Feature: I'm a lawyer...get me out of here
City counselling clinics, for obvious reasons, have reported a huge rise in stressed City lawyers turning to to them seeking professional help. City Psychology Group's Director, Dr Michael Sinclair, talks to Law and More about stress, the City and how to cope with the onset of feelings of anxiety...
From the onset of the economic downturn we have seen a definite increase in referrals to our services here at City Psychology Group. A large majority if these are in fact solicitors working within large corporate financial institutions and legal firms here in the City. Understandably, due to widespread redundancies there has been a growing sense of anxiety, stress and trepidation amongst City workers. We have found that most City workers are finding the current climate stressful right through from young trainee solicitors to well seasoned, senior partners, of some of the major law firms here in the City.
Dr Michael Sinclair, Consultant Psychologist
Redundancy breads a great fear amongst us – a fear that only the strong will survive, so many of our lawyer clients tell us how they are working even longer, harder and later into the night to avoid being the next marched out of the office. People fear that they are not able to ‘jump ship’ as many firms are reducing their staff levels. Many lawyers are feeling anxious, stuck or at a loss and hopeless as a result. The City’s Law industry seems even more competitive than ever at this time.
Despite the widespread redundancies, it is not surprising that many lawyers we speak to, have taken their redundancy all too personally and those that are still in their jobs have spent a lot of time worrying about losing them. Many lawyers are under a lot of stress and have lost a lot of self-confidence as a result. Such increasing stress levels have led to depression and a whole host of anxiety related problems for many of our lawyer clients. Physical or somatic complaints are on the rise. Many lawyers are presenting to us with medically undiagnosed bodily aches and pains, recurrent headache and irritable bowel syndrome. When we hold our stress in it can often manifest into such physical problems. With stigma around emotional problems being rife at the best of times amongst City workers, it is not surprising that City lawyers are now even more concerned about showing their vulnerabilities during these difficult times for fear of being the next on the chopping block. Let’s face it –as our clients tell us, it seems much more acceptable to have a physical complaint than to show any weakness around an emotional or mental one during these harsh and cut-throat times. When we feel stressed and under confident it is common for all of us to rely on unhelpful coping mechanisms that may help to relive our stress levels in the short term but cause many more problems in the longer term. Many of our lawyer clients are presenting with issues around poor diet and eating habits, insomnia and sleeping problems and an increase in their alcohol use. Drinking more alcohol has become a real problem as lawyers are trying to cope in these difficult times. Furthermore, relationship and marriage problems are on the rise and we are seeing more and more lawyers bring their partners and other family members into couple or family counselling with them as their relationships are coming under significant strain.
It is important to remember that we cannot control the economy but we can learn ways to mange ourselves in the face of such stressful life events. If we keep focussing on what we cannot control, say when we worry about the future or ruminate about what we may have lost in the past, we start to feel more stuck, under confident and helpless and increase the likelihood of our stress developing into worse problems like depression and anxiety. It is important to try to remember that things occur in cycles and that while the current climate in the City is unsettling and distressing, it will change and with change comes new opportunities. We can chose not to live in fear and let the circumstances around us change who we are and how we behave. Stress and other forms of emotional distress have the effect of causing us to act out of character. It is important to:
-Try and not panic: try not to get caught up in all the doom and gloom hype in the media. This can lead to high levels of anxiety and bad decision making. Try not to overreact and try and remain calm and focussed.
- Identify your financial stressors and make a plan: Write down specific ways you and the family can reduce your finances or manage your money more effectively.
-Recognise how you deal with stress: We are more likely to relieve stress by turning to unhealthy habits and activities like drinking more alcohol, smoking, gambling, emotional eating or arguing with our loved ones. It is important to try to stay alert to these behaviours and if they are getting worse seek out some professional psychological help.
-Accept how you feel: It is important to try and accept how you feel emotionally when distressed. Most of our emotional distress is worsened by us getting depressed about being depressed or anxious about being anxious. If we acknowledge how we feel as unpleasant but also try to assure ourselves that it will soon pass, the chances are that we will be distressed for a shorter period of time. Trying to ‘eradicate or stop’ feeling a certain way will only exacerbate our distress if we then notice that we are still feeling that way after.
-Pay attention to what you are thinking: If we are feeling stressed, low or anxious it is a sign to us that our thinking is not in line with being helpful to us. At times of distress we will be either worrying about the future, ruminating about the past or being overly self-critical. All these styles of thinking leave us feeling even more under confident and distressed. It is more helpful to try to focus on the now and what we can do to move forward once again.
-Make decisions and move forward: Procrastination is one of the most significant causes and maintaining factors to our stress levels. It is important to make decision and to take action and remind yourself that whatever the outcome you can cope with it.
-Take time for yourself: It is understandable that we feel that if we do not attend to our problems they will just worsen. However, there is a big difference between attending to our problems and just worrying about them unproductively. If we never take time away from our problems and try and de-stress and clear our heads we run the risk of becoming so immersed in our problems that we cannot see clearly anymore and make the best decisions. Simple and inexpensive activities like reading a book, going for a walk, listening to music, socialising with friends, exercise, meditation, relaxation, saunas and yoga are all great ways to distract ourselves from our worry and to take a rest, clear our minds and recharge ourselves again.
-Try to think of these challenging times as an opportunity for growth and change: You can take the opportunity to re-evaluate old habits such as the way you spend or save money or you can start taking more time out to spend with the family. It may be a great opportunity to learn a new skill or go on a course that may further your career prospects. The key is to use this time creatively to think outside the box.
Redundancy and job insecurity has understandably activated underlying insecurities in relation to low self-worth and confidence amongst our clients. Many of our lawyer clients feel that they are under extreme pressure to perform at peak levels. They fear that it is only a matter of time until they are found out as being ‘not good enough’ during these challenging times. Those with symptoms of stress, depression or anxiety are worrying about how their functioning has become impaired and how they are unable to perform at work as a result. Trainee solicitors particularly are feeling a significant strain and anxiety while they rotate seats with partners. Lawyers are worrying about their future and their job and financial stability. Some worry that they may never find another job again. When people get into that mindset they start to lose confidence and their sense of competency. Furthermore, we often hear lawyers’ concerns around how they feel they have become ‘institutionalised’ within the financial or legal industry and corporate wolrd. They are understandably concerned about what else they may do with their lives should they lose their jobs and not be able to find another one.
Stress can affect us all in different ways. We can experience stress physically, emotionally and behaviourally. Physically we may feel muscular tensions and bodily aches and pains. We may find that we feel shaky or dizzy and we can experience rapid heartbeats and/or an increased respiratory rate. We can experience discomfort or indigestion in our abdomen and our blood pressure can rise significantly. Furthermore, our immune system may weaken under stress and we may find that we are more vulnerable to colds and flues. You may feel tired and lethargic a lot of the time. Emotionally we tend to feel stress as anxious, panicky or uneasy feelings and we can feel tense, frustrated and significantly low at times. Behaviourally we may find that we are drinking more alcohol, sleeping more or less, eating less or eating more out of comfort. We may find that we cannot concentrate as well as we used to, our memory can be affected and we can find that we lose interest in sex. We may also find that we become ‘snappy’ with others and are arguing more with friends and family. It may feel difficult to motivate yourself and find enjoyment in activities that used to be fun. It is important that if you notice any of these symptoms and find it difficult to address them yourself that you seek out professional help. A good place to start is your GP who will be able to assess your situation and make an appropriate referral if necessary. It is important to remember that stress is not just a physical or emotional problem but in fact both – it is a psychological problem. Therefore, with the help of a trained and qualified psychologist you will be able to identify the source and maintaining factors of your stress and effectively address the symptoms of your stress and develop coping strategies and more helpful ways of being to keep your stress at bay.
The City Psychology Group is based at 55 Old Broad Street, 1st Floor, London EC2M 1RX
Tel: 0845 0177 838
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