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After the Bar

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How Lawyers Can Manage Stress and Cortisol Levels


  • Work-related stress is a prevalent issue in the legal profession, contributing to health problems like addiction, depression, and obesity.
  • Cortisol, a stress hormone, plays a crucial role, releasing during both rational and irrational stress responses.
  • Managing stress is vital for maintaining lawyers' overall well-being despite the inherent stressors of their profession.
How Lawyers Can Manage Stress and Cortisol Levels
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I have published many articles about stress and wellness for lawyers. It is quite the popular topic because of the fact that stress is one of the legal profession’s worst hazards. Lawyers have a disproportionately high percentage of addiction and depression.

According to a study released at the 2016 ABA Midyear Meeting, more than 20 percent of lawyers have struggled with substance abuse or mental health problems. And stress can lead to weight gain and even obesity—in fact, more than 40 percent of the general population, including lawyers, were classified as obese, according to 2017-18 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So why is work-related stress so unhealthy?

Causes of Stress

Stress-related health problems likely stem from the hormone known as cortisol. Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands into the body in response to fear or stress. It is a major chemical component of what is known as “fight or flight” syndrome.

There are two kinds of stress that trigger cortisol: rational stress and irrational stress. Rational stress is the appropriate response to a threat, while irrational stress is the inappropriate chronic response to a perceived threat.

For example, the adrenaline rush in which a mother can turn over a car that rolled over her child is helpful. The chronic stress from pressures related to job performance, results, and long work hours are unhealthy. When the release of cortisol is followed by intense physical activity, the cortisol is dissipated; chronic stress without a release will lead to the buildup of cortisol in your system.

Symptoms of Stress

If you have any of the following symptoms, your system may be overloaded with cortisol:

  • Weight gain and obesity
  • Stretch marks
  • Slow healing of infections
  • Bruising
  • Acne
  • Headaches
  • Severe fatigue and weakness
  • Depression, anxiety, and irritability
  • High blood pressure
  • Digestive issues
  • Mood swings
  • Sleep disorders

Weight gain is a function of elevated cortisol because it creates the desire for sugar and triggers an increased appetite to fuel your body’s defensive physical reactions. If we don’t release the stress, we will probably gain weight, elevate blood pressure, experience anger, and get sick—all because of cortisol.

Stress and cortisol may begin reaching unhealthy levels starting in law school. The pressure of making good grades, passing the bar exam, and making a living practicing law can severely affect lawyers.

It is hard to predict when the effects of chronic stress and cortisol will impair our lives, but it is safe to say, the longer we suffer from chronic stress and high levels of cortisol, the worse the symptoms will become.

How to Reduce Stress

There are ways to reduce cortisol in our systems, based primarily on reducing the stress of perceived threats. Understanding the role of unresolved stress as the culprit goes a long way toward relieving it.

Intense Physical Activity

The reason our bodies produce cortisol is to enable us to have intense physical activity. If we don’t engage in intense physical activity, we will pay the price. Any activity that raises our heartbeat will do. The intensity of the physical activity depends on how much stress you are suffering. Higher levels of stress require higher levels of physical activity to lower cortisol levels. Sometimes all it takes is a walk in nature.

Polyvagal Techniques

These are stretches combining eye movements to activate the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve is activated, the stress in the body is released. Find out more about these techniques in my recent article.

Reduce Sugar Consumption

This includes high fructose and glucose foods, not just foods with refined white sugar. While a discussion of sugar’s impact on the body is a subject for another article, suffice it to say that high levels of glucose are just as bad as high levels of cortisol.


Watch a funny movie, a comedian, or a TV show. Laughter and a sense of humor turn off the fight or flight response that creates cortisol.

Consider Supplementation

Ask your medical care provider about natural supplements that can help reduce stress. Ashwagandha, chamomile, and passionflower are all reported to help with stress.

Understanding what happens medically when we don’t manage our stress is key to understanding why we feel so rotten and unhealthy. Knowledge is the first step in recovery. When we understand that the overproduction of cortisol may be a simple answer for numerous symptoms we may be experiencing, our health issues may not be so overwhelming.

It is not the practice of law that is unhealthy; it is how we respond to the day-to-day stressors that are inherent in the profession that makes the difference.

This is an edited and abridged version of an article that was originally published on the ABA Journal website on April 22, 2020. 

Lawyer Assistance Programs provide confidential services and support to judges, lawyers and law students who are facing substance use disorders or mental health issues. If you or someone you know is in need of assistance, contact your state or local LAP.