much more stressful than other challenging professions. Doubtless, the challenge of “representing” another person and effecting the consequences of the decisions made by a court with our work are as stress‑inducing as any other profession. Doctors certainly have significant stress in administering to the medical needs of their patients, but they don’t face another doctor challenging every decision made in the treatment. Statistics show that lawyers abuse alcohol and other substances more than other professions, suffer from anxiety and depression more often than other professions, and die by suicide more often than other professions.
In order to survive the practice of law, we must realize what stress is, what it does for and to us, how to safely respond to it, and how to respond if we don’t do well when we first face it. Not all stress is bad. Both physical and mental stress can improve our performance so long as the stress is of an appropriate duration and intensity. An appropriate stress response comprises introduction of a stressor, resistance (including mobilizing to withstand the stress), exhaustion (depletion of body’s resources), recovery (return to homeostasis). In their appropriate form the resistance and exhaustion develop strength. When this isn’t the pattern and the stressor continues such that there is stress beyond exhaustion, chronic stress is the result.
Even under chronic physical stress conditions there comes a time that our bodies quit responding and struggling against the resistance. We may develop a cramp in a muscle or run into some other wall that stops the physical activity. This isn’t the case with mental and emotional stress. There is no protective response that stops our attempts to respond to the incoming stress. Human beings are, therefore, capable of “stressing” beyond the breaking point. Chronic stress, not handled appropriately, can result in burnout. The choices, therefore are avoiding stress where we can, limiting stress when we can, taking time to engage in activities that help us recover from stress when it can’t be helped, and avoiding excessive use of substances or processes which might become addictive.
Though there is no universal “right way” to accomplish the results listed above, there are processes which can mitigate stress and accelerate recovery. The first step toward surviving the stress of law practice is recognizing what stress is and being aware when it overtakes us. In order to identify the stress, we become aware of what is likely to cause stress in our life and practice. Thereafter, we learn skills to manage the stress to the degree possible, learn and use skills to recover from stress and learn and practice skills to avoid or recover from burnout.
First Things First
If there are two words that we would choose to live by, we could be far less stressed than we commonly are. SLOW DOWN! That’s all, move slower, and think more. To borrow lyrics from the Hamilton Broadway show, “talk less, smile more. . .” or, for the more mature lawyers, from Simon and Garfunkel, “Slow down, you move too fast.” When we research wellness we regularly read about mindfulness. One can’t be mindful while moving at warp speed like we often do.
Causes of Stress in Lawyers
The sources of stress for lawyers are legion. In addition to the stresses listed above, we have the human challenges common to marital relationships, familial relationships, financial challenges, and health issues. We are confronted by secondary trauma from dealing with anger, frustration, and the emotions of our clients; we usually have a sense of perfectionism, we act as if everything has to be done exactly right or we risk absolute failure; we never feel that our clients are truly pleased with our work; we sometimes act in a way that isn’t aligned with our core values; and, we are often working long hours which aren’t physically, mentally or emotionally sustainable.
Avoidance of Stressors
There are stresses that we have the capacity to avoid or to limit. The most prevalent stressor that we have the opportunity to avoid is anger. Our work often leads to heated discussions about the facts we are dealing with, the law applicable to them or the appropriate disposition of a case. We are likely to feel our blood pressure rise and a throbbing in our temples.
Other changes, which we often don’t notice, include our vision becoming more constricted and our decision‑making becoming “split‑second.” These are the common symptoms of the “fight or flight” response. One of the things these changes signal is that our brain is changing the decision‑ making locus from the pre‑frontal cortex to the amygdala ‑ from the large, advanced, human brain to the reptile brain. This part of the brain is extremely fast and quite narrow in its capability. When it is engaged, it always acts as if we are being threatened with serious injury or death. The reptile brain made us able to evolve from reptiles to the higher species, but it is a dangerous place to be making decisions that will have long‑term consequences.
Hurriedness is another stressor that we have power over. Over the years, thousands of “time saving” applications and devices have been marketed. There is no way to save or create more time; there are only so many hours in a day and only so much can be done in any given hour. Far from giving us more time for ourselves, reliance on the new technology complicates “down time” by providing entertainment or accessibility 24 hours a day. We seldom schedule time to think or to meditate. Since this is a self‑imposed stressor, we can integrate it to the degree and with the effectiveness we commit to. Most of us have considered meditation and the majority of those that have, have quit after a short time because their mind wouldn’t slow down and let them be. It is difficult! The good news is that one needn’t be a “perfect” meditator to benefit from the effort. Research has shown that only minutes a day yield significant benefits. Experience also shows that staying with small successes builds to large successes.
Know yourself and listen to your body. J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, has said, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all.” One of my favorite Alcoholics Anonymous speakers pointed out in a recorded talk that “the only thing a perfectionist is ever going to be is a failure.” Research has shown that it is possible to grow from failure. When we reach our limit, we need to learn to stop and either choose a different route or come back when we are in better shape. We can improve our “conditioning” by a course of study in a fashion similar to the way we improve our physical condition by exercise. If the end we reach is a real end, though, we need to recognize it and stop the battle. Chronic stress brings burnout and all the potential bad consequences.
Optimism is the Key
“Deadlines and commitments, what to leave in and what to leave out, against the wind . . .” Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band described the plight of the lawyer well in their 1980 hit. For most of us, a positive attitude doesn’t come easily. Part of that is likely because we have to analyze every fact and its probable effect in every case. We end up doing comparisons of everything in our life. We sometimes find ourselves “comparing our insides to someone else’s outsides” in AA parlance. There are times when every other lawyer at the courthouse looks more content, competent, and successful than we feel. We can develop doubts of our skills and our value. Our work is being judged, sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly by judges, other lawyers, clients, clients’ families, and the reading public if you or your case end up in the news. Our responses, especially when we aren’t successful in our undertaking, make the difference between what one writer calls learned helplessness and resilience. Research has shown that one way we can improve our optimism is to be grateful. Making a gratitude list daily and really digging down to the emotion while we do so can support an outlook of optimism. I have found myself doing a perfunctory gratitude list, just scraping off the top, and my experience is that that type of list is much less effective. We can benefit from taking the time to fully engage our gratitude and realize the gifts we have received in the past 24 hours.
Prioritize and then set reasonable goals. My wife accuses me of thinking that I can arrive at one location at the same time I leave another. I am notorious for working to within five minutes of a meeting and leaving for the meeting, which is a 10‑minute drive, and not believing that I arrived late. This is a small thing, but it moves me from my rational, thinking brain into my fear‑based fight or flight brain. That change narrows my vision and limits alternatives and builds suspected adverse results. If I will take the time to plan and prioritize my day, I can avoid “running around like a chicken with my head cut off.” One of my favorite excuses for not planning and prioritizing is that it takes time. While it is true that planning is work and it does take time, its net result is often that we are more efficient and end up not causing stress for ourselves.
Exercise in moderation. This is easily said to an attorney but hard to practice if you are one like me. Competition probably fueled our desire to be admitted to law school. It certainly drove us during law school, and it isn’t likely that it is diminished when we started practice. Often our “driven” nature makes it difficult for people to get near us or understand us when they do. If we take the competitive nature that got us through law school into our exercise program, there is a real likelihood that we will end up injured. This is especially true for the more mature lawyers like me. I was never going to be satisfied that I was a cyclist until I finished the Hotter ‘N Hell Hundred in Wichita Falls. Then one completion of the test wasn’t enough. I hadn’t ridden fast enough, so I did it each year for the next couple. I broke my hip in April of this year when I fell on my bicycle. My most fervent hope is that I can complete the H‘NH next year. I tell you this so you know that I have a hard time following my own suggestions. The truth is that most everything I know about stress management, I learned by doing it wrong. So, do as I say, not as I do! The goal should be activity rather than perfection.
This is the “smile more” from the Hamilton song. We need to take real vacations, not “working vacations” where we take our computers and check in with the office in the morning and again in the afternoon. Many of the vacations I took with my kids may have been vacations for them but they wouldn’t have qualified as “an extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home,” a vacation according to the Oxford Dictionary, for me. Over the years, it has seemed to me that there was always more to do than I had time to do it. In response, I would combine things that seemed to nearly fit together. Time with children and time away from the office were closely related but I fowled both of them by taking work along with me. We need to truly vacate when we take vacation if we want to feel the benefits that they can provide. The benefits aren’t a luxury, they are necessary. Similar to sleep, we can’t do without a break.
Share Feelings with a Trusted Person
It is probably best to have a friend who isn’t a lawyer to talk to. Even when we lawyers understand stress, we accept way more than we should. The problem of venting with a colleague may be that they hear you and either think or say, “I’m having it much tougher than he is. . . ” Sharing with a “civilian” can give another perspective. It is appropriate to consider, too, whether the civilian is a spouse or significant other. It is often a good idea to share with these people but sometimes consider sharing with them after talking with an unrelated person. Spouses are likely to be affected similarly by the consequences of the issue shared as we are so their response may not be much more objective than our own. A member of a church congregation or a social group or, as in my case, another member of Alcoholics Anonymous, is more likely to give the dispassionate consideration of your controversy and bounce more creative responses back to us than another who is affected by the same events which affect us.
I was in therapy for years just before and during my early sobriety. My therapist was fabulous and one thing that she told me that personalized her to me was her belief that any therapist needed to be in counseling with another professional. I didn’t really understand referred trauma and emotional fatigue at that time, but it still made intuitive sense and made me trust her even more. What I know today is that it isn’t crazy people who go to counselors, but it is often the few who stay sane. Life is complex, especially for people who serve the public. In the same fashion that we expect a person who tries to defend himself in a DWI case to crash and burn, we are likely to suffer the same result when we try to diagnose and treat our own stress.
You might be burning out if:
- You end each workday highly stressed;
- Feel a knot in your stomach on Sunday night;
- Find yourself disengaging from work, family, friends, and health; or
- Have ulcers, upset stomach, headaches, backaches, colitis, lack of concentration, rage, and even potentially a heart
Burnout is characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment, and a sense that nothing you do makes a difference. Mindtool.com suggests 5 responses to burnout: (1) thinking about the “why,” (2) focus on the basics, (3) taking a vacation or leave of absence, (4) say “no,” and (5) practice positive thinking. You can see that some of these are extensions of or more imperative applications of some of the suggestions made above. A couple of these suggestions, though, need further development.
What is the “why?” Are there specifics about your work or your life that leave you with resentments? Sometimes the cause of the resentment is a person and other times they are circumstances or governmental entities (IRS included). When you come to an understanding of what you resent, it becomes possible to address removing it. Sometimes we can remove the object of the resentment and other times, we have to change the way we feel about it. This takes focus and commitment. Vague feelings of “I’ll do better. . .” aren’t going to work, and it may take a therapist’s assistance to dig the right hole.
Nancy Reagan wanted us to “Just say no” in her anti‑drug campaign back in the day. While I have reservations about how successful that campaign was, I absolutely know that a well‑placed “no” goes a long way toward freedom from many resentments. People will make requests of us so long as we agree to take on the burden they offer. Once the challenge is “our problem” the referring party can move on, free from the burden and the responsibility it carried. We have to choose what we can and want to do. We need to reserve a little time in our life in case a new and wonderful opportunity comes. Every time we say no to someone else, we are saying yes to ourselves!
The effect of a drink or use of a recreational drug is relatively immediate and the sensation of stress changes. The feeling we end up with may not be any better than the stress we were feeling, but it is different, and sometimes that is enough. Litigators must take note of how and when we drink or use prescription medications. It isn’t unusual to notice a pattern of heavier use in times of stress. Not everyone who drinks is, or is likely to become, an alcoholic, even if they drink more than they should at times. Neither is everyone who uses drugs likely to become addicted. There are other consequences of use though, both physical and emotional. When use becomes addiction, the consequences multiply and become more complicated. Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing disease, and recovery may be a long and winding road. Recovery from addiction is supported by the State Bar and the Lawyers Assistance Program. It is also supported by individual counseling and numerous 12‑step meetings. The first step toward recovery is “to quit digging” the hole of despair, fear, and remorse for just long enough to engage another person and then to lean on the other person until we can walk on our own.
The foregoing list of challenges and responses are in no way lists of everything which could populate these categories. Hopefully, they can give a toehold on the challenge you face. The TCDLA Attorney Wellness Committee is composed of a group of criminal defense litigators who have an interest in, and a commitment to, helping other lawyers with issues such as those listed above. These lawyers and their email addresses are listed below. The Texas Lawyers Assistance Program also provides confidential assistance and referral. They can be reached at: tlaphelps.org or (800)343‑TLAP (8527).