Do you feel like you’re more anxious and stressed out than your friends in other professions? If you’re a lawyer, you’re probably right. It’s not your imagination: A recent study found that almost more than 1/4 of lawyers suffer from anxiety and/or depression. That’s more than double the rate in other similar-level professional cohorts, where the rate of similar symptoms is closer to 11 percent.
This isn’t news, exactly. Lawyers have long known that lawyers are more prone to mental health challenges – and alcohol abuse – than other similar-level professions. There are lots of theories about why – including the fact that lawyers deal with many of the most difficult and unhappy things that can happen to people. Divorce, addiction, crimes, bankruptcy, malpractice, accidents – a lawyer’s docket can be a litany of misfortune.
The PTSD that comes from being a lawyer probably comes into play. But I think there’s another reason that lawyers are so anxious: The way that our brains are trained to think. In law school you’re taught to think about the worst possible outcome all the time. It makes sense in that context; for instance, if you’re drafting a contract you want to be sure you cover all eventualities.
The problem is that once you train your brain to think that way, it just starts doing it on auto-pilot. This is what I call catastrophizing – your brain is constantly scanning for potential catastrophes. Not just at work, but all the time: in the grocery line, when you have a fight with a spouse, when there’s a weather event, when you get a phone call late at night. There are endless disasters to imagine.
And every time your brain imagines a catastrophe, your system gets a jolt of stress hormones that start coursing through your system, creating wear and tear on your body and making you more sensitive to the next burst of anxiety and less equipped to cope with it. When you don’t realize what’s happening it can start to seem like you’re just constantly anxious and you’re not even sure why; in fact what often surprises me the most about my clients is the level of anxiety that they take for granted as totally normal and don’t even recognize as anxiety. Given what I see in my coaching practice, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that if you subjected non-lawyers to the thought process of the average lawyer, it would be more like 95% of them who would report anxiety in a study like the one that prompted this blog post.
So let me be really clear: If you find you are often thinking about all the possible negative outcomes that could arise, and you feel unsettled, agitated, or nervous when you think about them, that is anxiety.
Not surprisingly, women lawyers were more likely to report anxiety than their male counterparts. This may be for a number of reasons: first, men are socialized to be less open about their feelings than women are. But it’s also true that women are socialized to take on more emotional responsibility for the feelings and moods of those around them and to feel responsible for other people’s satisfaction, whether personal or professional. When you combine that socialization with a demanding job that often entails high-pressure work environments and challenging professional relationships, it’s no wonder that so many women in the law feel anxious much of the time.
The good news is that you learned how to think this way, and you can unlearn it too. Therapy, meditation, and cognitive coaching are all ways to learn to recognize anxiety when it happens, trace it back to the thoughts that cause it, and practice releasing those thoughts or thinking new thoughts instead. Constant or even frequent anxiety isn’t a normal state of being and it doesn’t have to be your reality.
P.S. Interested in learning more about how cognitive life coaching can help you tame your anxious lawyer brain? Click here to schedule a free discovery session and we’ll talk about what coaching can do for you and your brain.