Oklahoma Bar Journal

Stress and Substance Use - How Are You Coping?

By Deanna L. Harris

If you are alive, you are encountering stress. It is an inevitable part of being. It is our perception of an event that dictates how we will respond physically, mentally and emotionally.

One person may be invigorated by the idea of public speaking while another person is paralyzed by the thought. How our minds interpret the situation will dictate how our body reacts. If the situation is perceived as a threat, the body automatically shifts into a survival mode — fight, flight or freeze. This can be useful in situations that require a physical response, like running from a sabretooth. However, in today’s society the threats are more often in our mind.

In modern times, this stress response is happening multiple times throughout the day at home, work, school or even in traffic. Getting up to the alarm, getting kids ready for school, returning emails and voicemails, meeting with clients, writing briefs, long hours, listening to angry clients, caring for aging parents; it all has an effect. This leaves one with feelings of needing to decompress, relax, disconnect, chill out or escape.


Many choose to do that by having a drink or using other substances. This type of coping may have started in college or law school. To prep for a big exam, you took something to help you stay up and pull an all-nighter. After the big exam you met up with classmates to blow off steam and celebrate or commiserate over drinks. As your law career started, the need to entertain clients and network with other professionals found you having drinks more often.

Soon, between the demands of your career and family life, you may have found yourself in a state of chronic stress, using alcohol or other substances in order to cope. The danger in this manner of coping is the risk of developing an addiction.

Many studies have linked stress to addiction; in fact chronic stress is a well-known substance abuse risk factor. In addition to that, a recently released study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs reports 21 percent of employed lawyers qualify as problem drinkers; for lawyers under age 30, it’s 31.9 percent. Participants in the study also answered questions about their use of licit and illicit drugs, including sedatives, marijuana, stimulants and opioids: Seventy-four percent of those who used stimulants took them weekly.

All of this is to say, take a look around and evaluate how you cope with stress. What path are you on? Could you benefit from changes in how you cope? If so, start with small manageable changes that might include:

  • Paying attention to negative internal messages or self-talk, that’s where most stress originates. Being logical, using reason and analyzing information is what lawyers do. While this is great for the client, it can leave you so disconnected from what is going on inside, you are unaware of the negative stream of thoughts scrolling through your head.
  • Cultivate your social/support network. Find colleagues and friends that are supportive and distance yourself from the ones that seem to add to your stress. Having a truly supportive network can make all the difference when managing stress and making changes.
  • Get a hobby. Having a healthy outlet away from work can give you the mental and physical break needed to disconnect and recharge.
  • Call Lawyers Helping Lawyers at 800-364-7886 and request peer support with one of the committee members or take advantage of the six free counseling sessions to set some goals, get guidance or discuss concerns.

In conclusion, the demands of practicing law can become extremely stressful on a lawyer. Too often this stress can lead to substance abuse and other problems that affect a lawyer’s professional and personal life. Follow these tips to recognize the stress in your life and learn to deal with it in a manner that is both healthy and productive.

Deanna Harris is a licensed clinical social worker and certified employee assistance professional. She is the executive director of Employee Assistance Services at One Life EAP in Oklahoma City. She has served as the contracted coordinator of services for the OBA’s Lawyers Helping Lawyers Assistance Program for the past three years.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 88 pg. 435 (March 11, 2017)