Lawyers and anxiety: How to manage anxiety and make work livable again
You know that feeling: it’s the end of the day, and there’s a mountain of work in front of you. You tell yourself you’ll just work 5 more minutes, but you don’t want to leave things undone. You feel pressured, stressed, even claustrophobic. If you’re a lawyer in Downtown Los Angeles, you’re not alone.
Most lawyers who find themselves in the therapy room share this story. They endure endless competing deadlines, constant demand with no off-time, and pressure to meet billable hours. It’s no wonder these lawyers are stressed. They feel they ought to be able to endure the workload without complaining.
Too often lawyers blame themselves for their stress, adding to the cycle of exhaustion and anxiety:
- “It’s really my fault”
- “There must be something wrong with me that I can’t handle this workload”
- “If I just work harder I’ll be able to relax”
- “I need to work hard to make up for past mistakes”
This cycle of continual anxiety and exhaustion can be unbearable. I’d like to talk about what anxiety is, it’s effect on lawyers and law firms, and practical steps you can take today to move out of this cycle.
The Cost of Anxiety for Lawyers.
Anxiety is about responding to a perceived threat in our environment. When we think we’re threatened, our fight-or-flight system kicks in to keep us safe. Our amygdala lights up, our heart beats fast, our breathing increases. That’s called anxiety. That’s what we feel when we miss a deadline, or when we get another email from a coworker at 10pm.
When we’re anxious, we’re unable to plan for the future. Instead, we make decisions that are more-or-less knee-jerk reactions to alleviate pain. That’s because when we’re anxious, our frontal lobes are shut down. This is the part of the brain that’s responsible for long-term decision-making, for planning, and for moral behavior. Instead, our amygdalae are activated. The amygdala is the fear-center of the brain, and its main focus is avoiding a threat and alleviating pain as soon as possible.
Pretty quickly we can see why anxiety is a problem for work. While law culture may reward anxiety as a sign that you’re working hard, it’s easy to see how the best work comes from those who know how to regulate and manage their anxiety.
What anxiety looks like for lawyers
When I see lawyers from my therapy chair in downtown LA, I hear a similar refrain whether it’s the new paralegal or an executive:
- My day is spent in anxiety,
- I’m responding to constant demands
- I have no time or space to cool down
- I have no real off-time
- I’m expected to be constantly available, even on weekends
The list goes on. Why is it so hard for lawyers to manage anxiety? And is there any realistic way lawyers can create sanity in the midst of such a demanding profession?
Why managing anxiety as a lawyer is challenging
First, let’s understand what you’re up against: a behemoth of a social situation in which you are reinforced to be exhausted. This situation is based on a false narrative about the way relationships work.
Here’s a bit of the narrative I hear in law firms: we must meet all client’s demands, or else there will be a catastrophe. It almost sounds reasonable that law firms should meet client demands. After all, isn’t that why they’re paying you?
Yes and no.
Yes, it’s the job of a law firm to provide a service to clients.
But also, no. The idea of an anxious client expecting their problems to magically go away through litigation is an old unhealthy relational pattern based on a fantasy of idealization and devaluation. It’s a kind of enmeshed dependent relationship, rather than real care. And it sets up lawyers for exhaustion. Let’s unpack the anxious pattern:
- Client has an emergency and asks the law firm to respond to the emergency
- The law firm, who is already full with work, promises to meet the demand.
- Lawyers anxiously respond to the demand by bending personal boundaries and working overtime.
- Clients learn to expect lawyers to be constantly available
- Lawyers feel pressure to be constantly available both by the firm and by clients.
The problem is in the idealization. The law firm wants to be idealized – to be seen as flawless – and is worried that if it sets a realistic expectation for services it’ll fail the client. So in order to stay idealized the firm downplays its own limitations. Everyone at the firm then feels the pressure to be available and on-call for the client.
For this reason, it can feel impossible to manage anxiety as a lawyer. The entire system of the law firm is set up to encourage idealization of the firm and devaluation of personal need. Making any kind of change can feel like a pie-in-the sky luxury. So the pattern continues: cancelling personal plans for work emergencies, doing work on vacation, answering work emails at 10pm, then sensing a growing frustration and helplessness that makes you want to quit.
What can you do?
Many lawyers, who may have spent years white-knuckling their job, end up leaving the job due to burning out. They feel they can’t change anything, so they suppress their anxiety and exhaustion until it builds up inside, like a clamped pipe. Holding onto the way things are has a cost. So let’s think about one important change you can make:
Now when most of us think of self-care, we think of spa days and strong boundaries, social luxuries reserved for instagram and humble-bragging. It can leave many of us feeling guilty. The idea that self-care means a weekly massage, taking adequate vacation days, and exercising every day can create a all-or-nothing view of self care: Either I’m not caring for myself because I’m at work, or I’ve set aside holy time to lavish myself with something special.
But good self-care is more about how you live the whole of your life. Let’s redefine what self-care is:
- asking for what you need
- saying what you feel
- listening to your feelings
That’s it. When you’re living a life of self-care, you feel in control of your decisions, you trust that help is there when you need it, and you can listen to your feelings as helpful information about your life. People who practice self-care can
- set boundaries because they ask for what they need and listen to what they feel
- feel okay disappointing people sometimes, because they know their limits
- set realistic expectations for their time and their off-time
- work hard because they’ve taken time to listen to what they need
When anxiety takes over, self-care often goes out the window. Anxiety often makes us resort to our oldest ways of handling and managing conflict. We suppress our feelings, we don’t ask for help, we say what we think others want to hear instead of what we feel. Our frontal lobes shut down and we respond reactively, rather than care-fully. We don’t make good decisions, we don’t feel in control of our lives. These kinds of patterns can be just as constraining and destructive as our work schedules.
Can you imagine what it would be like if you walked into your office, into your friendships, into your relationships, and knew that it was acceptable to ask for what you need? If it was more acceptable to say when you feel anxious, overwhelmed, or scared? That’s what can happen when we manage anxiety through self-care.
That difference means everything.
It’s both harder and easier than the spa-day self-care you might have expected to hear in this article. It’s harder because emotions can be like a cruise ship and it’s hard to make changes internally without help. However, it’s also easier. It’s easier to say what you need than to white-knuckle it through your billable hours. It’s easier to say ask for help than to stay up late working alone on another deposition.
So take a small step today:
- Out loud, just to yourself, say what you feel in your body
- Out loud, to a friend, ask for help with something
- Take a break when you notice yourself feeling overwhelmed or scared
You’re not alone in this journey. We can help you take this step for yourself. Give us a call and talk to one of our therapists today.