How to live and cope with anxiety for attorneys

Attorneys are prone to high stress, anxiety, and depression. I guess it’s the nature and volume of the workload, no matter what area of law you specialize in. Dealing with attorney anxiety is not fun.

We are handling issues in people’s lives on a day to day basis. We also face the adversarial nature of lawsuits, which can be uncomfortable at times.

I happened to graduate law school at the tail end of the Recession, but landed a job as a state prosecutor in a small county in southern New Mexico. When I was in law school, I never even considered criminal law, but I was desperate to find employment.

Little did I know, criminal law is very stressful. As a prosecutor, I was prosecuting misdemeanor and felony domestic violence cases. These were not happy cases, to say the least, and cause attorney anxiety. I learned about all of the ins and out of criminal domestic violence, and it is not pretty.

Vicarious trauma

In practicing criminal law, I learned about vicarious trauma. As an attorney, I became involved in the trauma that victims and witnesses face just by learning all the intimate details and prosecuting the case. Even though I didn’t experience the events firsthand, the emotional residue transfers through interviews, testimony, and the trial.

If you’re not aware of how a case is affecting you and don’t regularly practice self-care, this can really affect your mental health and cause attorney anxiety. Think about what long-term stress does to your body as a whole. It affects your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being.

Substance abuse and attorney anxiety

Sometimes, attorneys can find negative ways to obtain relief from the stress. An alarming percentage of attorneys struggle with substance abuse. In my experience, alcohol abuse is the absolute wrong way to handle anxiety and the pressures of being an attorney. Yes, it does cover up what’s really going on and allows you to let loose, but that’s a temporary solution.

After I worked as a prosecutor, my next government job was as an assistant public defender. If I thought I was stressed before, this stress was on another level. Oftentimes, right at 5:00 p.m., my office of attorneys would migrate down the block to this Japanese restaurant to do sake bombs.

At the time, most of us were young, single, and just having fun. But after two years of binge drinking with coworkers, you realize that you need to manage your stress in other ways.

Taking an active role to manage attorney anxiety

Anxiety can take over your life if you let it. When I think about anxiety, I think of it as a troll that is trying to ruin my well-being. But there are things I can do to effectively counteract it.

One of the symptoms I experience when I’m stressed is a feeling of dread coupled with tightness in my chest. This may not sound horrible, but if you experience it all day, it kind of sucks.

I’ve had to take an active role in managing my stress. This means that I had to make changes in my life that directly benefited my mental health.

Stop drinking

I know this is a huge first step, and it may not even apply to some attorneys. I made the decision to stop drinking a few months before I turned thirty.

It was important for me to make a huge change in my life. I realized that I couldn’t continue living an unhealthy lifestyle.

Once I stopped drinking, a number of doors opened for me to start living a healthier, less stressful lifestyle. With a clear mind, I was able to make better decisions for myself and my career.

Change jobs

A huge reason for my constant stress and anxiety back then was the nature of my job. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew it wasn’t criminal law. Some of my coworkers were truly passionate about defending the accused, and I was slightly envious of that. There was no passion in it for me.

Changing a job can be scary and anxiety inducing. So, you just have to take the first step and apply. I moved to a different governmental sector because I still wanted to work for the state and it turned out I was much happier.

You don’t know what’s going to happen until you get to the other side. Now, I completely enjoy my work and I’m passionate about how it affects and helps people. There’s a great career ladder within my department, and that motivates me a lot as well.

My new division understands the importance of support staff and there is more funding for it. Instead of one secretary for nine public defenders, the support staff far outnumbers the attorneys in my new department. The decrease in stress is astounding.

Self care

So, I didn’t learn about self care until my thirties and I’m not ashamed of saying that. As human beings, we all have different timelines for learning life’s lessons.

Self-care is just that, taking care of self. In our busy lives, which often include looking out for the needs of others, we overlook the care and replenishment that we need.

Here are some self-care tips to manage attorney anxiety:

  1. Stop working at 5:00 p.m. Every day, no matter what. This can be any time of your choosing. If you constantly work until 9:00 p.m. every night to rack up those billable hours, start out by stopping at 7:00 p.m., or whatever. The only time I did not follow this advice was during the pandemic when I was teleworking full-time and caring for my toddler.
  2. Exercise. Get that body moving. Movement is a great way to combat anxiety and to get some energy running through your mind and body. You have to expend energy to create energy.
  3. Meditation. Start small, say 5 minutes per day, and eventually work your way up to twenty minutes a day. When I have a lot of stress, I sometimes meditate for up to an hour.
  4. Bodywork. Long-term stress can and will affect your physical body. One way to release this tension is to visit a massage therapist, acupuncturist, or chiropractor. I’ve even tried reiki therapy!
  5. Journaling. Sometimes, as an attorney, it can be helpful to write free form and not have to think about legal citations. Writing can also be incredibly therapeutic.

Set boundaries with coworkers

I sometimes reminisce on those days when my coworkers were also my best friends. At one point, one of them was a best friend, coworker, and roommate.

All of our conversations invariably led back to our individual cases and strategy. Unbeknownst to me, work was all-consuming and I didn’t have a life outside of it.

Start with small changes. Make an effort to expand your friend circles outside of work. Heck, just join a gym.

Prior to becoming a mom, I started climbing and joined the New Mexico Mountain Club. I would spend my weekends in the mountains with people who didn’t care about the nitty gritty of my job. And I realized it was nice not to talk about it.

Now, my weekends are mostly work free. While I enjoy great relationships with my coworkers at work, I don’t feel the need to mix my work and home life.

The long haul

Self care is a practice. I would even go as far as saying it’s a lifestyle. Do you ever see those attorneys who have been practicing for forty years and wonder how they do it? I’m sure a big part of it is self-care.

Attorney anxiety is manageable with change and practice. Even though I’m only ten years into my legal career, if I continue to take care of my well-being, I can make it twenty more years.

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