The Anxious Lawyer

  • Lawyers have higher anxiety levels than the general population—but why?
  • The tendency for lawyers to be perfectionists, the training to see the worst possible outcome in every situation, and the competitive, hectic atmosphere at most firms all contribute to lawyer anxiety
  • A professional can determine if your anxiety can be helped by medication, and lifestyle changes, such as adding exercise, meditation, and a balanced diet, can make all the difference

You’re probably not surprised by the assertion that lawyers tend to have higher levels of anxiety and pessimism than the general population.

The studies that support the idea just keep piling up. Lawyers not only suffer from higher anxiety levels, but from the consequences of that anxiety: Insomnia, headaches, an inability to concentrate, racing thoughts, and even hair loss are just some of the symptoms one might suffer. Even if you attempt to deny and ignore your anxiety, your body will continue to send out distress signals. But why are lawyers so anxious in the first place?

The Trained Lawyer Brain

Sure, maybe the law just happens to attract anxious types—those who excel in the legal profession tend to be perfectionists, and nothing can cause stress like our own self-imposed rules. But there is evidence that a certain amount of anxiety is trained into lawyers starting in law school. You are taught to think about the worst possible outcome—sometimes multiple negative outcomes—in every situation. Some brains become a bit too well trained, and begin catastrophizing, or constantly looking for potential disasters, all the time instead of only when it’s useful at work.

Lawyers also tend to encounter many of their clients at the worst times of their lives. They’re interacting with people who are divorcing, fighting not be put in jail for years, dealing with a bankruptcy, experiencing the aftermath of violent crime or an accident—the list of difficult situations just keeps going.

Add the breakneck pace and long hours that characterize most lawyers’ schedules, and you get a constant helping of stress hormones that raise your general anxiety levels even when you’re not working. That can take a toll on a person before he even realizes it’s happening. Lawyers also have limited control over the outcomes of many of the projects they work on, but often take much of the blame for less-than-perfect results. With this job description, it’s a wonder anxiety isn’t a problem for all lawyers!

Your Brain Can Be Retrained

You cannot eradicate all anxiety from your life, but you can change your relationship to this natural, biological response to stress. You can lessen it, manage it, and ensure it doesn’t get so untenable that your health is affected.

An important first step to dealing with your anxiety is seeing a mental health professional to determine if your anxiety is part of an underlying clinical issue. Medication, along with lifestyle changes, may be able to help you. It is not unusual for those who already have an undiagnosed anxiety disorder to have more severe symptoms under the constant pressure of a law career.

You can put your above-average intelligence and determination to use and combat negative thinking and repetitive thoughts in the moment. This will take some deliberate thinking and practice. Note what scripts you tend to run in your head: jumping to the worst conclusions, assuming others are thinking negatively about you, ditching sound reasoning for emotional reactions, etc. Recognize these thoughts, acknowledge them, and counteract them with facts. You actually don’t know that the worst will happen, you have no idea what anyone else is thinking and have no reason to believe it’s always negative, and there is nothing particularly emotional about, say, a deadline. Sticking to the facts, rather than letting your emotions and anxiety take over, is what you want to train yourself to do.

Mindfulness—the practice of purposefully being aware of the present moment, including your thoughts, physical sensations, and surroundings—can work wonders for anxiety. The anxious person often ignores what’s happening right now to obsess over what happened yesterday and what needs to be done in the next few hours. She doesn’t give herself an opportunity to experience the moment, and she isn’t attuned to the needs of her own body. Spending so much time planning and thinking negative thoughts is draining and only adds to your stress, becoming a vicious cycle.

You can easily begin practicing mindfulness simply by slowing down, focusing on your breathing, and mentally running through everything you are experiencing right now: What sensations are you feeling? What can you hear and smell? When you eat lunch or have a snack, chew slowly and enjoy the taste and texture of your food. And most importantly: Go easy on yourself. Treat yourself like you would a beloved friend instead of thinking of yourself in negative terms.

When you have a little more time to spend in a quiet place, try some more structured mindfulness meditation exercises. The body scan meditation and walking meditation are two of the easiest and most popular ones to try. For a body scan meditation, simply lie on your back with your arms at your sides, palms facing up. Slowly think about each part of your body, focusing deliberately on each part, in order, from head to toe or toe to head. Be aware of any sensations, emotions, or thoughts associated with each part of your body. For a walking meditation, find a quiet place to walk slowly while focusing on the experience of walking, being aware of the sensation of standing, and all the subtle movements that help you keep your balance and move you forward.

Lifestyle Changes

Yes, your job is often unpredictable, involves long and sometimes frenzied hours, and you have little control over the limited free time you get. Well, this is your health. It is important, and you likely won’t have a job if you end up hospitalized from exhaustion, a nervous breakdown, drug addiction, or the other bad ends that ignoring stress and anxiety push you towards. (We don’t mean to scare you…but we kinda do mean to scare you into action.)

So changing your lifestyle where you can and when you can, and making these changes just as essential as showing up for work every morning, is going to have to become one of your goals. Can you commit to doing that for yourself?

Exercise. You may not have time to work out for an hour a day five days a week, but you can probably spare half an hour three days a week, and time for ten-minute walks sprinkled throughout your other days. Fortunately, the benefits of exercise are cumulative, so if you can squeeze in only ten minutes at a time, that’s just fine. Not all exercise has to be “formal” exercise either: Take a few minutes to stretch every now and then, or dance around to your favorite song to get your heart pumping and lift your mood. (Lock your office door or dance when you’re working from home to avoid tempting anyone into stealing your moves.)

Diet. Food is fuel. A balanced diet is essential for focus, energy, and general health. Don’t try to fuel your busy schedule with junk—too much sugar can disrupt serotonin production in the brain, and we need serotonin to contribute to feelings of wellbeing and happiness, among other things. Specifically, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fish have been shown to increase serotonin levels.

Sunlight. Your brain has less serotonin when there is less sunlight. Some people even suffer from the winter blues, officially called SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, when they don’t get enough sunlight in the winter. You also need sunlight to help your body make vitamin D, the lack of which can result in fatigue and make it hard to focus. Plus, the sun just feels good on your skin.

Time Off. Your life must consist of more than work. You need time with friends and family, time to engage in hobbies, time to travel, and even time to sit on the couch and do nothing. Do not underestimate the importance of downtime for mental and physical health. And yes, that downtime should include the occasional vacation—a real one, not one that involves hacking away at your laptop in a tropical location. You may not be able to take two-week trips twice a year, but you can take one week-long trip and couple of three-day weekends. Again, the point is to make taking care of yourself a priority, and recharging is an important part of that.

What's Next

If you feel overwhelmed by your anxiety levels, make an appointment with a mental health professional as soon as possible—don’t wait! In the meantime, try some of the above tips and see if you can begin to manage your anxiety differently. Note any improvements after two weeks.