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Handling Fear and Stress During a Prolonged Crisis as a Lawyer or Law Student

Handling Fear and Stress During a Prolonged Crisis as a Lawyer or Law Student

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be used in place of professional advice, treatment, or care in any way. Lawyers, law students, judges, and other legal professionals in Massachusetts can find more on scheduling a Free & Confidential appointment with a licensed clinician here.

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to affect all of us in significant ways, as nationwide unrest over racial injustice grows.

Social distancing still in effect, schools all over the map on plans for the year, courts gradually reopening, layoffs, events canceled, financial insecurity. The list goes on, without a clear end in sight.

How Are We Supposed to Cope With So Much Rapid Change in Our Lives?

Begin with an acknowledgment that it feels very unsettling to be reminded how little direct control we have over our lives — particularly over the elements of our lives that are most important to us. It is completely normal to struggle with this. In fact, I’d be concerned if you were not struggling at all with our current situation. Of course, that doesn’t make stress pleasant.

While unforeseen crises in our lives are stressful, however, they can also be opportunities. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to convince you to put on rose-colored glasses and pretend all is well. I am suggesting that however threatening our challenges are, it helps to shift our perspective when dealing with them to recognize what’s within our control — even when it seems minimal.

You are not alone, even when your circumstances seem exceptionally difficult. It may not feel like “we are all in this together,” and it can be frustrating to hear that when your circumstances are particularly tough. Nearly everyone is navigating how to adjust in some way, and there are always others who share our struggles. It helps to shift our focus away from those who have it easier than us. Simply reminding ourselves that the stressors we are handling are the same stressors that many others are feeling can be comforting.

First, to deal with the control issue, distinguish between what is within your direct control and what is not. Then direct your time and energy at the former.

Start with a personal check-in. How are you doing with this “new normal”? What are you feeling? What aspects of this change are the most challenging for you? What potential benefits do you see from spending more time at home, working remotely, having more time on your hands, having your children home from school?


Suggested Coping Strategies

1. Stick to (or Create!) Routines and Reinforce Habits

Working remotely or staying at home for extended periods can be disorienting because it disrupts routines and habits. Routines and daily habits not only keep us centered, but they also save time because we have to make fewer decisions. I don’t need to decide what I’m going to do if I have already committed to something as part of my routine. The absence of that routine now forces me to spend time and energy making more decisions. To reduce this demand on your time and energy, form new routines in your current situation. For example, even though it might not seem necessary, give yourself a schedule to follow at home just as if you were going into the office, and create a routine to unplug from your desk at the end of your workday in place of your old commute.

2. Don’t Neglect the Basics

Prioritize healthy sleep routines, diet, exercise, breaks throughout the day, and healthy boundaries with yourself and others. Social supports are crucial, so keep up your social interactions, too. Still, the basics of self-care can feel overwhelming, and that’s a critical point to start setting new boundaries, whether at work or with family and friends.

3. Seek Out Social Connections

If you are used to interacting with people effortlessly as part of your typical routine, you may not have had to consciously seek out social interactions in the past. If you are more extroverted, you might have been energized by these interactions and not even realized it. We often do not realize how important those regular social contacts are until they are gone. Even though it might feel clumsy to initiate those contacts now that your routine has changed, take the chance that your co-workers or colleagues also miss socializing and would appreciate you reaching out. Lawyers are loneliest of all professionals — find more on identifying support here.

4. Make Technology Your Friend

It’s no surprise that many organizations have suddenly started using videoconferencing programs and cloud-based project management systems to connect across disparate work locations. In addition to using more technology to complete work and enable client contact, explore how technology can offer a temporary replacement for the social connections you are suddenly missing due to the disruptions in your routines. (Keep in mind that scrolling through social media doesn’t provide actual connection, and can increase feelings of loneliness.)

5. Help Others

In situations where we feel significant stress, it is common to feel disempowered. One way to feel more confident in the face of uncertainty is to find ways of helping others. Especially if you are losing work hours or unemployed, identifying ways to help those around you can be very healthy for your self-esteem and overall mental health. Find more here on pro bono recognition and opportunities in Massachusetts here.

6. Drink More Water

It may sound a bit silly, but we all need to drink more water — and it’s surprising how much hydration can affect your mood. A common way to pass the time is to snack when you feel bored … or when you’re hungry … or when you want a break or … whenever. Drinking more water can help us stay hydrated, allow us to better distinguish our hunger from our thirst, and give us something to do when we are bored instead of snacking on carbs that we will later regret. Most importantly, hydrated brains function better and most of our brains aren’t adequately hydrated — it’s that simple.

7. Get Outside

Again, it might seem silly to put this on the list, but there is a significant benefit to going outside every day, breathing fresh air (even if it is cold and rainy), and looking at a tree for even just one minute. Plenty of research documents the benefits of spending time around trees. One study even shows that looking at a desk plant for just 3 minutes has a positive impact on our mood, memory, creativity, and productivity.

8. Harness Downtime 

Some of us are busier than ever, and others of us have more downtime than ever. Surprisingly, downtime can feel as uncomfortable as having your time overwhelmed with tasks — particularly when experiencing downtime is new and unplanned. I know I am not alone in having a long list of tasks that I intend to get to this someday but have long neglected, usually because I feel too busy with other pressing matters. If you aren’t able to use your time as productively as you would like (whether due to a lack of work, distractions at home or a wandering mind), give yourself permission to try accomplishing one of the tasks on said list. (And if it’s a big project, remember your first task is to break it down into workable parts!)

9. Resurrect Old Hobbies and Explore New Ones

Even if you don’t have time to spare, you need to create time for self-care (or risk burnout). Instead of filling your time with activities that have little to no reward, try reconnecting with hobbies that you once enjoyed. If they brought you enjoyment when you were younger, they might once again. Also, explore new hobbies, given your current situation. Hobbies that involve creating something or cultivating a new ability provide a lasting reward that reminds us that our time and energy can produce something tangible and long term.


Change for the Good: Take Advantage of What You Learn

One benefit of a drastic change to our routines is the opportunity to re-evaluate them. It’s easy for people and organizations to get into the “this is just how we do things” rut. Now that so many things have turned on their head, brainstorm about making changes that would be helpful not only in the present moment but in the future. This could be far-reaching — for example, allowing more flexible work options permanently, or moving your practice to the cloud.

Or, the changes might focus on your personal productivity and happiness. For example, right now I am experimenting with playing some upbeat instrumental music while writing this article. Normally I would be concerned about how music might affect my co-workers. Since they aren’t physically in the same workspace, I feel freer to experiment with what might be helpful to accomplish tasks.

Remember: We are in different ships, but all in this storm together. Even though the future is uncertain, we are going to figure it out together. As the pandemic, as most crises do, continues to affect Black Americans and members of other oppressed groups disproportionately, members of the legal profession need to prioritize antiracism in our daily work and lives.


Covid-19 Resources: Hub & Highlights from LCL | Mass LOMAP


   Free & Confidential Consultations:

Lawyers, law students, and judges in Massachusetts can discuss concerns with a licensed therapist, law practice advisor, or both. Find more on scheduling here.


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This post was written by Shawn Healy, PhD, has been updated and originally appeared on on March 23, 2020.

CATEGORIES: Anxiety | Career & Practice Concerns | Stress & Resilience
TAGS: covid-19 | fear

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