How do we cope? 

Some of us will deal with stresses and strains by setting up an organised working environment.

For most, the pressures of legal life will be tolerable and for many, enjoyable.

But for some the pressures can become impossible.

Like Andrew, we may find ourselves drinking more to keep anxiety at bay.

Or we may self-medicate with non-prescription pharmaceuticals.

We may know some of the signs and symptoms of substance abuse, but may be unwilling to accept its increasing influence in our lives.

People may notice that our work is being affected.

Family and friends might comment on changes in personal relationships and we may find ourselves increasingly reluctant to face colleagues and clients.

Hangovers and tiredness become more regular.

We might lie to others about the amount we’re consuming, become solitary in our drinking, and feel we have something to hide if people ask us how much we’re using.

We might become forgetful and miss appointments and deadlines.

A reduction in efficiency and ambition might run in parallel with the need to self-medicate to face difficult situations to calm nerves and boost confidence. 

Our ways of coping with pressure may not prevent us from tipping into clinically recognisable anxiety or depression.

And we may choose to ignore signs of anxiety or depression such as changes in sleep patterns, finding it hard to enjoy things, not wanting to see friends and family, eating more or eating less, finding it difficult to make decisions, feeling tired, having thoughts of death or feeling angry.

We may experience feeling tearful or have chest pains, low confidence, feel restless, have a racing heartbeat and sweat more when under pressure.

But there are effective ways of coping with pressure.


Coping styles

Coping styles are automatic psychological processes that protect us against anxiety and from the awareness of perceived internal or external danger.

They help to mediate our reactions to emotional conflict.

The DSM-IV divides coping styles into several categories, reflecting mature, immature and psychotic ways of coping with pressure [1].

We can use the eight ‘mature’ coping styles as markers for personal wellbeing:


(1) Anticipation

We deal with emotional conflict or stress by anticipating the consequences of possible future events and considering realistic alternative responses.

Are we good at planning our day or the week ahead?

Are we able to anticipate the possibility that our witness will crumble?

How might my colleague respond if I offer constructive criticism in a particular tone of voice?


(2) Affiliation

We deal with conflict and stress by turning to others for support.

We’re able to share problems so that we can then sort them ourselves, rather than being dependent on a colleague to dig us out of a hole.

Can we trust others sufficiently to allow ourselves to be vulnerable in this way?

Do we have (or can we develop) a support network around us, even one or two colleagues?


(3) Altruism

We deal with stress by looking to meet the needs of others.

The pay-off is when we see others succeed and quietly share in their happiness.


(4) Humour

We can see direct or amusing aspects of stress.

Humour implies a capacity for realistic and objective appraisal of ourselves and others and not taking ourselves too seriously.

It doesn’t mean being the extrovert office joker.


(5) Self-assertion

We deal with things that trouble us by expressing our feelings or thoughts directly in a manner which is not manipulative or coercive.

With the encouragement and support she received, Beth was able to behave in this way with her supervisor. 


(6) Self-observation

We’re able to cope by reflecting on our own thoughts, feelings, motivation, and behaviour and responding appropriately.

We can think about our thinking.

This is the essence of mentalising.


(7) Sublimation

We transform negative maladaptive feelings or impulses into socially acceptable behaviour.

Maybe the energy behind the frustration we feel with colleagues or the rage we can’t express against an unreasonable opponent can be channelled into a contact sport or art?


(8) Suppression

We intentionally avoid thinking about the difficulties or bad experiences.

We learn to count to ten and rein in impulsive and unhelpful comments or actions.


These qualities are mutually supportive.

They are separate ways of coping but they strengthen and complement each another.




[1] American Psychiatric Association (2000) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Text revision (4th ed.), Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Press.


(This is an edited excerpt from my book A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress published by ARK Group in 2015.)

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