Many people who listen to this podcast or reach out to work with Sarah have the question, “Does being a lawyer give you anxiety or depression?” This podcast covers mental health and the subject of anxiety a lot, and Sarah has talked a lot about being diagnosed with generalized anxiety and a panic disorder. These mental health issues are common among lawyers, so let’s discuss that question.
There’s not really a definitive answer to this question. It’s interesting how much this concern is raised, and that fact in itself says a lot about the profession and its effect on people. It comes up in the Former Lawyer Collab program and conversations with clients at all stages of their careers. If this is something that you’re asking, you are not alone.
Anxiety is a Common Problem Among Lawyers
Many people not diagnosed with anxiety disorders have told Sarah that they never really experienced anxiety until they started working as a lawyer. They recognize the role’s effect on them, even if they don’t think they have a full-fledged, diagnosable anxiety disorder. When you hear the same things enough times, it becomes obvious that it’s not just a coincidence.
If you’re someone who is working as a lawyer and it’s created anxiety for you, it’s important that you know it’s a real experience, even if it isn’t diagnosed. You are not the only one who feels that way. It doesn’t need to be clinically diagnosable to have a negative impact on your life.
Anxiety and depression are so pervasive in the legal profession that many who suffer feel like they need to “get over it.” Even if you are not diagnosed, it’s still important that you don’t discount your feelings and experiences. Seeing a therapist is a great first step to finding relief. You might not be the best judge of what’s happening if you’ve been dealing with increased anxiety. You can only view things from your experience, but a therapist can help you see and understand the bigger picture.
Even if your experience is situational, you still deserve the mental health care you need. Don’t assume you can quickly change your environment and everything will be resolved. It’s important to care for yourself.
The Window of Tolerance
Humans have something called a window of tolerance. It’s the window in which our nervous system can operate and keep us on an even keel. Each person’s window is uniquely sized based on factors like upbringing, current circumstances, physical health, etc. The window of tolerance is just the area in which your nervous system is able to bring you back to baseline, and your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems can balance out.
For lawyers in a toxic work situation, your window of tolerance is shrinking. Your nervous system has less room in which it’s able to operate. There are things you can do to help widen your window, but many things are outside of your control. Therapy can help expand your window.
Many people compare their mental health to those around them, but it’s important to understand that each person has a different size window of tolerance. Just because your window might be narrower doesn’t mean you’re failing. It’s just a function of your reality.
If you are aware of your window of tolerance, you might be able to understand your anxiety and detach from the idea that you’re not trying hard enough or doing enough.
So, Does Being a Lawyer Cause Anxiety or Depression?
It’s not something you can say definitively. But, working as a lawyer has a significant impact on whether people experience forms of anxiety. A professional is the best person to help you assess whether or not it’s something you are experiencing and what steps to take next.
If you’ve reached the point that you’re not sure you should practice law anymore, you can check out the Collab Plus One-on-One Program. You’ll get access to the program for lawyers that helps them figure out what to do outside of practicing law. You’ll also receive eight weekly calls to go through your action plan. There are also paid assessments that benefit people looking for their path.
Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.
So one of the things that comes up frequently with people who are working as lawyers who don't want to be lawyers and want to do something else is the subject of anxiety. As you know, we talk about anxiety and other mental health issues in my podcast a lot.
I have talked many times about the fact that I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and also panic disorder and there are many, many, many lawyers who also have diagnosed anxiety and panic disorders, diagnosed major depressive disorder, or something similar.
Something that comes up quite a bit in conversations that we have inside the Collab or conversations that I've had with clients is this question of does working as a lawyer give you anxiety or depression? These various mental health issues that are so common amongst lawyers.
I want to start by saying that I don't think there's any definitive answer to that question. But I think the fact that it's a question that gets asked so often itself is very instructive. Here are a couple of things that I want to say about the subject.
The first thing I want to say is I cannot even tell you the number of times I've had someone who is not someone who has a diagnosed anxiety disorder say something like, “Yeah, I never really had an issue with anxiety until I started working as a lawyer. I feel like being a lawyer gave me an anxiety problem, even if it's not like a full-fledged, diagnosable anxiety disorder, even if it's something subclinical.”
I think that there's a point at which you hear similar things so many times that it becomes apparent that it's not just coincidence. You may be someone who's listening who has heard me talk about the fact that I have generalized anxiety or have heard some of my guests talk about their experiences with clinical anxiety or depression and thought, “Well, what I'm experiencing doesn't rise to that level. But it still doesn't feel great.”
First, I just want you to know that if you're someone who's working as a lawyer, and you feel like it's created a problem with anxiety for you, even if that problem is subclinical, even if that problem is not something that could be diagnosed, that is a very real experience. You're by far not the only one who feels that way.
Also, anxiety does not have to rise to the level of being clinically diagnosable to be something that has a negative impact on your life. I think because anxiety and depression are so pervasive in the legal profession, especially if you're someone who doesn't have a clinical presentation of anxiety or depression, it can feel like, “Well, you should just get over it and it doesn't matter or it's not a big deal.”
If you're someone who's having that experience and you're listening, I just want you to hear that it matters if you're experiencing anxiety that's creating problems for you and your life even if it's not rising to the level of being something that can be diagnosed.
As a sidebar, I'll also say that there are a lot of lawyers who think that what they're experiencing is not clinically anxiety or depression, in part because we see so much clinical anxiety and depression in the legal industry and what they're experiencing doesn't look like something that they're seeing someone else experience and therefore, they discounted and assumed that they aren't having a clinical experience of anxiety or depression.
I strongly, as always, strongly, strongly, highly recommend that you see a therapist, I mean, regardless, but especially if you are someone who has this sense that being in this job or working in this career has increased significantly anxiety or depression, because you, in general, speaking as someone who had clinical anxiety for many years and didn't even realize that it was clinical anxiety, I am here to tell you that you are not necessarily the best judge of what is going on with you.
In part because you only have your own experience to look at and you're living inside your own experience so I would strongly, strongly, strongly, strongly recommend/suggest that you see a qualified, trained clinical therapist to have a conversation with about the experiences that you're having.
If you're trying to figure out what it is that you should do that is not practicing law, you know you want out but you're not sure what's next, the Collab Plus One-on-One Program could be a great fit for you. In the Collab Plus One-on-One Program, you get access to my program for lawyers to help them figure out what it is they should do that isn't practicing law.
In the Collab, you get access to the community of lawyers on Circle, you also get access to The Former Lawyer Framework, which is a framework that I've created that you work through to help you figure out what it is that you want to be doing next. You get access to the monthly calls in the Collab. You also get access to the replay library. At this point, we have over 40 workshops and panels on various topics that are relevant for those of you who are thinking about doing something else that isn’t practicing law.
In addition to all of that, which is what you get access to as someone who enrolls in the Collab and you get access to that for the lifetime of the program, you also in the Collab Plus One-on-One Program get to meet with me for eight weekly calls, 45 minutes each, where we go through the work that you're doing following an action plan that I've created to help you in those eight weeks move through the framework.
Each call, there are certain things that you're going to do before the call so that when we get to the call, we can talk through it and brainstorm on the things you have questions about, work through issues that have come up, and also just for that accountability, which for many people is super important.
A lot of people really like to know when I show up to this call, I'm going to be expected to talk about X and Y, I'm going to be expected to have done X and Y, so this is a super helpful option for those of you who want that kind of accountability.
In addition, in the Collab Plus, there are a couple of paid assessments that I recommend in the framework, which for someone who just joins the basic Collab, those are things that they can go and purchase separately but as someone who works with me on Collab Plus, you get those included at no extra cost.
There are definitely some perks to being part of the Collab Plus Program and also, of course, there is the addition of the eight weeks of one-on-one calls with me to help you move through the framework. If you're interested in working with me one-on-one, the next step is for you to schedule a consult. You can go to formerlawyer.com/collab-plus. On that page, you'll see a button to book your consult. You can book your consult, you can also see all the information about how the Collab Plus Program works.
Once you book your consult, we'll talk and if it's a good fit, we'll work together and you will work through the framework in those eight weeks. Once more, formerlawyer.com/collab-plus. If you're interested in working with me one-on-one in the Collab Plus Program, that's the place to go.
Here's another thing that I think is really important to know about anxiety and depression as a lawyer. If you're someone who's working as a lawyer, and you find that it is increasing your feelings of anxiety or it's increasing your feelings of depression, but you're saying things to yourself like, “Well, I'm not really depressed because I know that it's just because of my work environment or whether it's the lack of sleep, poor treatment, whatever combination of factors, and if those factors went away, then I wouldn't feel this way,” I can remember myself when I was working at the law firm thinking exactly that feeling like I am way more likely to cry over things that feel like they shouldn't cause that response, and all sorts of other things, things that are like the classic symptoms of depression.
But I remember thinking, “Well, but I know that the reason I feel this way is because of this environment. If I removed myself from this environment, I'm not going to be experiencing this.” In my case, at least with respect to depressive symptoms, that was basically true.
Here's the problem with that reasoning that I now see with some perspective: just because it was a situational type of depression did not mean that it was not a real experience. For me, I took the fact that it was situational to mean that it wasn't real or that it didn't matter in the sense that I had this sense of like, “Oh, well it's like transitory so it doesn't necessarily mean anything or it doesn't mean I should necessarily do anything.”
Of course, eventually, I did decide to leave my law firm, which was an extremely good life choice. But it's very easy, when you're in a very challenging situation for you in terms of your mental health, to downplay how bad the experience is because you have some sense that things could be different if you are in a different environment.
Your experience is no less real just because it's situational. You still deserve the mental health care that you need even if your anxiety or depression that you're experiencing is a result of that particular environment.
This is just a reminder that if you are a lawyer who suspects you might have ADHD, adhdonline.com has given me a coupon code for listeners to the podcast who are interested in having an assessment done and it will give you $20 off your assessment. The coupon code is formerlawyer20. I do not get anything if you use this code.
The reason that ADHD Online approached me is that so many people heard some past episodes where lawyers shared about their experiences being diagnosed with ADHD and enough people put down The Former Lawyer Podcast as the place that they'd heard it that they reached out and offered this to me to provide to my listeners.
If you're interested in ADHD assessment, adhdonline.com is a place that you would go to use this coupon code. Again, it's formerlawyer20. You get $20 off the assessment. I'm really glad to be able to offer this to my listeners because I know that there are lots of people who listened to those previous episodes about ADHD and thought, “This sounds like me.” The code one more time is formerlawyer20 and you can use it at adhdonline.com.
I think another really important thing to keep in mind, if you are someone who's working as a lawyer and you feel like your job has increased your experience of anxiety or has increased your experience of depressive symptoms, we all, all of us humans, our nervous systems, each of us has what is called a window of tolerance.
This comes from, among other things, polyvagal theory. If you're interested, there's a great primer talking about polyvagal theory called Anchored by the author Deb Dana, which I'll put that link in the show notes and definitely check out that book if you are interested in learning more.
But to return, the window of tolerance, so each of us has a window in which our nervous system can operate and keep us on an even keel. The thing is that each of us has a uniquely sized window of tolerance based on a bunch of different factors.
Based on all sorts of things, including our families of origin, our upbringing, our current circumstances, any medical or mental health issues we may be experiencing, and all sorts of other things, even for example how much sleep you might be getting or whether you're going through a particularly stressful time, if you're in a period of transition like graduating from school, moving, changing jobs, or having difficulties in an important relationship in your life, all of these things impact your window of tolerance.
The window of tolerance is just the area in which your nervous system is able to bring you back to baseline, where your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, where those two responses are able to balance themselves out.
If you're a lawyer in a situation, in a work situation that is not good that you feel is impacting your mental health and increasing anxiety or depression, typically, one of the things that is going on most likely is that your environment is shrinking your window of tolerance, which basically just means your nervous system has less room in which it's able to operate before you become dysregulated.
The reality is there are things you can do to help widen your window of tolerance but there are also a lot of factors that go into what your individual window of tolerance looks like that are unique to you and that are not necessarily things that are within your control.
This is something that I think is really important to know as a lawyer, especially when you're experiencing anxiety or depression, whether we're talking about clinical or subclinical presentations because people will sometimes look at the other people around them, other lawyers and say, “Well, they're not having this issue. Why am I having this issue?”
There are lots of different reasons for that. Comparing that way is not particularly helpful. But one of the things that can be going on is that your window of tolerance for a myriad of reasons may be a narrower window than someone else's. That's not a failing on your part. That doesn't mean that you've done anything wrong. It's simply a function of whatever your reality is.
One of the reasons that I think that's important for people to hear is that understanding the window of tolerance and that it's a phenomenon that is not something that's within your control, although again, you can do things to help yourself expand the window, including things like therapy, in particular, somatic therapies, anyway, I think understanding the window of tolerance and how having a smaller window of tolerance might result in you becoming more easily dysregulated in your nervous system can be really helpful when you're thinking about why your experience is what it is in the environment that you're in.
It can help you detach a little bit from this idea of like, “Well, I shouldn't be anxious about these things or I shouldn't let these things get to me,” and understand that to the degree that you're experiencing anxiety, depression, or having some of these experiences in the environment you're in, it may and probably is more a function of the things in your environment that are decreasing your window of tolerance as opposed to what we sometimes want to tell ourselves as lawyers, which is that we're just not trying hard enough, which pretty much has never been the case for any lawyer ever because we all tend to be really into trying.
Speaking for myself, doing the most is generally the lawyer way. All that to say, am I trying to say that being a lawyer causes anxiety or depression, clinical or otherwise? No, I don't think that that is something that you can say definitively. But do I think that working as a lawyer has a significant impact on whether people experience subclinical and clinical forms of anxiety and is a significant factor? Absolutely.
Again, that is why I am so frequently talking about the fact that you should go see a therapist if you do not see a therapist because often, it is hard to even see the ways in which these experiences are impacting our mental health, are increasing our experience of anxiety and depression even when those things are subclinical.
A professional is the best one to help you assess whether or not it's something that's going on with you and what steps you might take to ameliorate some of that experience. As always, I'm so glad that you were able to listen today and I will talk to you next week.
Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at formerlawyer.com/first. Until next time, have a great week.
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