Sit up straight and release your shoulders from your ears. Unclench your jaw and remove your tongue from the roof of your mouth. Wiggle your fingers and toes. Now take a deep breath—fill up your belly in through your nose and slowly exhale out through your mouth. Do you feel better?
That feeling is a release of stress; an emotion lawyers experience as if it is part of the job description. All of us feel it: your supervisors, your managing partners, your paralegals. New lawyers, fresh to their practice and to the legal profession’s demands and delicacies, eager to learn and to prove themselves, to start their career off on the right path, certainly feel stress too. Now, right out the gate, you have been slapped with some severe unpredictability, removed from your mentors, routines, and loved ones, and expected to adapt. We are stressed just thinking about it.
Without addressing this stress, our mental health and cognitive abilities (i.e., our capability to reason, problem solve, plan, and think abstractly) can suffer. In many cases, unaddressed stress can lead to depression. It is almost standard in our practice: TIME Magazine reports that, in 2019, members of our profession suffered from depression at quadruple the rate of the general population. According to recent studies, more than 60 percent of attorneys report suffering from the disease at some point in their careers. Yet, up to two-thirds of all depression cases are undiagnosed and remain untreated. Allowing a stigma or lack of information to discourage you from taking care of yourself will hinder your health and your career. We can agree you are worth the investment but acknowledge it can be challenging to know where to start. Here’s what research recommends.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (changing negative thought patterns and finding ways to approach specific problems) and behavioral-activation therapy (helping identify activities that add meaning to our lives and encouraging us to act without waiting for our mood to lift) have been shown to be as effective as medication in treating depression. Check out online therapy (see TalkSpace or BetterHelp) and start while you have space to try it. Tip: You may not hit it off with your first therapist. You are looking for a bond, someone you trust, and who will challenge you. If you don’t vibe, keep looking!
Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present: aware of where we are and what we are doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us. Think of mindfulness as strengthening your boundaries: it gives the control back to you—even during a pandemic. Try practicing mindfulness, starting with a few minutes per day. Tip: Check out www.mindful.org for steps to begin your mindfulness practice and our favorite meditation apps: Aura, Calm, and Headspace.
Despite what the supervisors in your office might say, lack of sleep is not a measure of your tenacity. Sufficient sleep helps improve your ability to manage your stress and cognitive performance. Some studies have even shown sleep to be more effective in improving depression than many anti-depressant drugs. Tip: If you struggle to fall or stay asleep, try any of our favorite apps (see Portal, Sleep Cycle, Relax Melodies). Avoid blue light an hour before bed, and keep your space cold and dark. And watch your evening diet—food can have a strange effect on our sleep (anyone heard of “meat sweats”?).
Taking steps to become intentional about your mental health signals an investment in yourself and your career. During this season of unplanned challenges, we encourage and support you in making your mental and physical health a priority. You are worth the investment!
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.