A while back I wrote a book for lawyers about wellbeing. In it I used three fictional case studies to illustrate aspects of professionals’ experience.
This piece is about Andrew, an anxious lawyer trying to cope on his own with increasing demands.
The internal pressures faced by lawyers are really no different to those we all face.
Anxiety has no favourites.
When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which never happened.
“It’s like I never know when it’s going to pounce.”
37 year old criminal barrister Andrew was talking to his GP. Married with two young children and a growing practice, he had just been diagnosed with high blood pressure by his GP on a routine medical check-up. When his doctor asked him about his lifestyle Andrew realised for the first time that things had been getting a bit much.
The demands of professional life and his own expectations of himself seemed to have grown over the last 10 years. He had worked most weekends over the last 18 months or so and was regularly working into the early hours during weekdays.
He had recently lost an unlosable case and had taken this badly. He was worried that the instructions from his solicitors might dry up. He had missed a crucial line of questioning in cross-examination and, although this probably did not affect the outcome of the trial, he was unable to shake it from his mind.
He realised that at home he had become more snappy and irritable with his wife and children. A glass of wine in the evening sometimes turned into a bottle, supplemented by strong coffee to help concentration in preparing for the next day in court. His sleep was poor and he regularly woke around 4 am, only to find himself running through the eventualities of the next day’s case.
Although he had brushed it aside, he occasionally felt panicky when going to court and on occasions recently had become lightheaded and had started sweating when he walked into the robing room. It seemed fine when he was on his feet but sometimes in court he felt his thoughts scramble when his opponent was speaking. He experienced vague feelings of panic. When he thought about this it seemed like there was a wild animal around somewhere. He identified feelings of edginess and discomfort. He said, “I never know when it’s going to pounce.”
His GP suggested that he could try relaxation exercises and recommended mindful breathing. Andrew’s initial response was sceptical, if not cynical. She also made some tactful suggestions about doing more exercise.
Following a review, the GP prescribed medication to control his blood pressure, which at the time felt like a life sentence. “I’m going to have to put these things down my bloody throat every day for the rest of my life.” An unwelcome reminder of mortality.
He tried the relaxation exercises. His initial reaction was one of feeling foolish and rather pathetic. When he mentioned this in confidence to his head of chambers the response was somewhat patronising. “Well I suppose if I come into your room and see you sitting on your desk in the lotus position, at least I know what you’re up to.”
He continued with the mindfulness exercises and gradually integrated them into his daily life. Whether it was the effect of the medication, or the breathing exercises, or a mix of both that reduced the sense of anxiety and panic did not really matter.
For 15 minutes on the train on the way to work he would just concentrate on his breathing. His mind often wandered. He gradually became more aware of what was happening inside and around him. After several months he was able to recognise a growing sense of feeling grounded and safe.
As he went through the security scanner at court he would do a quick self-scan to identify if he was experiencing tension in any part of his body.
In court he gradually learned to regulate the feelings of panic by ‘just listening to my breathing’.
He also realised more clearly that he had been neglecting his family at the expense of his work and began to prioritise his time.
Few would have thought Andrew an anxious person. His clients, opponents, and the judiciary would have seen an independent, autonomous and competent advocate.
Behind this, however, he had learnt to cope with vague feelings of anxiety through school, university and his early professional life by simply getting on with things and ignoring the discomfort.
After all, it was just part of how life was.
(This is an edited excerpt from A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress published by ARK Group in 2015.)