Clearly we lawyers are stressed and clearly some of us are coping with our stress in very unhealthy ways. These unhealthy coping mechanisms are leading to more profound errors in judgment resulting in disbarment, jail, and even death (whether by suicide or general unhealthy life choices).
The ABA Journal’s March 1 article, “Lawyers who self-medicate to deal with stress sometimes steal from those they vowed to protect” reflects some staggering statistics. Approximately 18% of lawyers with less than 20 years’ in practice experience drinking problems (the average for the general population is about 10%) and that figure is approximately 25% for lawyers practicing 20 years or more.
That is the bad news. The good news is there is a healthy, simple alternative to destructive self-medicating (whether it is with alcohol, drugs, gambling, over eating, or other destructive choices). The first step is to address the stress. I have discussed in prior blogs that we can reduce stress by taking a breath and seeing the current situation more clearly, and not as it may be imagined in our minds. The second step is to retrain our brains and develop “emotional intelligence.”
Chade-Meng Tan in his book, Search Inside Yourself, the Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace), informs us that we all can develop the ability he calls “response flexibility,” which as Meng puts it “is a fancy name for the ability to pause before you act.” With increased response flexibility when confronted with a strong emotional stimulus instead of reacting immediately as you normally would, you pause for a split second. That pause allows you to choose how you act. Meng quotes Viktor Frankel to explain: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” We are able to increase that space between stimulus and response by having a mind that is calm and clear. And with that added space, we can stop reacting and start acting in a way that is more deliberate (and healthier).
How do we increase this space between stimulus and response? It starts by taking a breath, or two, or ten. Then we must practice; practice paying attention to the present moment, and when our mind wanders, which it will, gently bringing it back, without judgment. Just like strengthening your muscles at the gym, it takes practice to retrain our brains. However, with practice comes the ability to increase our response flexibility, which in turn will help us make better coping choices.