Balancing the Bar

Happiness and the Practice of Law

Understanding Unchecked Stress

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I think most lawyers are unaware of what long-term damage which occurs to the body when we have too much unchecked stress.   One of my favorite books on the issue is Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky.  It is a great book about the biology of stress.  I can’t help but think about all the lawyers I know who exhibit these stress effects.  From the irritable moods, the stomach ailments, high blood pressure and substance abuse.  At a certain point, you need to inquire about whether the stress is worth it.  Can you sustain a long career of 16 to 18 hour days without doing long-term damages to your body and your mind?  The thing is that our body is not meant to endure long-term stress.  We are not biologically inclined to do so.

The fight or flight system which was triggered in cavemen when being chased by a tiger in the wild is meant to be shut off when the threat disappears.  Now, however,  our modern-day threats are mostly mental in nature.  The brain, however, cannot distinguish between the mental and physical threats.

The barrage of  mental threats a lawyer faces fuels a release of chemicals (hormones) in their blood.  From your brain, to your heart, to your stomach every body function goes through a shift.  We have all been there before. You get upsetting news, a nasty email or a disagreement occurs.  You are faced with the choice to fight about the issue or let it go.  Either way your body tenses, your heart starts pumping, your stomach churns and before you know it you are reacting.  Your fingers go like crazy as you type, your voices raises an octave as you speak  or your head begins to spin as you process what you have heard or seen.  This is not a problem if you have this happen occasionally.  But, when you spend 8 hours a day all week fighting, responding and or in combat with adversary attorneys your response system doesn’t shut off.

In addition to the actually biology of stress and the consequences of long-term exposure (heart disease, diabetes, immune system malfunctions), the book discusses the organizational system of the primate tribes and the effect the structure on its members.  Primate tribes are normally organized in a male hierarchy.  However, in one tribe the males were mostly wiped out and a reorganization occurred female primates took over.  The female organized tribe had less stress that the monkeys in the hierarchical tribe.

Why is the organization of primate tribes of interest to lawyers?  Perhaps, because law firms use a hierarchical structure and are dominated by men.  More male organization equals more stress.  Female organization is less stressful.  Law firms have been historically been organized as hierarchies as few if any women became attorneys 40 or 50 years ago.  Yet, this structure is inherently stressful as people are often times fighting to gain or maintain their hold as the best performer or managing partner.  Women often times but up against the hierarchy and have difficulty with the structure and hence, there is much being written about how women can “fit” into the industry.

There is a lot to consider in this book.  If you want to know why you feel the way you do after a big trial you should read this book.  Your body does not know what to do after extended periods of stress.  Seems that we become used to it and then when the stress disappears our bodies can’t adjust.  This can effect our immune system, our cardiovascular system, our nervous system and gastrointestinal system.   So, you tend  to get sick after an intense amount of stress.    For example, that cold you come down with after working on a big case or that stomach pain you have.

So, what is our profession supposed to do?   We can lower the dial on the way we treat one another both as adversaries and as partners.  We can set up office structures which build a consensus and don’t thrive on a hierarchy.  We can take time out of the office to relax and enjoy our lives.  We can do all these things, but we need to own our deficiencies as an industry first.

In order for the legal industry to meet the needs of its members there must be some evolution of thought and practice.  For many, change is not easy after all it has “always been this way”.   The point is change is inevitable and a part of life.  Looking at things from a different perspective does not hurt you and can actually help and more importantly it can make those around you less prone to stress and illness.


Author: Tabitha M. Hochscheid

Attorney since 1995, interested in Attorney Health and Well Being and related issues for lawyers and the general population. Developer and Committee Chair of the Cincinnati Bar Association Health and Well Being Committee.

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