Lawyer Mental Health & Substance Abuse

You’re reading this because you’re an attorney and you’re freaking out. You’re not alone. No joke. We’re all in different stages of freak-out right now and we want to help. 

First, take a breath. A real one. Inhale seven seconds. Hold it for three. Exhale eight seconds. Do it again. And then do it again.

At Lawyerist, we’ve always known mental health needs to be at top of mind for attorneys. We’ve worked with mental health and substance abuse experts for years to get attorneys the tools they need to live healthy and sober.  

So let’s dig into those tools.

What if You’re New to Thinking About Your Mental Health?

We bet you know what it feels like to be anxious before a big case or to dread a problem client. But this might be the first time you’re feeling truly overwhelmed – about the world (which you can’t control), your life (which you can somewhat control) and your business (somewhere in between).

See if this sounds familiar:

  • You feel surreal. Everything feels dreamy or cinematic — is this all really happening?
  • You have tight shoulders and notice you’re holding your breath.
  • Your mind is racing, trying to make 875 plans at once.
  • You’re mainlining caffeine — or other substances.
  • You’re just plain scared. And it’s fear you’ve never felt before.

Congrats! You’re having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. In fact, this is a traumatic situation. (Listen to our podcast with trauma expert, Sherry Walling.) You probably haven’t experienced a worldwide pandemic before. You have no emotional blueprints on how to deal with this. As one of our Labsters said, it’s like every city in the world got hit by a hurricane at the same time. 

So, you’re not going crazy. You’re not losing your mind. Your brain is reacting as it should to enormously stressful circumstances. You’re OK.

But what this means is that you need to make a plan to take care of yourself. Think about it: if you aren’t taking care of yourself, you can’t take care of your clients. Or your family. It’s that old rule – put your oxygen mask on first. 

You can do this. And you will survive this. Read on. 

And What if You’re an Old Pro?

We want to sidebar with our community members who have spent their lives thinking about their mental health. You’ve dealt with depression, anxiety, ADHD, panic attacks — insert your issue here — for years. You’ve seen therapists. You’ve read books. You’ve meditated. You’ve exercised. You’ve done all the things. 

What makes you special during this particularly wrought time is that you might be having some surprising reactions. See if this sounds familiar to you:

  • You actually feel…calm. Like your brain has been preparing you for an outside crisis like this your whole life.
  • Or you feel extra ramped up. This crisis is triggering all your worst fears. 
  • You’re worried about leaning on crutches – alcohol, drugs, meds, your support group. 
  • Or you’re in Take Care mode. You’re furiously helping everyone else to avoid thinking about yourself.
  • You’re cut off from your usual coping strategies – in-person therapy, exercise, you name it.

We’re going to tell you what we told the other folks up there: this is still a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Keep repeating that. You will not go crazier. You will not get worse. You may feel like your symptoms are increasing — because they are! But you’re not going to lose your mind or be unable to take care of yourself or your family. 

You already know how to cope. It’s just a matter of reminding yourself of those strategies and pivoting them a little.

Let’s look at what those strategies are. 

7 Tips to Help You Through Your Day

Change Your Productivity

Your productivity has changed. Accept this now. As attorneys, you’ve worked through crises before – family issues, bad health, you name it – but you’ve never worked through one like this. You cannot keep the same level of productivity you’re used to.

This doesn’t mean your work will suffer. What this means is that you need to reconsider how you work. Your systems and lists are more important than ever. We’ve always believed your productivity hinges on your mental health. 

  • Reprioritize. Each day, pick three things that need to get done. Now isn’t the time for your Would Be Nice list. Put out the fires first and put your limited energy towards the most important tasks.
  • Plan for the future. But this doesn’t mean you’re living moment to moment. Spend some time sketching out possible futures. (And don’t freak yourself out in the meantime.) What happens if this world stays this way 6 months from now? 1 year? 2 years? Write down steps you need to take to insure your future.
  • Schedule breaks. We’ve always told you this, but now we’re really telling you: Schedule breaks. Every day. Your brain isn’t functioning the same. You need several, restorative breaks on the calendar every single day to get away from work, reset, and clear your head.

Seriously, Get Outside

Outside is liquid gold right now. You might’ve been an outdoors person before this hit or maybe you were your family’s resident vampire. Regardless, outside is an elixir. It’s going to restore you in a way you didn’t know was possible.

  • Take it easy. Even if you’re a marathon runner, use your outside time for restoration — not breaking records. Take a slow, meditative walk in the sunshine. Stay away from crowded areas. Listen to music you love. Clear your head.
  • Learn birds. OK, hear us out: you will find incredible comfort knowing the birds are business as usual. They’re oblivious to our chaos. Learn a couple of your neighborhood birds and make a game out of finding them.
  • Plant. You don’t need a yard for this. Get some seeds and start planting. Start with the easy stuff – easy-to-grow flowers, lettuce, root vegetables. Seeding and seeing your labor grow is magic.

Schedule Quiet Time

This is where a lot of lists will recommend meditation and we do recommend meditation. Even people who think they can’t possibly sit still for more than a few minutes should try it. But above all, schedule quiet time alone. With spouses and kids at home and clients calling, this may feel impossible. But even a few minutes will help you.

  • Put your quiet time on the calendar. In an ideal world, an hour would be perfect. But we know that’s not always possible. Regardless of how long, schedule this time on your calendar and let your family know. And then go to a quiet place — even if it’s the bathroom — and sit in sweet silence. Practice gratitude.
  • Play the 5 things game. To distract your brain from ruminating during your quiet time, play 5 things. Ask yourself: What 5 things can I hear right now? What 5 blue things do I see? What 5 smells do I notice? What 5 fruits can I think of? Etc. Give your tired brain a game.
  • Stay off your phone. Put your phone down during this scheduled time. Just ignore it. There’s nothing you need to do during this time except just sit in quiet. Seriously. Everything will wait. 

Keep a Schedule

Happy brains love a routine. And your routine is upside down right now. Refocus. Take time to get your new work and home routine on paper. 

  • Make several options. On tougher mental health days, you need a tighter schedule. This might mean scheduling out every 30-minute – or 15-minute – period of your day until bedtime. Sounds extreme, but it will calm you to have tasks to review. For better days, stick to hourly.
  • Schedule your weekends. If you’re like some of us, you love your leisurely no-schedule weekend time. And you can still have that time — eventually. But for now, schedule your weekends, too. This keeps your brain from spinning during unstructured time.
  • Be flexible. As attorneys, we’re a little type-A. We set a schedule and beat ourselves up if we don’t follow it. A schedule is a coping tool — it’s not set in stone. Use it to help, not punish.

Find a Hobby

We know a lot of lawyers don’t have hobbies. Your work is their hobby. You You need something — not work — that will keep your hands and brain occupied for long periods of time. This can be knitting, video games, puzzles, cooking, or crosswords. Try something that takes your full attention.

  • Use your competitive spirit. We mean, you’re a lawyer. You’re probably competitive. Use this drive (within reason!) for your hobby. Set your goals for yourself. Learn two new dishes to cook in the next month. Finish each day’s crossword. Give yourself something to work towards.
  • Learn something new. Duh, but really: whether it’s a new language, software, or the mysteries of the universe, give your brain something new to chew on. You’ll feel happier and less helpless.
  • Keep the hobby away from work. By this, we mean pick a hobby that has nothing to do with being a lawyer. Don’t take this time to learn the history of Elizabethan law. Learn how to latch hook a rug instead.

Take Advantage of Online Therapy

Whether you’re a therapy veteran or you’ve never considered therapy, now’s the time to do it. You will have shit you need to process. And you want to process it before you take it out your stress on your family, colleagues — or worse — clients. This is the time to get a neutral party on your side.

  • Get over your assumptions about therapy. If therapy is new to you, you might have some stereotypes floating around. It’s for crazy people. It makes me weak. My family can support me – I don’t need therapy. None of this is true. Therapy is for everyone and it makes you stronger.
  • Journal. To make the most of the time, brain dump on a page before a session. You’ll be able to extract your pressing issues so you can make the most of the time.
  • Don’t be afraid to therapist shop. Therapy might be hard at first and make you feel uncomfortable. But don’t stick with a therapist you’re not clicking with. They’re professionals and they’ll understand if you need to switch. 

HALT

There’s an old Alcoholics Anonymous saying: you’re most in danger of slipping when you’re too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (HALT). The same applies to mental health. Keeping an eye on these emotions is a fast way to keep yourself in check.

  • Stay connected. Hanging with friends or family is different now, but in some ways — it’s easier. If you’re lonely, send a quick text. Set up a video call so you can see a face. Reach out in the way that makes the most sense to you. But reach out.
  • Sleep. Nothing will rot your brain faster than no sleep. As attorneys, we’re used to working through the night, but now isn’t the time to prove you can do this. You’re extra stressed. Get as much rest as you can. Make it an absolute priority.
  • Schedule your meals. Remember we when said you should keep a schedule? Schedule your meals, too. Write down what you’ll eat and what time you’ll eat it. Stick to it, even if you aren’t hungry. Keep your blood sugar even.

5 Resources to Use Right Now

Here are a few resources we found helpful.

MoodPath

Tracking your daily moods is a good way to catch a decline before it starts. We love metrics here and this app does it well. MoodPath asks you questions to asses your mood three times a day, then tracks how you’re feeling.

Youper

Youper is an AI therapist. And it’s incredibly effective. In a texting format, the app conversationally asks you how you’re feeling and digs into why you’re having those feelings. It also offers meditations, breathing exercises, and gentle sleep music. 

Talkspace

Talkspace has been in the online therapy game long before this crisis began and they do it exceptionally well. Easy to use, fast to respond.

Online Zoo Cams

For your moment of zen, most zoos around the US are offering live cams. We like the San Diego Zoo cam, but your local zoo probably offers it, too. Watch the penguins. They’ll save your soul.

Suicide Hotline

Listen: you don’t have to be suicidal to talk to the suicide hotline. But if you’re feeling low, lonely, or on the edge, you should call them. You can also text. The volunteers at the hotline are kind, empathetic, and will immediately help you.

Substance Abuse and Lawyers

Mental health and substance abuse are inevitable bedfellows. One informs the other on every level. Whether you’re in recovery or curious about it, a crisis will reveal your pain points. 

Nearly 21% of attorneys are problem drinkers and almost 9% are drug users. We’re more susceptible to substance abuse than other jobs because the work is long, high pressure, and the stakes are high.

So it’s not surprising you might be struggling. We’ve talked to our community members for years about substance abuse. We’ve always believed it’s important to be transparent and truthful about the effects of use on our industry.

What if You’re Not Sure if You Have a Problem?

Most people aren’t sure. You’re not alone. There’s a media stereotype of the fall-down drunk who can’t keep a job, racks up DUIs, and ends up homeless. Maybe some of your family members or even clients fit this stereotype. 

The reality is most substance abuse doesn’t look like this. You might be killing it at your job. You probably don’t have legal troubles. You can likely drink or use the night before and get up at 6am without issue. 

But if you’ve started having a nagging thought that you might need to cut down, listen to your gut. Some addiction experts say that having the thought at all is evidence you have a problem.

But let’s look:

  • You’ve stopped using before, but you’ve never been able to stop completely.
  • You bargain with yourself. “I’ll only have three beers tonight, but then zero tomorrow.”
  • You’ve lied to your family or friends about how much you drink or use. 
  • You kind of feel like shit. Just a little bit. All the time. 
  • You feel low-level anxious all the time — and you reach for your substance to calm your nerves.

This isn’t a complete list. It’s a guideline. Substance abuse is personal to you. Your standards are yours — and your rock bottom is yours.

For example, one of our team members is an alcoholic. She excelled at work. She exercised. She never missed an appointment or woke up late. And she was only drinking 3-4x a week. Couldn’t possibly be an alcoholic, right? One day, she drank enough to pass out and missed an important phone call. She wouldn’t have missed this call had she not been drinking. 

And that was her wake up call to get help. It might be something as small as that.

We’ll walk you through some steps to figure this out.

What if You’re Already in Recovery?

We want to talk to our attorneys already in recovery. First: congratulations. We know firsthand how hard it is to reduce or stop using. This is a battle you fought and won — and it can never be taken away from you.

But this pandemic is a different battle and it’s going to trigger your cravings. How could it not? It hits so many fears: feeling out of control, helplessness, a chaotic outside world. These are the things we tried to escape by using in peaceful times.

Pay attention to these feelings.

  • Your anxiety is creeping up. You might not be thinking of using yet, but you know it’s coming.
  • Your friends and family are drinking more and using more. It’s harder to avoid triggers.
  • You’re cut off from your support: in-person meetings, your sponsor, or other coping strategies.
  • You’re starting to bargain again. “Coronavirus doesn’t count — I could use right now when things are tough and stop later.”
  • You’re (literally) dreaming about using.

Again, not a complete list, but you’re a veteran. You probably know what your relapse triggers are. The point is: You must be more vigilant than ever. This is an unprecedented time.

But you can do this.

5 Tips to Help You Reduce or Stop Using

Make Lists

Whether you’re new to considering reduction or you’ve been through treatment, making lists you can review as you go through the process is crucial. Don’t let these thoughts run off-leash in your head. You’ll just get more anxious.

  • Create a Use Matrix. Grab a sheet of paper. Make four connected boxes. Label the boxes: Advantages of Using, Disadvantages of Using, Advantages of Quitting, Disadvantages of Quitting. Then fill in the blanks. Review this list each day. 
  • Track your use. When we drink or use too much, we don’t want to track. Tracking makes it real. So you often don’t know exactly how or when you’re using. Write down each time you use or drink, what happened right before you did, and what you were feeling. If you’re sober, track each time you crave.
  • Journal, journal, journal. Substance abuse isn’t about the substance. Sure, you might genuinely love a peaty Scotch or the taste of a tart red wine — but if you’re overusing, you’re not doing it for the taste. You’re doing it because you’re having emotions and thoughts you want to suppress. Brain dump every single morning, furiously. Don’t judge yourself.

Get Support

Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t for everyone and it isn’t your only option. It can be helpful — it’s the original model and they know their stuff. If AA sounds right to you, use it. But some people shun AA because they don’t like the religious aspect or it feels cult-ish or too rah-rah. But you can’t white knuckle substance use alone.

As attorneys, we’re used to self-sufficiency. We don’t ask for help. But you’re going to break this pattern.

  • Join an online group. You can’t meet people in person right now, but there are online support groups that have been running this way for years. They have messageboard or video meetings. You’ll feel a huge sense of relief knowing you aren’t alone. 
  • Get an accountability buddy. Your family and some of your friends might not understand your journey here. That’s OK. Not everyone will — or is meant to. But you can probably think of one person who’s going through this. Maybe they made a Facebook post about quitting drinking or a passing comment in a meeting. Connect with them. Check in daily.
  • Lurk on message boards and listen to podcasts. Even if you don’t post, there are boards where people are sharing their stories. Just scrolling through other people’s recovery wins, struggles, and routines will give you inspiration for your own. (Or join a coaching group, like Lab. You’ll find plenty of our community members in your shoes.)

Take It Slow

Some experts say you need to stop your substance completely to be successful. And that might be true for some of you. This is your journey and you’ll figure it out. 

Others believe moderation is a more realistic path. You might start with slowly reducing, then realize you need to stop altogether. There are no rules here except to get healthy and stay healthy. (If you’re already sober, you’ve probably figured out your route — so let this be a reminder.)

  • Learn the difference between a relapse and slip. Once you’ve set a reduction or stopping goal, don’t punish yourself if you slip. A slip is just that — and not an excuse or a reason to devolve into a full relapse. If you decided you want to cut down your drinking two 3x a week and you do 4x this week, just get back on track. A slip is not a relapse.
  • Give yourself realistic goals. As attorneys, we set challenging goals. We’re successful because we do this. But when it comes to cutting back habits, you want to start slow. Don’t try to run 6 miles a week and stop drinking and quit eating sugar. If you’re going to reduce your substance, make that your only personal goal for a while.
  • Delay. If you want to use, set a timer for 20 minutes. Clean your kitchen, go for a walk, play a game on your phone, whatever. After the timer goes off, see if you still want to use. Then set another timer. And repeat. 

Note: If you’re a heavy drinker or user, don’t stop abruptly or by yourself. This is dangerous and you’ll end up in a bad place. Fight through your embarrassment or shame and call a treatment center to get guidance. This doesn’t mean you’re going to get forced into treatment. Counselors answer calls like this every single day and they’re there for you.

Find Replacements

Let’s be real: nothing will replace the (artificial) high of drinking or drugs. But it’s just that — artificial. It’s not real and you can’t find an exact match in real life.

But you can find close substitutes. 

  • Drink fizzy water. No joke, drinkers find themselves switching to La Croix. Sounds silly, but this seems to be the universal substitute for a cold beer or a cocktail. Buy a case or two and drink them during your usual using times — dinner, after work, whenever you’d usually treat yourself. 
  • Find your other-escape. You cannot emulate the initial relaxation and escape alcohol and drugs give you. You never will and it’s best to accept that now. And you wouldn’t want to emulate the hangover and the shame that also come with using. So, make a list of things that make you feel relaxed, connected, and most like yourself. It might be hard at first. Try more than once. 
  • Seek other friends. Not everyone is a social drinker or user, but if you are, your drinking/using buddies are an important part of your life. Here’s a hard truth: you can’t stop or reduce and hang with the people who keep using. At least, not at the beginning of your journey. So, take this time to make a list of people who don’t use. Who are the people in your life who will encourage and support your new goals?

Play the Tape Forward

Treatment counselors will tell you to scare yourself. This is different from punishing or shaming. In fact, shame is a user’s worst fuel. Shame is useless in this situation. 

But you do want to understand what the future looks like if you keep using at the same pace. Or, if you’re sober, what the future looks like if you relapse. 

  • Write out your possible paths. If you’re at the point where you’re worried about your use, imagine what your future looks like if you don’t quit or reduce. If you don’t take the right steps, you’ll need more and more of your substance to feel good. So, grab a notebook, and write down what 6 months, a year, 2 years look like for your career, your family, your health. 
  • Figure out your status quo. But not every future is cinematically bad. What happens if you keep using as you are now? What does life look like? What goals won’t you achieve? How will you feel? How will your family feel? Your colleagues? Your clients?
  • Sketch a happy future. No one knows the future. But your previous future plans might look different now. You cannot control coronavirus or your government. But you can control your day-to-day future. What’s your happiest future look like now, in our new virus reality? How does your use fit in?

5 Resources to Look Into Today

Here are a few resources we found helpful.

The Naked Mind

Annie Grace has two books, a podcast, and resources on cutting down drinking. You can sign up for her 30-day program (for free) right now. Also, check out this interview we hosted with Annie

SMART Online Recovery

SMART has been hosting online meetings through message boards, chat, and video for years. They’re a warm, agnostic, abstinence-based support group for all addictions. 

Reddit Recovery Groups

Reddit has a reputation for being a strange place to hang out, but it’s wonderful for finding a variety of recovery groups. There’s a ton out there — and you don’t have to post. You can scroll through for advice, empathy, and support. 

ABA: Lawyers Helping Lawyers

The ABA is committed to removing the stigma around substance use. They’ve put together a commission providing confidential support. 

The Library

Now is the time to get familiar with checking out e-books from your library. In fact, there’s an app called Libby that makes this easy. Treat your commitment to reducing or stopping your use like you’re taking a college course. Read, read, read. 

Stay Sane and Keep Your Law Firm Afloat

While you’re thinking about your mental health and substance use, you’re probably also wondering how you can keep your firm afloat during this crisis. You’re not alone — almost all of our attorneys are feeling the same crunch. We’ve put together a 30-day program called Pivot to help you stay sane as you switch to remote, get your finances recession-ready, and help your struggling clients. Learn more here.

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