Today I have the honor of interviewing Daniel Lukasik, a distinguished attorney and the creator of the very cool website LawyersWithDepression.com. Daniel also writes the Lawyers With Depression blog, which covers a range of different topics, from spirituality to how to make smart decisions as professionals.
Question: Why are so many lawyers depressed?
1. Lawyers are Pessimistic Thinkers.
According to Professor Martin Seligman, lawyers have a “pessimistic explanatory style.” This is not the same thing as seeing the glass as “half empty.” Rather, pessimistic lawyers tend to attribute the causes of negative events as stable and global factors (It’s going to last forever, and it’s going to undermine everything.) The pessimist views bad events as pervasive, permanent, and uncontrollable while the optimist sees them as local, temporary and changeable (“Oh well, I didn’t win this one, but tomorrow’s a new day and I will get a fresh start.”). Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers, because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence. They have to foresee every possible snare and catastrophe. While this might help them be better lawyers, this trait does not always make them happy human beings. In fact, pessimistic thinking is seen by cognitive behavioral therapy as a hallmark of depression.
2. Negative Behavior Patterns.
According to Professor Andrew Benjamin, lawyers take on too much work and have trouble maintaining healthy relationships. This, in turn, precipitates career dissatisfaction, loss of intrinsic motivation, and abandonment of personal values. These behavior patterns leave many lawyers suffering from high levels of depression and from chronically elevated levels of hostility, cynicism, and aggression.
3. High Levels of Stress.
The adversarial nature of the profession repeatedly triggers the physiological
fight-or-flight response in our bodies. When confronted with a threat -whether real or perceived – this response kicks in and floods our bodies with the powerful hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which propel us into action. Over time, this chronic anxiety causes the release of too many fight-or-flight hormones. Research has shown that prolonged release of cortisol damages areas of the brain that have been implicated in depression: the hippocampus (involved in learning and memory) and the amygdale (involved in how we perceive fear). Indeed, Richard O’Connor – an expert on depression – has concluded that depression “is stress that has gone on too long.”
Question: what can lawyers do on a daily basis to help their depression?
1. You will need to learn to confront your negative thinking.
I carry a 3 x 5 inch index card in my pocket every day. On it, I list 3 problems that I think I’ll confront that day which are factually based (e.g. I have a legal brief due at 5 pm). Then, I jot next to it a typical depressive reaction of mine (e.g. “I’ll never get this done”). Finally, I write down a healthier, more constructive response that I can choose (e.g. “I have the whole day, take it in parts and it will get done.”). This is not easy because our depressive thinking comes so naturally and is so entrenched, that we think that our depressive approach to problems is “normal.” However, it’s a destructive habit and it only reinforces depression.
2. Practice gratitude on a daily basis.
On the back of the same 3 x 5 index card, I practice gratitude. During the day, as good things happen, I jot them down. I think it’s important for someone dealing with depression to write down concrete things rather than conceptual ones. For example, a concrete thing may be, “A child gave me a beautiful smile today” (i.e. this actually happened) rather than, “My life isn’t so bad.”(i.e. too broad and ambiguous). People with depression spend a lot of time in their heads; lawyers even more so. As such, we need to anchor ourselves in short, concrete examples that reflect daily events that we can be grateful for.
3. If you have a spiritual practice, do it. If you don’t, think about starting one.
This could include anything from a formal meditation practice, going to Mass or walking in the woods. Research suggests that people who have a spiritual practice do better with depression. If you believe in God or a higher power (I’m Catholic), you can avail yourself of help and support from Someone who is bigger than your depression. If you do not believe in God, maybe you embrace some other form of spirituality you can tap into. Spiritual growth and development, in my opinion, is an important pillar of recovery.
4. Joining a support group.
Joining a support group is – in my experience – an invaluable way to see that you are not alone in your depression. Depression is a very isolating condition. When we feel bad, we just don’t feel like dealing with people and ruminate, “No one will understand anyway.” So we close the door and feel immobilized by our depression. We need to get out with people. It’s helpful if it’s structured, regular and something you can commit to. There are support groups around the country for lawyers who are suffering from depression. I think it’s helpful to join a lawyer group because you don’t have to explain to others what it’s like to deal with depression AND practice law. Such groups are usually run by local Bar Associations or Lawyers Assistance Programs. Go to the web or call to check out what is available. If there is no such support group for lawyers, tell your Bar Association or Lawyers Assistance Program them that you want to participate in one Ask them if they could work to start one.
If you feel uncomfortable about disclosing your depression in front of other lawyers, there are other depression support groups around the country. The list of such groups near you can be found by accessing The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance website.
5. Practice mindfulness.
A lot of attention has been focused recently on the use of mindfulness meditation to help depression. In such meditation, we sit quietly, pay attention to our breath and watch our thoughts float by our stream of consciousness. Usually, we habitually react to all our thoughts and feelings (“I will never get this brief done”). In mindfulness meditation, we learn – slowly – to let the thoughts and feelings float by without reacting to them. What we are really doing is creating a space for ourselves where we don’t have in our doing mode; where our chief objective is to get things done and succeed. Think of it as a restful timeout during your day. I highly recommend reading the best-selling book, “The Mindful Way through Depression” for more guidance and exercises.
If we feel that we don’t have time for meditation, or have a difficult time sitting still, we can anchor ourselves in our bodies. When I am feeling stressed and need to take myself out of my depressive mind, I focus on some simple physical sensations. For example, I will try to pay attention to my walking for a period of time – say 20 minutes. I feel my feet touching the carpet or concrete as a walk. It’s incredibly simple, grounding and calming to our anxious and depressed mind.