Gunslingers: How Lawyers Can Better Handle Stress

We avatars of the legal system, we hired guns who ride into town and shoot up saloons, measure our success by the notches on our dusty belts: Did I win or lose? Or, perhaps more accurately, is it: Am I a winner or a loser? There is a thrill about winning and being successful, however we define it — but also a lot of stress.

gunslinger

Results, bottom-line bastards that they are, can spew toxic stress into our bodies like BP oil into the Gulf. Many lawyers struggle to shut off their inner dialogue that pings between their ears as they lay awake at night and their family sleeps: “Will I be successful tomorrow? Will I bill enough hours this month?” We mash ourselves up like Idaho potatoes flopping around in our beds as the minutes click away on our L.E.D. alarm clocks.

I wrote an article for Trial Magazine about the connection between stress, anxiety and depression. Here’s a part of that article:

”How our bodies and brains deal with stress and anxiety hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years. A wonderful defense mechanism, which is wired into our nervous system, is called the fight-or-flight response. When confronted with a threat – whether real or perceived – this response kicks in and floods our bodies with the powerful hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which propel us into action. This was an essential survival device for our ancestors who lived in the jungle and would have to flee beasts or fight foes trying to kill them.

Lawyers don’t face these types of real life-or-death threats. But they perceive life-or-death threats in their battles with opposing counsel while sitting in a deposition or sparring in the courtroom. Our bodies respond as if they were being chased by a hungry lion. Over time, this chronic anxiety causes the release of too many fight-or-flight hormones. Research has shown that prolonged release of cortisol damages areas of the brain that have been implicated in depression: the hippocampus (involved in learning and memory and the amydala (involved in how we perceive fear).”

Living in the jungle of our profession doesn’t involve warding off wooly mammoths, but it does involve a fight-or-flight from mental constructions in our heads: the fear of missing a court ordered deadline can create panic in our nervous system every bit as real as a tangling with a beast that tried to kill our ancestors.

perfectionism

Lawyers are perfectionists and overachievers who are never content to give things their just their best try. They believe in dumping large amounts of energy into each and every project. Such extraordinary efforts are stressful on our bodies and minds. Yet, we know all of this, don’t we? The truth is that many lawyers have already made the calculations in their heads and are willing to take the pounding for more dollars. We come back to our abodes at the end of our days exhausted, peak at our mutual funds statements and turn on the T.V. too tired to think about the implications of living this type of life.

Lawyer Steve Keeva, in his piece Take Care of Yourself, wrote:

”The dominant method of legal billing can, if you let it, subvert your ability ‘to claim a full and rich life for yourself,’ as litigator John McShane put it. Think about it. Billing by the hour is extraordinary in the way in which it so nakedly equates money with time. It thereby offers no incentive at all to stop working. The taskmaster par excellence can reduce grown professionals to slavish piece workers.”

When exploring the stress of success, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that depression happens in a context, a cultural milieu and a profession’s mores. Too often, we put everything on the individual – her depressive thinking, his genetic makeup – as if depression in a person forms and takes place in a vacuum: if it “takes a village to raise a child;” well, it takes a culture to create conditions for depression to develop.

We are social creatures that need support from our families, institutions and society. These structures help mitigate stress and prevent depression. Yet, contemporary culture has largely failed us: the breakdown in families, the betrayal of cultural and political institutions, a grimy cynicism in people, vacuous and crass entertainment unmitigated consumerism and a legal profession which endorses the value of professionalism while lawyers say that levels of incivility between lawyers is at an all time high. It’s become more of a business than a profession and calling, it’s become more mercenary in nature where lawyers forget that they are officers of the court and not just there to do the bidding of a well paying client.

Bruce Levine, Ph.D., author of the book Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic, writes about renowned psychoanalyst and social critic Eric Fromm’s commentary on the connection between our cultural values and depression. Here is an excerpt from book about the dangers of a consumerism driven culture:

“Fromm argued that the increase in depression in modern industrial societies is connected to their economic systems. Financial success in modern in modern cultural societies is associated with heightened awareness of financial self-interest, resulting in greater self-absorption, which can increase the likelihood of depression; while a lack of financial interest in such an economic system results in deprivation and misery, which increases the likelihood for depression. Thus, escaping depression in such a system means regularly taking actions based on financial self-interest while at the same time not drowning in self-absorption – no easy balancing act.

The idea that money and buying stuff and acquiring status = happiness isn’t treated for what it is – a paper thin myth. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with making money; buying things and wishing to obtain a certain level of success in our careers. It’s a healthy recognition of the limitations of our income and what it really can buy that makes all the difference and keeps us out of this downward spiral.

In the book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, author Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., concludes:

”One of the reasons for the failure of materialism to make us happier may be that even hen people finally attain their monetary goals; the achievement doesn’t translate into an increase into an increase in happiness. Also, materialism may distract people from relatively more meaningful and joyful aspects of their lives, such as nurturing their relationships with family and friends, enjoying the present, and contributing to their communities. Finally, materialistic people have been found to hold unrealistically high expectations of what material things can do for them. One father confided to me that he believed that purchasing a forty-tow-inch flat-panel TV would improve his relationship with his son. It didn’t.

Thomas-Merton

A more spiritual take on the issue was penned by famed author and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. In his classic work, No Man Is an Island, he writes:

”One of the chief obstacles to a sense of wholeness in life is the selfish anxiety to get the most out of everything, to be a brilliant success in our own eyes and in the eyes of other men. We can only get rid of this anxiety by being content to miss something in almost everything we do. We cannot master everything, taste everything, understand everything, drains every experience to its last dregs. But if we have the courage to let almost everything else go, we will probably be able to retain the one thing necessary for us -whatever it may be. If we are too eager to have everything, we will almost certainly miss even the one thing we need.

Happiness consists in finding out precisely what the ‘one thing necessary’ may be, in our lives, and in gladly relinquishing all the rest. For then, by a divine paradox, we find that everything else is given us together with the one thing we needed.”

For Merton, that one thing was God. For some of us with depression, this may be our touchstone as well; a center around which to slow down the centrifugal force of our spinning lives. For the others, it may be our family or friends. But whatever it is, it must ground us and bring out, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “The better angels of our nature.”

To lessen the stress in your life, and the risk for developing or exacerbating your depression, try these tips from your friend Dan:

  1. Fast for a few days from the radio in your car, the newspapers or fooling around on your Blackberry. Take a time out. Think of it as an experiment. Lawyers complain that they’re stressed out only to dump more information and stimulation into their craniums at every few moment they have. Lawyers already read and think enough for a living – give your nervous system a break for crying out loud.
  2. Hand in hand with the above, incorporate some slice of silence into your life. It doesn’t have to be a monastic experience. I wear a runner’s watch and do a ten to fifteen minute period of silence a day. If you don’t do something like this, you know what you’re stuck with – too much noise.
  3. Start asking yourself some questions. What toll on your mental and physical health is your drive to succeed exacting on your life? Make an actual list, take it out every day and read it. The purpose is to try to become more conscious of the actual cost of your career to you. People tell me they don’t have the time to do this, but then spend hours researching whether to buy a Lexus or Audi. The irony of it all. We love accumulating things and experiences in our society. Instead of adding something into your life, what can you drop out of it that would make you feel better?
  4. Read something that would nurture you as a person and dump the rest of the crap. Read only one thing at a time. Maybe a book of poetry or the biography of a heroic person.
  5. Reconnect with the humorous, whether highbrow or sophomoric. Plug into it and have a gut-busting hoot.
  6. Remember, that life isn’t a dress rehearsal. The time you’re spending at your job is a segment of finite time that you’re given. Once it’s spent, it’s spent. No one tells you how to spend it, despite what you might have gotten yourself around to believing. Remember, you choose. My priest once said that on every gravestone there are two dates: the date we were born and the date we died. We don’t get to choose those dates. But between those dates, is a dash line: “—.” That dash is our life and what we have done with it. Resolve to be a person whose dash is driven by substance and not solely by success. As Mark Twain once wrote, “Let your life sing so that upon your death, even the undertaker will weep.”
  7. The notion of “quality time” for oneself or others is largely bullshit. Richard O’Connor, Ph.D. once said that to overcome depression we need to start investing in ourselves like we’re worth it: exercising, sleeping enough, etc. No matter how you slice it, there is no small amount of “quality time” in which you can achieve these basic self-care routines. The reality is you will need to take whatever amount of time it takes because YOU are worth it.
  8. If you are locked in the success matrix as a lawyer, remember that it doesn’t have to stay that way forever. Realistically, your life won’t probably change tomorrow. But it can begin to change in small way that can lead you in a healthier direction.

Copyright, 2014.  All rights reserved by Daniel T. Lukasik

 

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6 thoughts on “Gunslingers: How Lawyers Can Better Handle Stress

  1. Interesting article. As litigators we often deliberately rack up the pressure and stress on the opposition to get them to settle.It’s impossible to avoid this in the legal system.
    It took me a long time to learn to cope with this stress and even after many years it still affects me.I don’t think I will ever get it totally under control.
    We are trained in litigation tactics and also need training in dealing with the debilitating effects of stress.
    A good place to start is this excellent and informative website.

  2. As a litigator I’ve learned that we are indeed hired gunslingers and we should expect commiserate stress loads. The antidote for me is to seek out places and activities that allow me to completely shut my mind off. Easier said than done.

  3. For me, it’s the quiet, unoccupied times that cause the most problems… that’s when my anxiety and guilt and toxic thoughts are given free reign to snowball. I can’t stand even a wait in line or a quiet drive. As Wendy said, the impulse is to shut our mind off, or at least distract it somewhat.

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