• Rebecca Howlett

How to Identify and Manage Attorney Anxiety

“Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.”—Charles Spurgeon


Attorney well-being has arguably never been more important. According to a 2022 Mental Health Survey by Law.com and ALM Intelligence, more than 2/3 of attorneys reported anxiety. Note that this is an uptick from the results reported in ALM’s 2020 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey in which 64 percent of the lawyers felt they had anxiety.

Feedback provided in the 2022 survey confirmed what most of us already know - Practicing law is stressful! According to 74 percent of the surveyed attorneys, work environment contributed to mental health issues they were experiencing. The most prevalent concerns were (1) always being on call (72%), (2) billable hour pressure (59%), (3) client demands (57%), (4) lack of sleep (55%) and (5) lean staffing (49.5%). Another factor not mentioned in this survey is that many attorneys have personality traits, such as perfectionism and pessimism, that make them particularly susceptible to anxiety.


An Attorney’s Personal Journey Through Anxiety


Recently we interviewed a 36-year-old male attorney who shared his story of developing anxiety early on in the pandemic. Jeffrey recalled, “I was feeling restless all the time and constantly ‘on edge’; it felt nearly impossible to sit still and actually concentrate on my work. At night, I couldn’t sleep and during the day I felt exhausted and irritable. My relationships with my staff and my family started to suffer. I found myself constantly worrying and dwelling on hypothetical worst-case scenarios—‘What if I start making mistakes that lose me clients and my practice goes under? What if everyone loses their jobs because of me?’”

After a candid conversation with his wife about how he had been feeling, Jeffrey ultimately sought professional help. His therapist screened him for mental health issues and ultimately diagnosed him with Generalized Anxiety Disorder* (“GAD”).


Screening for GAD


The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” Although we tend to think of anxiety as a mental health concern, the signs and symptoms of generalized anxiety can be both emotional and physical.


As a starting point, a screening test may be worthwhile to determine if you are currently experiencing anxiety or at risk of developing GAD. The GAD-7 Anxiety Questionnaire screens for and measures the severity based upon how frequently the following emotional symptoms occurred over the past two weeks:


● Not being able to stop or control worrying;

● Feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge;

● Worrying too much about different things;

● Trouble relaxing;

● Being so restless that it is hard to sit still;

● Becoming easily annoyed or irritable; or

● Feeling afraid, as if something awful might happen.


Affirming the existence of the mind-body connection, the Mayo Clinic has identified the following physical symptoms of anxiety:


Fatigue;

Trouble sleeping;

Muscle tension or muscle aches;

Trembling, feeling twitchy;

Nervousness or being easily startled;

Sweating;

Nausea, diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome; and

Irritability.


If you suffer from any of the symptoms outlined above, please give special attention to the next section of this article, “Tips to Manage Anxiety.”


Jeffrey’s Road to Recovery


After being diagnosed with GAD, Jeffrey continued seeing a professional therapist regularly and actively implementing strategies to manage his anxiety and reduce his stress. Today he reports that making small targeted changes to how he approaches his law practice has not only improved his anxiety, but also promoted his staff’s well-being.

Overall, Jeffrey emphasized that a key to his success has been transparency and honesty: “I ultimately sat down with my team and explained what was going on. If anything, this experience actually brought us closer together and helped create a culture where we openly discuss our mental health and how we can support each other.”


Tips to Manage Anxiety


Not everyone who experiences anxiety suffers from GAD, however, even “everyday anxiety” is unpleasant and can interfere with productivity, as well as joy of life. Making positive lifestyle changes can help us manage and even prevent the negative symptoms of anxiety. Below are a few effective strategies to help curb anxiety and safeguard our mental health:


Movement and Exercise. Did you know that just 20 minutes of aerobic exercise can immediately have positive effects on your mood that last up to 12 hours? Even incorporating small movements into your daily routine can help protect and promote your mental health and overall well-being. Indeed, small amounts of moderate exercise can help us mitigate the negative effects of daily stressors and keep us in a healthy frame of mind. We recommend incorporating a formal exercise routine into your schedule, ideally early in the day so you can maximize the positive effects. Make it a point to incorporate regular movement throughout your workday as well. Find activities that resonate for you personally, whether it’s taking a short walk outside, stretching, or self-massage. These small steps add up—literally!


Have fun! On average, children laugh 300 times a day whereas an adult generally laughs only 17 times per day. Often as attorneys, we over prioritize our work and under prioritize play, even to the point of “stresslaxing” where we worry about what we “should be” doing when we are trying to have fun. Consciously set aside time to do activities that bring you fulfillment, joy, and make you laugh! Channel your inner child and do the things that brought you joy when you were younger–have a water balloon fight, go to an amusement park, play in the mud. Whatever the activity may be, give yourself permission to relax and play and just be in the moment. Laughter is medicine!


Interrupting negative thoughts. Did you know that approximately 85 percent of our thoughts are negative and 90 percent are recurring? When we experience anxiety, we may have recurring negative thought patterns that can actually worsen our anxiety when we focus on and believe these thoughts. One way we can help curb anxiety is recognizing and interpreting these negative thoughts. By practicing mindfulness, we become better able to recognize when this is happening in the moment and take conscious action. When you notice a negative thought arise, pause and recognize the thought; you can internally or out loud say, ”My brain is producing a negative thought that I am lazy.” You can even visualize a stop sign and then replace the negative thought with a positive one—e.g. “I am relaxing. I do not have to earn rest.” The more you do this, the more detachment you can cultivate between you and your negative thoughts. Remember, you are not your thoughts! You are the observer of your thoughts.


Seek professional support. Having a strong support system and feeling connected to others is one of the most effective means to protect our health and well-being from traumatic events, as well as everyday stressors. Although temporary moments of stress are a natural part of life, if you find yourself regularly experiencing any of the symptoms we have discussed, please consider getting professional help. Not only can a counselor help you identify and recognize what is happening, but they can also provide additional tools, or even medication where appropriate, to effectively manage anxiety symptoms. Further, a therapist can provide a safe place to share your thoughts and feelings with a neutral third party. If you’re not sure where to begin, take advantage of any available Employee Assistance Program resources, as well as your state’s Lawyers Assistance Programs, which offers confidential support and can help you get set up with a counselor.


Moving Forward


As more and more attorneys are struggling to cope with generalized anxiety, it is crucial that we openly acknowledge this issue and focus on implementing strategies to curb its negative effects. Experiencing anxiety doesn’t have to be the “way things are” for legal professionals. As Jeffrey’s experience shows, anxiety is manageable with the right tools and support!

In our next column, we will explore strategies for increasing productivity through enhanced focus and concentration.


*We recognize that many suffer from other types of anxiety disorders such as PTSD or social phobia; however the focus of this article is on GAD. The website of the National Institute of Mental Health is a good resource for those seeking information with respect to other categories of anxiety.


Rebecca Howlett, Esq., and Cynthia Sharp, Esq., are co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution (legalburnout.com), a community dedicated to the well-being of lawyers.


Originally published in ABA GPSolo eReport, August 2022 Issue (Vol. 12, No. 1) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

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