What (Unhappy) Lawyer Isn’t Anxiety-Ridden?

I remember the exact moment that I found out that my regular intense jumble of feelings when I got stressed at work had a name. (And, I was usually stressed.) The repetitive thoughts that I couldn’t banish, even when I caught myself and said out loud, “Stop. They aren’t renting space in your brain.” The jumpiness, the lava spew of irritability that could erupt from the slightly prickly exterior. My inability to get shit done because I couldn’t focus. “Oh, so you have anxiety,” the psychiatrist said.

anxious guy burying face in hands
Anxiety is the most commonly diagnosed mental illness, ahead of depression and other mood disorders. And it often looks just like this in attorneys.

Me? Anxiety? “Huh,” I said thoughtfully. “I never thought of it like that. Pretty much every lawyer I’ve ever known is like this.”

Indeed, I suspect a lot of you who are unhappy lawyers are also anxiety-ridden lawyers. Sure, there are reasons for your anxiety, but if the anxiety doesn’t disappear when the reason is over, you may well have a problem with general anxiety disorder or some of its siblings. And if you feel like the reasons never disappear, that, too, can point to a problem with anxiety.

If you have 3 or more of these 12 typical anxiety symptoms (there are many; these are some common ones), at least consider getting formally evaluated for anxiety:

  • Obsessive Thoughts (such as Excessive worrying/problem-solving, What if . . . ?, and Arguing with yourself);
  • Feeling powerless;
  • Irritability or explosive anger;
  • Difficulty concentrating;
  • A sense of impending danger, panic, or doom;
  • Trouble sleeping/sleep disturbances;
  • Heart palpitations or hyperventilation;
  • Cold or sweaty hands; sweating generally;
  • Restlessness;
  • Fatigue;
  • Muscle tension; or
  • Personality changes, such as becoming less social.

I suspect that many lawyers have the thought symptoms of anxiety, and don’t even realize that these aren’t actually normal. After all, lawyers are basically paid worriers.

Lawyer Thoughts = Anxiety

But consider what Dave Carbonell, PhD, aka The Anxiety Coach, says about the thoughts symptom of anxiety:

People often don’t realize that thoughts can be anxiety symptoms. We so admire our intellect that we tend to think of our thoughts as always representing some powerful, truthful expression of reality. However, our brains are just as capable of producing a bunch of noisy nonsense as they are of solving a complex equation, or writing a beautiful sonata.

Our brains are organs devoted to solving problems, just like our stomachs are organs devoted to digesting food. When we direct them to solve a problem, like adding up numbers or reading a paragraph, brains generally do a good job. But there is no “off switch” to the brain. It is always looking for problems, just as our stomachs are always waiting for food. When our brains lack problems to solve, they often make some up.

I see the made-up problems symptom one whole heckuva lot in my clients. The attorney’s job, after all, is to envision all the worst-case scenarios and defend against them. But when they aren’t working, they don’t turn off that switch. They likely aren’t even aware there is a switch; they’ve been drilled that “THIS IS THE WAY IT IS.”

Except, it’s not. It’s a created world in which someone sees a problem with sunshine (I forgot sunscreen, I’m going to get cancer) and a soft breeze (all that wind is going to spread the pollen around). It’s not truth sent from above, even if you have lots of evidence. That evidence was selectively gathered with a bias toward supporting the worst-case scenario world-view.

Ratcheting Down the Monster

One proven way to combat anxiety is through mindfulness meditation. There are many podcasts and such available; check out some of these free ones at the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center. Also, many teaching hospitals offer programs in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Those of you in Boston can check out the MBSR program at the University of Massachusetts; New Yorkers, check out the Mindfulness Meditation New York Collaborative. Even if you don’t live in these areas, there’s a ton of good info and content about mindfulness mediation to get you started.

If you’re going to practice meditation on your own, I have a suggestion. In my experience, personally and with clients, sitting while practicing mindfulness meditation isn’t enough. Attorneys are so monkey-chatter-brained that focusing on the feeling in your toes isn’t enough to drown out the mental noise. Instead, find an activity that requires intense focus.

When I was an associate, I rode horses. Extremely badly. But it was glorious, because it took every ounce of concentration I had, and I simply had no bandwidth to contemplate deadlines and assholes. After riding, I was so much more relaxed and peaceful, in a way that I’m not after other types of exercise that I am less horrible at.

Meds? Maybe

Another interesting approach to controlling anxiety is to improve your gut flora. No, really. As Dr. Jane Foster, associate professor of neuroscience and behavioural science at McMaster University in Canada, explains, “There are more neurons that directly surround your GI tract than in the whole spinal cord.” (You can check out her research here.) Taking a really good probiotic might just change your life for the better. And even if it doesn’t help with anxiety, it’s not going to hurt you.

And of course, there are anxiety medications. Anxiety, like depression, is often an inherited tendency. Particularly if that’s the case, all the job-changing, mindfulness and good gut bacteria in the world may not be enough. We don’t expect insulin-dependent diabetics to produce insulin, and so we shouldn’t expect that all anxiety sufferers can correct their biochemistry without outside help. Medications can help, and it’s worth trying if you can’t seem to get things under control otherwise. Not everyone can be helped by meds, especially if their anxiety is severe. (If you haven’t read it, the editor of The Atlantic wrote an illuminating article about his life-long struggles with severe anxiety.)

Whatever you do, please don’t assume that the anxiety will depart if you depart law. It may. But anxiety, once triggered, often becomes a permanent companion that must be managed. And trust me, life is a lot better with anxiety that’s recognized and managed than with anxiety that is simply allowed to run amok.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who has negotiated a generally workable truce with her anxiety, after decades of it running her life without her knowledge or consent. If your legal career gives you the anxiety heebie-jeebies, a sample career coaching session with Jennifer can help you to explore what changes might help you find more peace. Email jalvey@jenniferalvey.com today to schedule a session.


  1. Great post. I had nearly debilitating anxiety for most of my 10+ years in big firms. Not fun, but getting it under better control has been HUGE. The difference between not sleeping and being on edge every day, and then starting to sleep at night again and feel human, is like night and day (or like being a new person).

    • MJ I’m so glad you found some strategies that helped. Sleeping is so important! It’s my very most favorite drug, followed closely by caffeine of course. And then by chocolate, which in addition to caffeine has all those wonderful mood-enhancers.

  2. Thank you! My TX Bar’s “(heavy, ironic quotes) Lawyer Assistance Program” has NOTHING that they can do to help me (even though they have a very nice, sympathetic woman who runs it, which is something like the FDA’s “organic label” program, a front to keep from looking like they’re doing ABSOLUTELY nothing).

    I’ve probably been disabled from practice for 18 months, and 6 months before that, a friend had to pay my dues! I was a family lawyer for 20 years. After my daughter left home, I was UNABLE to practice. I wouldn’t do the simplest thing. I pawned my silver and jewelry to pay my assistant, but wouldn’t calendar the return date to the pawnshop, relying on her, and not noticing that she wasn’t working either, and ended up forfeiting thousands of dollars by simply not returning to negotiate for its sale….woe is me, I know!

    Yours are the only words that have helped lift the burden from my shoulders, guilt about preferring scrubbing floors to attention to the remnants of my practice, among them. Your words have helped me focus on what I really want, really have at the back of my mind…GTF out of TEXAS!!!

    INSTEAD of contributing to NPR, I’m going to purchase some consult time with you. can you tell me how best to prepare—questions and answers/ or ? what is the format.

    thanks, Susan Durham

    Sent from my iPad


  3. […] Emotional. The emotional component is often the least within the control of most lawyers, because it is so tightly related to the culture/toxicity of a workplace and the people lawyers answer to. Even so, you can work on things that will help your life overall, such as developing more optimism, being more resilient in the face of setbacks, and living in the here and now (rather than brooding over past wrongs). A great place to start working on these is with Dr. Martin Seligman’s classic Learned Optimism, and mindfulness meditation. […]

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