As attorneys, it is easy for us to continually focus on the negative. Constantly stressing over money lost, clients missed, or time wasted. Wondering when or if the phone is going to ring again or if the partners have decided to “go in another direction.”
Times are tough and strange right now, and the future still feels very uncertain. As we are quickly approaching the one year mark on the Supreme Court of Virginia’s very first Judicial Emergency declaration because of COVID-19, it is still difficult to say when things will go back to normal. It is even more difficult to know what normal will even look like.
All of these factors can lead to increased stress and anxiety in an already stressful profession. Separating and understanding these two psychological events can go a long way in helping deal with each of them. Stress, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is a natural response to external and everyday pressures. The loss of a job, a fight with a loved one, or having to work overtime can all cause stress.
Anxiety is the fear of things that might happen, and it can manifest itself in some debilitating ways. By the nature of the legal profession, we are required to be ready for a multitude of different scenarios. This requires us, unfortunately, to consider all types of negative outcomes possibly leading to all sorts of anxiety. Thinking about all of those different outcomes and having to prepare for each can cause a constant feeling of being underprepared. That, in turn, leads to more feelings of anxiety and a never ending cycle of “what-if” scenarios. Most often, the event that we are so anxious about never happens, leaving us filled with unnecessary knots in our stomachs and lumps in our throats. Out of those imagined scenarios, great and terrible alike, only one outcome will actually occur. This constant feeling of nervousness over imagined events is not healthy for us. It’s impossible to know what each day brings and impossible to plan for all the challenges that we will face.
I encourage you to take part in a two-day exercise to prove to yourself just how meaningless all that anxiety is. Write down the things that you are anxious about that may happen on the following day. Then, at the end of the next day, look back and write down all the problems that you actually did encounter.
If your outcome is anything like mine, then this should prove to you two things. First, the problems that you are initially anxious about rarely come to pass, and all that anxiety could have been avoided. We don’t know what each day brings or what our fate may be. Allow that knowledge to be a comfort instead of a burden. Second, you were able to handle the problems that you did encounter even without a day’s worth of premonition. Maybe they were problems that you’ve encountered before, problems that you were able to solve the very first time or with a solution that you stumbled upon. No matter the outcome, you still made it out the other side without the unnecessary angst.
Dealing with stress is something that all lawyers will have to endure, probably more so than in most other professions. Remember that stress is perfectly natural and caused by external factors, things that we have no control over. That can be solved by simply eliminating or managing whatever external factor is causing the stress. Reducing stress can be solved by manipulating the environment around us. Anxiety, on the other hand, is not caused by external factors and therefore can’t be managed in the same way. Since it’s originating in your own mind, it has to be dealt with there as well. If you catch yourself becoming anxious about a topic, either do something about it to attempt to eliminate the anxiety—prepare for that case, make one more phone call, read another textbook—or eliminate the thought all together. Ultimately, it does nothing to help you.
About the Author
James “Rob” Elliott is a general practice attorney from Yorktown, Virginia. He is the Owner and Managing Attorney for the Law Office of James R. Elliott.