Resources for Dealing with High-Stress Professions
May 9, 2014 6:33 AM   Subscribe

My job is high-stress by nature, and I'm having a tough week. What books or websites can I look to for advice and tips on getting through the rough patches?

I've been a family lawyer running my own practice for about five years. Which I love. I generally do pretty well dealing with the stress and emotional fallout, but I'm looking for some new resources. In the last few weeks, I've had a busy workload, and two emergency situations requiring short-notice hearings. This week, another emergency raised its head and my internet went out. April billing is not done. I am super stressed right now. I may take a visit to my trusty mental health professional, but I'm interested in other resources for dealing with these periodic high-stress times.

The qualifications:

1. Books, websites, whatever. Not really a podcast person. I have not found a fit with mindfulness meditation, but am open to recommendations of that sort.

2. I'm a family lawyer. I already have a high tolerance both for emotional stress and for workplace stress such as deadlines, bureaucracy and unpleasant colleagues. Accordingly, I do not need a book on basic stress relief. I'm looking for something that addresses inherently high-stress professions or lifestyles.

3. I am not a first responder, but lots of my job involves clients calling with bad situations that they hope I can fix. People don't die on my watch, but I hear about bad things. And the "fixing" I can do is limited. At best, my clientele is made up of people having the worst year of their lives.

4. As above, I deal with horrible people doing horrible things. Everyone has their own struggles, and I can usually see where an opposing party is coming from, but I also deal with abusers and unnecessary cruelty. I'm not looking for philosophy, and I've read my Viktor Frankl, but if there's anything that addresses how to deal with bad people on a day to day basis, I'm in.

5. I am definitely interested in resources addressing the tension of necessary emotional detachment vs. detrimental emotional suppression. I have a long history of working with dv victims, and I generally do fine with empathizing while not personalizing. However, I know I'm at my limit this week. I'm taking statements by opposing parties personally, and really feeling the drain of hearing about the recent emergencies.

6. I'm pretty type-A in comparison to the standard population, but probably low-key in comparison with the legal profession. I already do a lot to maintain my work-life balance. I start early (8) but rarely work past 5 or 6. I work about one Sunday a month. I have a history of sleep disturbance, but generally get seven to eight hours of decent sleep a night. I am somewhat active. I go for a walk or a bike ride once or twice during the week, and generally do a long hike or bike ride on the weekends. Of course, I should do more physical activity. However, I'm more interested in dealing with short term periods of extra stress than general lifestyle tips.

6. I have a history of depression, and was recently diagnosed with ADD. The depression is generally under control. I've been medicated in some form or other for about ten years, and do a session or two with my psychiatrist/therapist as needed (once or twice a year). When I started taking Adderall in January, I was actually able to significantly reduce my depression meds, because my focus and motivation improved so much. Generally, I am a chipper and cheerful person. I have great CBT skills. So any resources with a depression/ADD viewpoint would be welcome, but I don't consider this to be a mental health issue.

7. The rest of my life is great. Amazing husband, fuzzy kitties, secure finances, strong support network.
posted by freshwater to Work & Money (9 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Exercise is useful for short term periods of stress, not just improving health in general. Especially exercise outside in nature. A short break outside can be really helpful (and obviously regular strenuous exercise can be helpful in the long term in building up strength for future stressful times, helpful with sleep and depression, etc). Deep breathing exercises are also extremely helpful for reducing intense stress. I don't have any specific book recommendations, though if you want to consider revisiting mindfulness meditation, I like Mindfulness in Plain English.
posted by three_red_balloons at 7:03 AM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you considered looking at time management? Seems like you have no slack built in to your schedule to handle the inevitable emergencies.

Learn to say no. Look at off-loading to another practioner, if possible, perhaps on a reciprocal basis.

Why are you doing billing??? Use software.

Talk to a doctor about how they cope: sounds like a similar toll. One doctor I know had to wear his night guard at work because he was grinding so much. Eventually he cut his hours and scheduled more time per patient.

You can try mini breaks, a few minutes to 10 or 20, as appropriate. If meditation is not your thing, look at progressive muscle relaxation. Building body awareness and consciously relaxing will help.

Can you take a pet to work?

I agree with taking frequent breaks and getting outside if possible, even for a short time.
posted by PickeringPete at 7:18 AM on May 9, 2014

Patrick J. Schiltz, On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession, 52 VAND. L. REV 871 (1999), available at

This may not help you in the moment, but it gave me some food for thought as I was figuring out the beginning of my career.

it also gave me an excuse to consult my bluebook to make a metafilter comment, so there's that.
posted by sparklemotion at 7:20 AM on May 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Friends in similar high-stress positions have created decompression/relief rituals. One takes a long shower as soon as she gets home and imagines the stress going down the drain. Another lives by water and would throw rocks into the water as hard ad she could.

A vigorous exercise class (or exercise dvd at home) every day after work could help, as could an occasional massage.
posted by mareli at 8:18 AM on May 9, 2014

Do you have a creative outlet? Even if you're just journaling, it helps to put broken, emerging stories down on paper, and write them all the way through to a resolved ending. Or maybe you have another medium where you could write a song or poem, or sculpt or choreograph something about dv survivors or unpleasant colleagues or whatever else is stressing you out. Putting life into art helps because you control the framework and telling of the story, even if you never show your art to anyone else.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 8:37 AM on May 9, 2014

Check in with your state and/or county bar associations. Many of them have resources specifically targeted at attorneys dealing with the stresses of our mutual profession.
posted by valkyryn at 8:49 AM on May 9, 2014

look up the Centre for Clinical Interventions site (Australia) handbooks and try Rescue Remedy.
Co counselling is useful for me (you join a network of peer counsellors and can set up even 2 minutes a day to vent to someone.. or whatever suits.) Sometimes you need someone just to hear you... in my experience. Well done in your success with those other challenges :)
posted by tanktop at 10:19 AM on May 9, 2014

"Burnout" is the phrase to search for, there are loads of articles out there and hopefully one of them will speak to you (it is a personal thing, and one size won't fit all). In the short term, you just need to grit your teeth and get through the stressful spell and it's unlikely to do you much harm if it's just a week or two, although I agree it isn't much fun at the time. It is longer term damage you really need to avoid. If you are more resilient in the first place you will find short-term stress much easier to deal with. Once you are already stressed it is too late to make major changes - you need to have a good system set up already that can cope with these stressful periods, and then make sure you don't do what a lot of people do, which is ditch all of your good stress-reducing habits as soon as stress strikes "because you're too busy", which is a complete false economy.

I can tell you the things I do to avoid being affected too much by short-term job-related stress (I'm a doctor though, not a lawyer), not all of them will be relevant to you because de-stressing is quite person-specific and what works for me might not work for you. Hopefully they will give you some ideas. Sorry if this meanders a bit.

Exercise is great for decompressing - I cycle to and from work and I can pedal all of my frustrations out on the way home. It also makes a definite break between work and home so I don't bring my bad day at work into the house. When I lived on-site, I never really felt like I left work. When my commute was longer and I had to drive, even though I was spending longer in the car than I spend cycling now, I didn't decompress in the same way. Could you incorporate a run or cycle after work each evening? I find it does have to be strenuous enough to be distracting, a gentle walk doesn't really cut it. And it has to be long enough to think about my day - 30mins is about right for me.

Make sure your environment is nice - tidy your office, bring a nice mug or your cafetiere or something in if you haven't already. Spending hours at work is less miserable if it's more comfortable and you have nice things. Going out for a quick walk at lunchtime also helps - it's partly vitamin D, partly exercise/fresh air, and partly mindfulness (we have a park close to work, and eating my lunch in the park and looking at nature instead of spending more time at my desk makes a huge difference to my mood and productivity in the afternoon). These things sound obvious, but it's tempting to feel you don't have time when you're stressed, and actually it's far more important that you make time for these things then.

Have non-work things to distract you. Even if I have to put my hobbies on hold when I'm having a busy spell, I know that they're there to come back to. It's nice to have a non-work thing to focus on, particularly if it's something non-competitive or creative (I know a lot of colleagues who like to play instruments or make cakes or whatever). Have something to look forward to - plan a relaxing holiday, or weekend away. Even if it's a few months away it's a nice goal in the future. Do stuff with your amazing husband and friends - book a table for dinner, or see a film/play/some art.

The emotional detachment part is a red herring - I wouldn't worry at all about harmful emotional suppression. This may sound harsh but these clients are strangers to you; why would you care beyond abstract sympathy? Yes, there is a problem with stuffing down your own past traumas and refusing to confront them, but there's no problem with just not getting that involved with other people's misery. It doesn't help your client if you are bursting into tears at the horror of it all (they want you to have a clear head), and it certainly doesn't help you.

The medical way to achieve detachment is to discuss with colleagues, make black jokes and not to really get too involved in the patient as a person. Palliative care teams have formal debriefing sessions, and in other units (including mine) we have a multi-discliplinary team meeting to discuss difficult cases each week, and of course we share a lot of cases - we won't usually be the only doctor involved in a patient's care, whereas I expect you might well be the only lawyer for your client. Do you have any colleagues who do similar work who you could meet for a brief, informal coffee and moan every week or so? You can call it a team meeting or team debrief, but it doesn't need to be any more formal than "So how's that child abuse case going, Bob?" over coffee.

There are lots of blog posts out there about developing medical detachment, but in my experience everybody eventually gets used to the stuff in their job given time. You don't have to do anything special, it will just happen. You shouldn't worry about becoming desensitised - that's a feature, not a bug, and is designed to stop you falling apart. You just need to make sure you don't go too far into callousness, but debriefing with colleagues and reflecting/journalling/thinking about things on your way home are some good ways to prevent that.

If you can ask for some non-misery cases next (sounds like you work in a firm with a mix of cases) that will help to prevent burnout. When I worked in the ER, if somebody had a horrible case to deal with they could just go and do minors (sprained ankles and cut fingers) for an hour or two afterwards. Maybe you could mention to whoever distributes cases that you've had a few horrors recently and can you have some nice straightforward ones next? You can say it as a joke if you want, I expect they'll still remember. Most people like to do nice things for other people, especially if you make it easy for them. Of course if you are the sole lawyer at "DV Lawyers 4U" you might have less luck with that.

Just remember that what you're feeling is completely normal, will be short-lived, and you'll be through it quickly enough. Good luck!
posted by tinkletown at 11:06 AM on May 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

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