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Strategies for Attorneys Managing the Additional Stress of COVID-19

By Deanna Harris and Ben F. Rogers

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Lawyers are problem solvers. Lawyers are helpers. Lawyers are supposed to have the answers and solutions to the tough life questions and guide their clients through major life events. The COVID-19 pandemic has stirred up feelings of being helpless and hopeless in the world population, and lawyers are not exempt from the effect of these difficult and uncertain times. In fact, since lawyers struggle with greater anxiety, depression and substance abuse than the general population, the volume has been turned up. Our existing issues are exacerbated.

In the state of Oklahoma, there are approximately 18,000 attorneys. According to the ABA’s statistical analysis of attorneys with substance abuse and mental health issues,1 Oklahoma has roughly 3,500 attorneys with existing substance abuse disorders and more than 5,200 attorneys suffering from depression, anxiety or other more serious mental health problems. Now more than ever, the case can be made for paying attention to mental health in the profession of law.

WHAT CAN I CONTROL?

Asking yourself this question can redirect your thoughts to the very things you can control. We don’t know what is coming next, and we want to know that whatever it is, it will be better. Uncertainty breeds fear and often as we seek out sources to reassure us the uncertainty will pass, we actually increase our uncertainty and fear. If we can learn to accept the uncertainty of any situation and especially a crisis, we will free ourselves to focus on the actions we can take that are within our control, which will lead to lower levels of anxiety.

STAY IN THE PRESENT

Pay attention to where your thoughts are – past, present or future? Lawyers are trained to plan for all of the “what if” scenarios. Paid worriers, if you will, see potential problems everywhere. This is exactly where anxiety lies, in the future and in the uncertainty. To practice staying in the present, name one thing you can smell, taste, hear, see and touch or name five objects in the room or space you occupy. Most importantly, remember to breathe deep.

LIMIT YOUR NEWS INTAKE TO 30 MINUTES ONCE OR TWICE DAILY

No one really ever knows what will happen next, but constant speculation on outcomes can increase our level of uncertainty which leads to greater fear. We learn new things every day, and we have no idea what the implications of this world health crisis may have on our lives going forward.

After the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, a study was done on people’s inability to tolerate uncertainty and what affect increased levels of that uncertainty had on their anxiety levels during that crisis.2 What the researchers found was the higher one’s level of intolerance for uncertainty, the higher one’s level of anxiety rose. They also found the public was often confused by the threat level of the virus and what information related to the disease they could trust. In part, their fears were fed by government health agencies that “often walk the line of minimizing the threat to prevent panic, but simultaneously emphasize the importance of action” to prevent an even wider worldwide pandemic. Even with their best intentions, our government and news outlets can contribute to our fears. By limiting one’s exposure to the constant speculation and mixed signals broadcast by news agencies, one can reduce anxiety levels.

MANAGE YOUR INEVITABLE ANXIETY

We are often driven to want to distract ourselves from feeling anxious. Instead, focus on noticing and accepting feelings of anxiety. When we fight against the feeling, we actually create an internal battlefield that can increase the anxiety and take us in the opposite direction of where we want to be. Accept you are feeling anxious, notice where you are feeling it in your body and give yourself a few minutes to just experience it.

STAY CONNECTED

Reaching out to family, friends and colleagues is important. Staying connected helps us debrief and get ideas from others and contributes to a sense of belonging. If you isolate, you have no idea others are experiencing the same issues and are having some of the same struggles. It can contribute to a reduction of fear and anxiety.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF

Exercise, eat healthy foods and get plenty of sleep. If you didn’t make time for this before the pandemic, it is critical to do it now. It’s hard to effectively continue to care for others when you are not caring for yourself. Put yourself on your calendar and schedule one hour a day to care for you. Watch what you are putting in your body. Booze and twinkies will not make you more effective. Get moving – get outside and walk, ride a bike or do some stretching. It doesn’t take hours a day to reap the benefits – 30 minutes three times a week will have a positive impact on overall health and mental health.

FIND A WAY TO BE HELPFUL TO OTHERS

Research has long shown practicing pro-social behavior is another way to improve our daily well-being.3 Helping others regulate their emotions actually helps us regulate our own and decreases symptoms of depression and ultimately improves our emotional well-being.4 Consider mentoring younger, less experienced attorneys through their fears by giving them hope that this situation will eventually pass. In convincing them of their possibilities going forward, it may very well help us to realize a more positive approach to our own situation.

As Admiral William McRaven reminds us in his best-selling book on leadership and the little things each of us could do to change the world,5 “At some point we will all confront a dark moment in life ... that leaves [us] wondering about [our] future. In that dark moment, reach deep inside yourself and be your very best.” The best we may be able to do for ourselves is reflected in how much we can contribute to others and their lives, especially in times like these. Attorneys never sit on the sidelines in any crisis. They always have a role in the solutions of traumatic events. This is yet another time for us to help bring some order to the chaos. It’s our role. It’s what we do.

Remember, it’s always all right to ask for help. It doesn’t take a crisis to make a phone call. Contact the Lawyers Helping Lawyers hotline 24/7 at 800-364-7886.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Free, confidential 24/7 support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for oneself and others
www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org; 800-273-TALK

ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs
Full list of resources including virtual support groups
www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance

Legal Talk Network Podcasts
www.legaltalknetwork.com

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Ms. Harris is a licensed clinical social worker in Oklahoma City. She has worked with the Lawyers Helping Lawyers Assistance Program for nine years as a clinician with the past five years helping the committee administer the program. She also manages her own private practice.

Mr. Rogers is a practicing attorney and business consultant
in Norman. He has mentored men and women struggling with substance abuse, eating disorders, gambling and depression for more than 35 years. He has been a Lawyers Helping Lawyers Committee member since 2017.


Endnotes

  1. Krill, P.R., Johnson, R., and Albert, L., “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” Journal of Addiction Medicine, 10(1), 46-52 (2016).
  2. Taha, S., Matheson, K., Cronin, T., and Anisman, H., “Intolerance of Uncertainty, Appraisals, Coping, and Anxiety: The Case of the 2009 H1N1 Pandemic,” British Journal of Health Psychology, 43(3), 592-605 (2013).
  3. Pogosyan, M. In Helping Others, You Help Yourself, The Benefits of Social Regulation of Emotion, (May 30, 2018), retrieved from journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0146167217695558.
  4. Dore, B.P., Morris, R.R., Burr, D.A., Picard, R.W., and Ochsner, K.N., “Helping Others Regulate Emotion Predicts Increased Regulation of One’s Own Emotions and Decreased Symptoms of Depression,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(5), 729-739 (2017).
  5. McRaven, W.H., Make Your Bed – The Little Things That Can Change Your Life and Maybe the World, New York, Grand Central Publishing (2017).

 

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 91 No. 5 (May 2020)