“I am constantly on edge. It feels like I’m walking around with an open wound,” says the lawyer who I’ve been coaching. This is a familiar feeling to me. I’ve been there. I’ve lived through it.
The lawyer is reeling from a hearing she had several months ago where she misread the judge and made a decision on the spot not to call a witness. It turned out to be the wrong move and now she was caught in an endless thought loop. She would recall that moment, standing at the podium, panicked, trying to think of the right move as time came to a crawl. She could feel herself turning bright red, sweaty palms, tightness in the stomach, and her heart rate increasing.
She’s remembering everything said and unsaid in the courtroom, and examining every word.
“I can’t stop thinking about that moment. I should’ve put the witness on the stand.” There was no indication that had she put on the witness, that the outcome would be any different, yet, she kept referring to her decision as a “huge mistake.”
She was getting ready for another hearing in front of the same judge and she found it impossible to focus on the current case. She kept replaying the last hearing. “It’s like a broken record that I cannot stop playing!”
Anxiety is such a common condition for lawyers, yet rarely is there room to talk about the difficulties and challenges of being a lawyer. What’s worse, there’s an insidious, unstated attitude in our profession that if you experience anxiety, depression, or other stress-related challenges, it’s a character flaw.
Anxiety is painful to live with. It’s the constant fortune-telling, trying to foresee all the things that can go wrong in every situation. It’s the fear of screwing up. Trying to predict the future. It’s the feeling of never being at ease because your mind is constantly catastrophizing—on high alert.
The most important thing to remember about anxiety is that it’s perfectly normal. Everyone occasionally experiences anxiety. Jennifer Warner, LCSW, CHHC, explains it in this way:
Anxiety is a normal physiological response related to perceived threat. When we sense that we are danger, we enter “fight/flight/freeze” mode–an adaptive reaction to danger. Our bodies respond accordingly: Breathing speeds up, digestion slows down, blood pressure increases. All of these things happen to protect us and get us out of harm’s way.
In fact, some amount of anxiety may be necessary to keep us motivated. Dr. Jared Heathman, a psychiatrist and therapist, says, “Anxiety actually serves a purpose in appropriate situations and in mild amounts. It provides us with the motivation to complete tasks and achieve goals. If you didn’t worry about paying the electricity bill at all, you may not show up to work.”
Often, having anxiety before a hearing leads to more anxiety. For example, you might think about a hearing next week then notice you are having anxiety. This leads to additional negative thought loop. “I am SO ANXIOUS! What if everyone can tell that I’m anxious?”
Separate Feelings From Thoughts
One thing I learned in going through my treatment for anxiety was this—you are not your thoughts. Additionally, separating your thoughts from your feelings are also crucial. Thoughts are in the mind (‘My boss is a jerk’) and feelings are experienced in the body (‘I feel so stressed and tired’). Anxiety is a combination of feelings (body) and thoughts (mind).
Often, we want to reject our feelings while engaging in unhelpful and unproductive thought patterns. Creating space for the anxiety is helpful. You can name your experience. For example, “I am feeling fearful. I am thinking of all the terrible things that will happen if I lose.”
See if these feelings and thoughts serve some function or purpose. If so, take note of the lesson and move on. If not, gently return the mind to a physical sensation like your body breathing.
Additional Helpful Tips
1. Breathe! When people are anxious, people can either hold their breath or start breathing faster. According to Nicoletta Skoufalos, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist, one effective breathing technique is “breathing in through the nose for a count of four, holding the breath for a count of six, and then exhaling through the nose for a count of eight. Then repeat until feeling a bit calmer.”
2. Meditate. Daily meditation creates a quiet space each day where I can check in and notice how I am feeling, and practice caring for myself with compassion. Skoufalos says, “Meditation can help increase a person’s tolerance for and decrease discomfort with uncertainty and not knowing. Oftentimes people are anxious because they do not know what the future holds, be it uncertainty about health, relationships or major life changes. Meditation helps people just be aware of what they are feeling and what is happening in the present moment, without reacting or trying to change anything.”
3. Get help. My biggest regret is that I didn’t get help sooner. I think back on all those years where I suffered in silence and I feel saddened by the missed opportunities. As Stephanie J. Wong, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist, shared, “Experiencing anxiety is normal! Anxiety occurs on a spectrum, and we all experience it at some point in the day, week, month or year. When it begins to impact daily life (socially, vocationally, etc.), then speaking with a professional may be helpful. There is help out there to assist you in managing anxiety.”