We often think of anxiety as feelings of nervousness, worry or even anticipation. However, an anxiety disorder is marked by excessive, intrusive, unrelenting worry and fear that dominates our thoughts and perceptions about what is happening or what could happen. It can be overwhelming and debilitating. While we all experience anxiety from time to time as a normal response to changing circumstances or certain life events, a true anxiety disorder will cause someone to experience heightened levels of anxiety in response to even small events or regular daily life. This level of anxiety causes such distress that it interferes with our ability to lead a normal life. Symptoms of anxiety can fluctuate in both severity and duration, but include some combination of the following:
- Constant worrying
- Having a sense of panic, impending danger or doom
- Uncontrollable, excessive thoughts, often repetitive or fixated on a single trigger
- Feeling powerless
- Unrealistic view of, or overreaction to, events (magnifying/catastrophizing)
- Inability to tolerate uncertainty
- Difficulty concentrating – hard to “think straight”
- Fear or confusion
- Inability to relax, feeling edgy, feeling apprehensive
- Poor memory
- Muscle tension and/or trembling
- Sleep disturbances, usually an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep
- Physical weakness
- Stomach problems
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
Everything is uncertain in the legal profession: from our client’s veracity, to how to best frame an issue, to the outcome of a motion or case, to the potential effectiveness of a legal strategy or argument… the list is endless. It is what we are paid to strategize around and navigate for clients. In law school we are taught to disconnect from emotions and personal values and to instead use logic and analysis as a way to think about and solve problems and to navigate uncertainty. Having a pessimistic view (meaning, anticipating uncertainty or obstacles in order to better plan for them) is a real strength in the profession. Worrying about what might happen in various scenarios is part and parcel to the job. It is easy to see how this mindset combined with constant stress from the daily demands of the job can manifest as anxiety. When it does, it drains our mental and emotional energy without resulting in any valuable strategies or actions. We don’t recognize or acknowledge it as anxiety, however. Rather we call it stress and accept that it comes with the job.
Anxiety can also be tightly intertwined with substance abuse and depression, making it more difficult to identify and to treat. Lawyers are at an increased risk for all three of these conditions. When it comes to substance abuse, for some of us it begins with anxiety, and we turn to substances initially to calm that anxiety. That self-medicating can then morph into an addiction to alcohol, benzodiazepines or other drugs. For others, use of substances brings on anxiety, which creates a vicious cycle that increases both conditions. As for depression, continual stress that leads to anxiety as explained in the preceding paragraph can also lead to depression. In fact, 60% of people with depression are also suffering from an anxiety disorder.
Studies show that about 40% of lawyers struggle with anxiety, which is twice the rate of the general population. There are a variety of effective treatments available to alleviate and/or manage symptoms. Because we, as lawyers, place such a high premium on confidence, competency, and invulnerability, we often interpret physical or mental illnesses as a sign of weakness, frailty or incompetence, when that is not true. This faulty belief may dissuade us from seeking treatment for anxiety. But like many of these conditions, the earlier we seek treatment, the better the outcome. If you think you are suffering from anxiety, please call or email us today.
(Anxiety can be closely correlated with obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder and phobias. The LAP can assist with any of these conditions).