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Lawyers and Stress

Performance pressure and high expectations take its toll on lawyers. Practicing law can lead to success, but it also comes with a fair amount of stress. More so, if the lawyer is a woman.

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By Dr Swati Jindal Garg

Will Rogers, the famous humorous/social commentator, said: “Make crime pay, become a lawyer!” This statement might have been said by him in jest, but it couldn’t be truer! Law today is seen as one of the most promising career choices and also the most opted. The recent spurt in the growth of law colleges all over the country is sufficient proof that this shall remain to be the most popular/opted choice in the coming decade. Pursuing law can be inspiring. But practicing law can lead to stress as well as success and most often both! Being a practicing lawyer, you have two options before you: “Either you run the day or the day runs you”. Once you take the reins of the day in your hands, it is stress, stress and more stress from the moment onwards.

Lawyers are operators of toll bridges which anyone in search of justice must pass through. On their shoulders, they carry the enormous burden of getting their clients off the hook. It is said that if there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers. This performance pressure and the sky high expectations, however, takes its own toll and the lawyer ultimately pays a hefty price for being good at what he does best.

Countless sleepless nights and the unending anxiety of meeting looming deadlines bring with it its own stress and pain. Practicing advocates will vouch for the fact that they are in dire need of a vacation that is now long overdue… a vacation that they should have had at least last year and due to that “urgent matter”, they had to cancel it at the last minute. Being a lawyer is an evergreen profession. Where there are bad people, there is law and there is a lawyer, but the fact of the matter remains that practicing law carries with it its own burden.

Chief Justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud recently said that he will try to ensure that arguing and conducting cases before the court is a stress-free affair for lawyers and litigants. The CJI has been known to be a feminist and has on multiple occasions pointed out as to how the courts are becoming more and more exclusive, and his pitch for a more gender inclusive and accessible legal profession has renewed interest in “feminist jurisprudence”.

The stress and heckling faced by lawyers in courts today multiplies manifold if the lawyer happens to be a woman. The fact that a woman is also a wife, a mother, a home manager, a daughter and many more avatars all rolled into one cannot be denied and for all those who extend the argument that the same may also be said for a man who is a husband, a father, a son, usually forget that while a man has the privilege to shed all these roles once he steps out of the home, a woman, who is also a home manager, is constrained to wear all the cloaks at once without ever taking them off in her life and hence the stress that she faces is magnified tenfold as compared to a man.

It has, however, often been said and rightly so that every dark cloud, comes with a silver lining! The same rule applies to stress too. In truth, all stress is not created equal. Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley says: “You always think about stress as a really bad thing, but it’s not, some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioural and cognitive performance.”

Some stress is good for you. While too little stress can lead to boredom and depression, too much can cause anxiety and poor health. The right amount of acute stress, however, tunes up the brain and improves performance and health.
What is stress all about? Clinically speaking, there are mainly three types of stress:

(1) Good stress, or what psychologists refer to as “eustress”, is the type of stress we feel when we are excited. Our pulse quickens and our hormones surge, but there is no threat or fear. We feel this type of stress when we ride a roller coaster, compete for a promotion, or go on a first date. There are many triggers for this good stress, and it keeps us feeling alive and excited about life. This is what a lawyer actually thrives upon and what makes his arguments explosive in courts.

(2) Acute stress is the second type of stress. It generally comes from quick surprises that need a response. Acute stress triggers the body’s stress response. The main difference between acute stress and good stress, however, is that the triggers in the case of acute stress aren’t always happy and exciting. This is what we normally think of as “stress” (or “bad stress”). Acute stress in itself doesn’t take a heavy toll if we find ways to relax quickly. Once the stressor has been dealt with, we need to return our body to its pre-stress state, to be healthy and happy. This is the most often faced type of stress in a lawyer’s life which comes in the form of missed passovers and forgotten/overlooked applications. This is the stress that actually builds up over a period of time and explodes one fine day.

(3) Chronic stress is the third and most dangerous form of stress. It occurs when we repeatedly face stressors that take a heavy toll on our cognitive faculties and feel inescapable. A stressful job or an unhappy home life can bring chronic stress. This is what we normally think of as “serious stress” and as our bodies aren’t designed for chronic stress, we can face negative health effects (both physical and emotional) if we experience chronic stress for an extended period of time as it dominates our thoughts day in and day out; it takes its toll on our body, causing anxiety, tiredness, high blood pressure, depression, etc. All lawyers, and specifically women lawyers face this type of stress and this is what we all need to avoid at all costs. This is the stress that proves to be fatal and leads to a lawyer passing out or collapsing in the court itself.

Can we choose our stress? Yes, we can actually bring good stress into our lives! Ideally, if we choose activities and set goals that make us feel good, happy, and excited, we can at some level incorporate good stress in our lives and that further will bring a positive change in it. However, this good stress can, if not controlled properly or borne in large quantities, also convert to bad stress. This is because our stress response is triggered either way, and if we’re adding that to chronic stress, or several other stressors, there is a cumulative effect.

Be in tune with yourself and acknowledge when you’ve had too much. You may not be able to eliminate all stress, but there are often ways that you can minimize or avoid some of the stress in your life, and this can make it easier to handle the rest.

A lawyer can either add another associate in his office or decide to take fewer cases in order to control the stress in his life.
The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another. Once we are in a position to identify what gives us pleasure and what causes grief, we can immediately do a reality check and embrace activities that bring us joy and improve our performance. It is all about adopting the right attitude. The right attitude has the power to convert a negative stress into a positive one. If you can avoid the most taxing forms of stress, you’ll have more resilience against other types of stress that are unavoidable.

A natural successor to this line of thinking is that can we convert every bad stress into a good one? Not all forms of bad stress can become good stress, but we can over time, practice to change our perception to stress and also the way we react to it. This shift can change our experience of stress and can ultimately lead us to a position where we come out as having benefitted from a stressful situation. It also needs to be remembered that the body reacts strongly to “perceived” threats. If you don’t perceive something as a threat, there is generally no threat-based stress response. If you perceive something as a challenge instead, the fear you would normally experience may turn into excitement and anticipation, or at least resolve.

This shift or perception or change of mentality is, however, easier said than done. You can, though, over a period of time, often make the shift in perception by practicing it consciously.

As you practice looking at threats as challenges more often, it becomes more automatic, and you experience more good stress and less bad stress. It is almost like training yourself to see every road block as a stepping stone and converting it into one. In fact, this is why some researchers have suggested that exposure to a moderate level of stress that you can master can actually make you stronger and better able to manage stress. It’s like how a vaccine, which contains a tiny amount of the bug, can immunize you against getting the disease. In fact, this is one of the biggest reasons as to why a lawyer is said to act better as compared to any other person in situations of stress.

Another question that now follows is: Why does experiencing (moderate) stress make us tougher? Results of studies suggest that some history of experiencing stressors might be good for us, perhaps because this makes us less reactive to our current life events.

How to manage the bad stress that we cannot convert into good stress? Even though women have more often than not been compared with tea that shows its true colour in hot water, it cannot be denied that lawyers, specially female lawyers, often stop taking care of themselves, both emotionally and physically, when they are faced with intense stressors, but a lack of self-care can make a bad situation even worse. It is vital, during periods of grief, trauma or high distress, to hydrate, eat simple meals (do not skip meals altogether), protect sleep (use herbal supplements or prescriptions to avoid sleep deprivation), and release any and all unnecessary obligations. Other things that help are acupuncture, yoga, meditation, therapy, walking, and other physical activities.

Drink less because alcohol is a depressant and can further exacerbate distress.
Give your stress wings and let it all fly away! I think the ultimate message is an optimistic one: “Stress can be something that makes you better, but it is a question of how much, how long and how you interpret or perceive it.”

—The writer is an Advocate-on-Record practising in the Supreme Court, Delhi High Court and all district courts and tribunals in Delhi

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