Before the pandemic hit, lawyers were suffering extraordinarily with anxiety and depression. Anxiety can cause depression over time. What profession has more anxiety than the profession that is defined by the role of handling the biggest problem in so many clients’ lives? Indeed, 46% of 13,000 lawyers in a 2015 study reported having suffered from depression, and over 60% had serious problems with anxiety.
Enter the pandemic. Now that many of our normal tools for processing the anxiety we face are on hold, we are experiencing so much more difficulty with our mental health. Quarantining has been shown to cause PTSD in 28.9% and depression in 31% of 129 people studied. Over twenty studies have documented that quarantined people developed symptoms of low mood, anxiety, and depressive disorders. One third of Americans reported that COVID-19 has had a serious impact on their mental wellbeing.
Note: If you or a lawyer you know needs help, TLAP is available anytime by phone or text at 1-800-343-TLAP.
For lawyers, with the pre-existing condition along with the transformation to the world on practicing law remotely, it is putting many of them on the brink of a mental health breakdown. Here are five suggestions to help reduce the stress and improve well-being during this difficult time.
First, reset after each stressful event. If you check your email in the morning, go for a short walk after reading the stressful new emails that will always be there. If not a walk, take just a couple of minutes to focus on the breath. Once our sympathetic or fight-or-flight nervous system is triggered, we must do something physical to get our relaxed nervous system, the parasympathetic, back online.
Second, by setting some strong boundaries, we can make life much more manageable. This should begin with our phones. Checking our email a few times a day instead of each time a new email arrives, ceasing to look at email or our devices after an early evening hour, and using “do not disturb” on our phones when we are enjoying ourselves are some examples. When we are working at home, ceremonially transforming our workspace dining table back to a home at the end of the day can be helpful (instead of leaving our laptop or files physically in our presence after hours).
Third, debriefing with others and staying connected are insurance policies against stress and depression. If we can share with another person, especially another lawyer, the difficulties of our day or week, we are so much more resilient and most often get a better perspective after hearing the struggles of our trusted friends. Therapists are required to debrief weekly for their first 3,000 hours and one study showed that they have much less anxiety than the lawyers with the same clients.
A fourth strategy for dealing with stress during this time is to give some attention to what is right in the world. The news and the practice of law can sometimes cause us to see all the problems and the world can end up looking like a half-empty glass. Many of us have had extraordinary losses and struggles, but we also have some amazing blessings if we take the time to notice. Research shows that by focusing on three positive things in our lives each day, we can increase our happiness level by 25%. This is something we can do in under a minute, so try this for a couple of weeks and see the impact.
Finally, we need a refuge from stress. Escapism is often associated with problem habits like drinking, gambling, video games, and others, but we need to escape stress. We can escaping stress in a number of healthy ways. We must take the time for this self-care.
Just like on the airplane, we need to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we can help others. This can be done in a number of healthy ways: running, lifting weights, cooking, meditation, playing musical instruments, golfing, swimming, watching sports, writing, reading, watching movies, dancing, yoga, enjoying pets, and many others. If we are unable to get the momentum to do these things, we need to do our best to reach out for help.
Unfortunately, it is common to become paralyzed by anxiety when it goes on too long. By just talking to someone about it, it can make a world of difference and with help the changes are much easier. Lawyers suffering from the effects of anxiety and depression must take some action to get better. As Mahatma Gandhi (a lawyer in his younger years) said, “The future depends on what you do today.”
Chris Ritter is director of the Texas Lawyer’s Assistance Program. He is a Baylor undergrad, holds a J.D. from the University of Texas and, more recently, an M.Ed in clinical mental health counseling from Lamar University. Before joining TLAP he was a trial lawyer in West Texas and describes himself as in long-term recovery.