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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Howlett

The Legal Burnout Solution: Tips for Reducing Holiday Stress

Updated: Mar 4

Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp


Stressed spelled backward is desserts.Loreta Laroche

 

For many, the holiday season is the most joyous time of the year. They thrive on the festivities, the celebratory atmosphere, and the overall hustle and bustle. However, others dread this season, feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. Cheryl’s[1] story, recounted below, demonstrates the difficulties involved in trying to balance family and personal life with work obligations during this busy period. Later in the article, we offer suggestions on how to cope with holiday stress in an effective and healthy manner.


Balancing Act: Cheryl’s Holiday Challenges


Cheryl is a 35-year-old married attorney with two young daughters. Since the family celebrates Christmas, the children are counting the days until Santa Claus arrives. As usual, Cheryl is taking holiday preparations to the extreme. She feels guilty about spending so much time away from the family due to her career demands and tries to compensate by creating an ideal Christmas setting.


Cheryl’s holiday preparations include baking dozens of cookies, decorating their home both inside and out, and shopping for the kids and many others. Oh, and she also hosts 20 family members for Christmas Eve dinner. While everyone used to get along fairly well, political disagreements have caused a deterioration in the festive atmosphere in recent years, and she is preparing herself for possible conflict.


Cheryl, like many lawyers, carries the additional burden of scrambling to meet year-end deadlines while still trying to honor family and social engagements. Even though already overcommitted, she plans to attend at least five professional holiday gatherings, motivated by a sense of obligation in addition to a fear of missing out. Does any of this sound familiar to you?


Cheryl has not been coping well with the heightened holiday stress and the high expectations set by herself and others. She has been uncharacteristically moody since Thanksgiving, frequently losing her temper with family members over trivial matters. In fact, her husband recently suggested that she take a “chill pill,” which certainly added to her distress. Cheryl has also exhibited irritability in the professional setting. For example, she “blew her stack” at her secretary over a minor mistake, and that same day, she was a bit terse and noticeably impatient with a valued client.


The strain is also taking a toll on her physical health. Falling asleep has become problematic, and she struggles to quiet her mind of racing thoughts. Also, Cheryl has reverted to a common coping strategy of eating and drinking more than usual, which has led to unwanted weight gain. Additionally, sudden and severe headaches have been plaguing her. Recently, her mind has been filled with fantasies about “ditching it all” and running away to a remote island.


In actuality, the far less drastic measures described below are available to give her much-needed relief and help her cultivate joy during the holiday season.


Holiday Stress Statistics


Suffering from increased stress during the holiday season is not unique to Cheryl. Research shows that a significant number of individuals experience similar struggles. According to a November 2023 survey conducted by the Harris Poll, 89 percent of Americans feel heightened stress as a result of the holidays. The results, reported by the American Psychological Association, further revealed that almost half of those surveyed had “moderate” stress levels during this time, with 36 percent expressing the sentiment that the holidays often feel like a competition.


Furthermore, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that approximately 64 percent of individuals who live with a mental illness feel that their condition deteriorates during the holiday season. According to Cedars-Sinai Psychologist Dr. Michael Wetter, “While the holidays don’t necessarily exacerbate mental health conditions specifically, they do have the tendency to create more stress.”


Strategies for Maintaining Well-Being and Managing Stress


Consciously prioritizing our well-being is paramount, especially during the holiday season. Below are a few simple strategies to promote wellness and manage stress this time of year.


Say No


You can’t spell Noel without putting no first! Your time and energy are limited and precious. Only say yes to holiday activities that uplift you and bring you joy. You can’t pour hot cocoa from an empty mug. Put your mental and emotional needs first.


We realize that, as easy as it sounds in theory, it can be extremely difficult in practice to say no. For example, we may feel inherent pressure to accept party invitations in our professional sphere, even if we are already stretched dangerously thin with family commitments. So, how can we overcome potential feelings of guilt when saying no?


On our podcast, The Legal Mindset Corner, we explored managing holiday stress with Danielle Hall, executive director of the Kansas Lawyers Assistance Programs. Danielle unpacked why lawyers may be particularly prone to holiday stress, including our often perfectionist mindset: “Even though attorneys like to think that we’re superheroes at times and we can balance everything going on, we’re human just like everybody else is.”


Before making a commitment, Danielle asks herself: If the project or event were tonight or tomorrow, would I still say yes? To help overcome the guilt that can arise when saying no, Danielle further employs the “Oreo method” when declining an invitation. She recommends sandwiching the “negative” aspect—saying no—between two positives, such as thanking the person for the invitation and asking the inviter to please consider her for future opportunities.


Although challenging, it is possible to conserve energy during the holiday chaos while still managing our professional and social obligations. Cindy was impressed by the deft strategy employed by one of her coaching clients. This attorney instructs his secretary to respectfully decline all holiday party invitations and simultaneously schedule a one-on-one lunch with the inviter in January. We applaud this brilliant means to achieve balanced work-life integration while honoring self-care!


Just Breathe


Developing awareness of our stress triggers and responses is a necessary first step to effective stress management. Indeed, spending time with family can often cause physical and emotional stress and may even activate unresolved past trauma in our bodies and minds. Conversely, many struggle with loneliness during this time of year. Whether you are by yourself or inundated with family members, remember that your breath is always here as a supportive ally!


During challenging moments, take long, slow, deep breaths, focusing on making your exhale longer than your inhale, which is a fast, simple way to immediately induce a sense of calm, relaxation, and mental clarity. Make it a habit to consistently check in with what you are feeling and experiencing. Observe, without judgment, how stress may be manifesting—are you clenching your jaw, tensing your neck and shoulders, or even holding your breath? Consciously and compassionately lend your breath to any areas of tension or stress. For more simple breathwork techniques to get out of “fight or flight” quickly, visit legalburnout.com.


Focus on the Present (Moment)


Often, we can get wrapped up (pun intended) in the gift-giving aspect of the holidays, fixating on curating the “perfect” experience for our loved ones. It can be all to easy to ruminate on the past or speculate about the future, rather than being in the here and now. As the now famous saying goes, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift, which is why we call it the present.”


Accept the present moment for what it is—rather than wishing it to be different. See the beauty when things don’t go exactly according to plan. It’s precisely those moments-–like when the cookies go up in smoke (literally!)—that form our cherished memories and lead to lots of laughter. It can also be helpful to meet the present moment with gratitude, a known means to improve our mental and physical well-being. For further tips to integrate mindfulness into your everyday life and law practice, contact us today at cindy@legalburnout.com for a copy of our Mindfulness Resources Guide for Attorneys.


Moving Forward


By prioritizing mental or physical health every day of the year, any attorney will enjoy positive results such as stronger emotional balance and a better quality of life. Taking care of yourself during the holiday season is especially important in light of the unique stresses we all face during this joyful yet demanding time of the year. We recommend that you carve out time in the midst of the celebratory chaos to consider whether you are experiencing some of the symptoms exhibited by Cheryl and to implement some or all of the suggestions outlined above.


Join us in our next column, where we will focus on how legal professionals can cultivate self-compassion and why it is important.

 

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. Check out The Legal Mindset Corner, a podcast dedicated to tackling the unique challenges of the legal profession.


[1] Cheryl is a composite character, representing holiday narratives shared with us by several attorneys.


Originally published in ABA GPSolo eReport, Dec. 2023 Issue (Vol. 13, No. 5) 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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