Tools to Cope With Stress and Conflict 10/23/14 10/23/14 11:52:17 AM
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Tools to Cope With Stress and Conflict
By Jack Martin
The Daily Record
“Sorry I took so long in returning your call,” the Omaha attorney said. “But I’ve got seven cases coming up in court next week and I’m really under the gun.”
A heavy workload is often cited, along with other factors, for the continuing – and perhaps growing – problem of stress that affects attorneys, leading many to develop anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. Some try to cope by abusing alcohol or drugs. The most extreme cases end in suicide.
But help is available, and various helpful measures were described at a recent program organized by the Creighton University School of Law called “Healthy Lawyering: Tips for Dealing with Stress and Conflict.” More than 120 people attended.
“The nature of the practice of law is an adversarial process,” said Carol Knoepfler, J.D., an assistant professor of law at Creighton and one of the program organizers. “Most professions don’t have that, and it can make it hard to be a lawyer sometimes.”
The sources of stress appear early, professional counselor Martha Burkett wrote in the Michigan Bar Association Journal:
“Law students are taught that the professional world they are about to enter is dog-eat-dog, due in part to the growing number of attorneys.
“[In practice] many lawyers are faced with the phenomenon of psychic battering … which results from situations in which attorneys are subjected, vicariously, to traumatic events such as divorce, custody battles, even the recounting of rapes, assaults and murders in their clients’ lives.”
Even if an attorney can maintain a professional detachment, over time, “It is inevitable that one will suffer some damage to the psyche.”
Dr. Michael Kavan, Ph.D., one of the Creighton program speakers, said, “It’s estimated that 25 percent of lawyers suffer from depression, compared with seven percent of the general population.
“The rate of substance abuse and dependency – primarily involving alcohol – among lawyers is about 20 percent; in the general population, it’s about seven percent,” added Dr. Kavan, a professor of Family Medicine and associate dean in the School of Medicine at Creighton.
What are some of the red flags lawyers need to watch for in regard to stress and anxiety, depression, burnout or excessive drinking?
“For stress and anxiety, symptoms may include feelings of nervousness, sleep problems, or difficulties with concentration. For depression, symptoms include fatigue, loss of interest, and low mood. Relatedly, for burnout, a person may feel emotionally drained, a lack of accomplishment, or develop cynical attitudes toward others,” Dr. Kavan said. As for alcohol abuse, he said, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism offers these guidelines: “For men, abusive or high-risk drinking entails having more than 14 drinks a week, or more than four drinks two or more times a week. For women, it’s more than seven drinks a week, or more than three drinks on two or more occasions.”
If an individual spots danger signals, what can he or she do?
“First, look at your lifestyle,” Dr. Kavan said. “Adequate diet and exercise are crucial. In fact, exercise is the best treatment for stress and depression. Walking, jogging, bicycling, all are very helpful. Just 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, daily if possible but at least a few times a week, is likely sufficient.”
Aside from physical benefits, exercise has an effect on brain chemistry, he said: “When people are active, they feel better about themselves, and these cognitive behavior changes can help to combat inappropriate attitudes, such as pessimism.”
In coping with stress, it’s also important to seek social support from family and friends, he said.
“And practice good time management. I know that for lawyers a big concern is increasing billable hours – but you must make time for yourself, too.”
Another mechanism for dealing with stress was described by Dr. Rebecka Tompkins, Psy.D., a psychologist at Creighton’s Center for Health and Counseling. The mechanism is called “Mindfulness.”
“Mindfulness is essentially a meditation practice that helps you to be much more aware of your surroundings,” she said, adding that the developer, Jon Kabat-Zinn, defined it as “ paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”
The concept, Dr. Tompkins said, has been around a long time but has become widely adopted in recent years. “A lot of Fortune 500 companies are using it; they say it helps to reduce sickness among employees and helps increase focus and productivity. It’s also catching on with lawyers, and is even being taught in some law schools.”
How would a lawyer, feeling tense, use Mindfulness?
“I would tell him or her, just sit quietly for about five minutes, and pay attention to your breathing, slow and easy breathing, and nothing else,” Dr. Tompkins said. “This occupies the brain and turns off worrisome thoughts. The phrase we use is ‘find your breath.’”
Admittedly, the simple exercise sometimes is viewed with skepticism, she said.
“Some people think it’s a little bit hokey and are hesitant to try it. But usually after trying it a couple of times the effects are so noticeable they buy into it immediately. I see this effect in my pupils. I can observe them feeling less tense and more relaxed after the exercises.”
Anyone interested in Mindfulness can find free resources online, by doing a Google search of Mindfulness or going to the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center Website at www.marc.ucla.edu.
A third speaker on the program was Rick Allan, J.D., who has been working for years to help lawyers cope with stress-related problems as director of the Nebraska Lawyers Assistance Program (NLAP), established in 1996 by the Nebraska State Bar Association.
Since its founding, NLAP “has reached out to more than 1,600 lawyers, judges and law students,” Allan said. As of mid-September this year, it had 116 cases.
“Reaching out” is an appropriate term, he said, as “it’s hard for lawyers to admit they have problems.” Consequently, others may contact NLAP with concerns about an individual.
“Sometimes, referrals come from other members of the same law firm, from family members, even from a judge worried about an attorney’s courtroom behavior,” Allan said.
NLAP contacts the individual and offers to help him or her by guiding them to professional help for depression, substance abuse or whatever. The office may be contacted through its toll-free hotline, 1-888-584-6527. All consultations are confidential.
Editor’s Note: Omaha Bar members and guests have another chance to learn some wellness techniques at the Omaha Bar Association’s November meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 19, at the Omaha Marriott in Regency, when Rebecca Vinton, president and CEO of WELLCOM, will address “Health & Wellness in the Legal Profession.” Visit www.omahabarassociation.com/events for more information.