High rates of depression continue to plague the legal profession as attorneys now rank highest among all professionals in terms of depression and suicide. Fully one-third of attorneys say that their dissatisfaction with the profession is so high they’d opt out of the practice of law if they had a choice. It seems the combination of working with difficult clients, working long days and weekends and working with the pressure to deliver a flawless work product inevitably leads to chronic stress. Chronic stress is the gateway to depression with symptoms of constant anxiety, impatience, anger issues and resentment.
The following is an excerpt from an article written by Todd C. Scott, entitled, “Stress for Success,” that I found especially insightful about stress and how to engage the mental mechanisms that reduce it:
Studies show that humans who process thoughts more regularly through the left half of their prefrontal cortex tend to have more positive emotions, while right-side users are more sensitive to criticism and are less able to regulate negative emotion. The good news for stress-suffering right-side users is that the brain can be “retrained” and pathways can be worn into the prefrontal cortex that cause you to respond to stress using the parts of the brain that are believed to produce problem-solving capabilities and more positive emotions.
Retraining the brain can be done through both physical means and by properly engaging the mind. You should think of stress-reducing techniques as Pilates for the brain. These exercises can save a legal career from coming to a premature end—along with the life of the lawyer.
Just Chill Out
One of the reasons that playing golf, gardening, enjoying music, knitting, or running can reduce stress is that they rely on the left side of the prefrontal cortex—the pleasure center of your brain. The simple act of engaging in such activities will carve new pathways through the side of the brain that experiences enjoyment, contentment, satisfaction, and delight and will unconsciously focus the brain to try processing stressful activities through the left side as well. The result will often be a calmer, rational thought process while experiencing something that would otherwise get your heart racing.
If certain activities don’t seem to give you the reduction in stress that they once did, you may want to look for new, more relaxing activities—something that you have always wanted to do—to keep the brain happy and in action. First-time experiences such as learning to play the guitar, knitting, trying out for a play, or oil painting will greatly enhance the trail-blazing, pleasure-inducing process of left-side brain activity.
In addition to finding a good hobby and sticking to it, new methods of thinking will train the brain to process stressful thoughts differently. By planning contingencies, or trying to see the bigger picture, your brain will react to stressful episodes as though they are just one step in a bigger process. Humor is also an underrated coping mechanism for quickly and effectively changing a brain’s process that has gotten stuck in a right-side pattern of helplessness and defeat.
Some individuals are predisposed to routing stressful thoughts through the left side of the brain. Certain employers, such as NASA, test for such individuals because of their ability to suppress a stressful problem until the time is right to solve it.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy for those whose thinking patterns may be based on more deeply rooted negative thoughts. By replacing those nagging thoughts with new thinking patterns, people can effect positive changes in their mental outlook in a matter of weeks. A CBT therapist will challenge the negative assumptions under which a person may have been operating for years (e.g., “I never should have been a litigator”) and help effectuate a new positive outlook (e.g., by examining the reasons you chose your practice area).
Controlling your surroundings will make a big difference in how fast your brain moves into its negative mode on Monday mornings. By taking control of your workload, regularly scheduling time off, and keeping an organized office, you will allow yourself more time to make a difficult decision, and you may experience fewer moments when things seem out of control.
Stress and Depression
Chronic stress will lead to depression, and a depressed lawyer will result in neglected clients. Therefore, it is important that you also recognize the symptoms of depression that you or your colleagues might be exhibiting:
• persistent feelings of sadness or irritability
• loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
• changes in weight or appetite
• changes in sleep patterns
• feelings of guilt or hopelessness
• inability to concentrate or make a decision
• restlessness or lethargy
• thoughts about suicide or death
• isolating or avoiding friends or family
Like stress, depression is rampant among lawyers. Out of 105 occupations, lawyers rank first with the most who report they suffer from depression. This statistic may also play a role in the disproportionate number of lawyers who commit suicide and the above-average rate of alcohol abuse among lawyers—18 percent versus 10 percent in other professions.
Law firms need to address issues of stress and depression as a risk-management concern to lessen the chances that a client’s matter will be permanently harmed because the file is neglected. Lawyers should recognize the patterns of stress and depression among their colleagues and approach the suffering lawyer with compassion and concern. Other professionals such as pilots and doctors are more proactive about recognizing these symptoms and providing the time that is needed to recuperate—for the sake of the afflicted individual as well as the people in his or her care, be they passengers, patients, or clients.
Whether you are a stressed-out lawyer (and, as a note of congratulations, you have managed to give yourself enough time to read this far!) or you have colleagues you are concerned about, it is important to understand the harm that too much stress can produce. By also having a grasp on the physiology of stress and the methods for changing the way your brain reacts to it, you can add years to your life and to a legal career that is on the verge of fizzing out.
Todd C. Scott is vice president of Member Services, the risk management unit of Minnesota Lawyer’s Mutual Insurance Company. He also serves as co-chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association’s Practice Management and Marketing Section. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.