The stress that lawyers feel takes its toll. We are still designed to be hunter-gatherers and the stress from having motion papers due or 20 e-mails to answer sets off the same fight or flight reaction as seeing a saber-toothed tiger or cave bear used to. Our blood pressure rises, our heart rate increases, we release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, and our blood sugar level goes up to have extra energy available. For our cavemen ancestors, the outcome was quick. They would either fight the tiger or run from it, and if they escaped the threat, the stress would be released and their bodies would calm down.
Now, now for us, even though the fight or flight mechanism kicks in, it is not released by fighting or running. We sit and write the brief or answer the e-mails and then move on to the next pressing matter. The perceived threat never ends. The stress builds up and we become anxious, irritable, and depressed. We can develop high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as diabetes from high blood sugar. Our body craves calories to keep its energy level up so we turn to calorie dense junk food which can lead to our becoming obese. Obesity presents its own health problems such as heart disease, certain types of cancer, and even arthritis.
The nature of lawyers’ work adds to the health problems caused by stress. Hunter gatherers got exercise by walking around all day hunting and gathering. Lawyers sit all day typing on the computer, talking on the phone, and attending meetings. Unfortunately, research has shown that people who sit for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity have a risk of dying similar to the risks posed by obesity and smoking. Sitting too much itself also causes heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
To make matters worse, most lawyers are probably dehydrated. Sitting in a heated or air conditioned office can cause dehydration well in excess of 1.5% as we lose water while our lungs moisten the dry air we breathe. Severe dehydration can lead to effects such as muscle weakness, cramping, lowered blood volume, higher blood pressure, and decreased mental function. Even a 1.5% water loss leads to fatigue, difficulty concentrating, headaches, and impaired memory, none of which is good if you are marking up a merger agreement.
On top of that, most lawyers probably do not get enough sleep. Studies have shown that people who do not get between seven and nine hours sleep a night have a higher risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Not getting enough sleep also impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving and causes anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
Many lawyers succumb to this stress by turning to drugs or alcohol or worse to cope. According to a 2017 survey by an ABA working group, 21% of lawyers reported problematic alcohol use. 28% reported depression. A survey by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that the suicide rate for lawyers is 1.33 times the norm, higher than for the military or veterans. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for lawyers after the stress related diseases cancer and heart disease. The top three causes of death for lawyers can be attributed to stress. It seems like everything lawyers do leads to high blood pressure.
Yet I found a better way to deal with the stress which has enabled me to be a happy, healthy, and successful lawyer: exercise. I made regular exercise a priority along with my legal career and supported it with proper hydration, nutrition, and sleep. Exercise reverses the effects of the fight or flight reflex. Lifting weights or going for a run after drafting a contract or brief acts as a substitute for an encounter with a sabre toothed tiger. Afterwards, your blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar will be lower. Exercise will also cause your brain to produce endorphins, which are chemically similar to opiates and stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers, so you will feel happier and less anxious. You will be less stressed.
I am not unique or have superhuman powers. If I can do it, you can too. Let me show you the way.
Robert Herbst Appointed Chair of State Bar Physical Well-Being Working Group
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