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A Self-Help Approach to Gaining Back Control of Lawyer Mental Health

By Catherine V. Arpen, Esq.

Catherine V. Arpen

A person very close to me, a paralegal in her late 40s, died of alcoholism. I did everything I could to help her, but I couldn’t. She had to help herself, and she didn’t. It was heartbreaking! Over the course of my 16 years in the legal profession – six as an attorney and 10 as a paralegal and law clerk – as well as 18 years working with insurance carriers, I know firsthand the pressures that lawyers face dealing with court deadlines, complex matters, and the fear of malpractice claims.


In 2016, a landmark study by the ABA / Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation on Lawyer Mental Health found that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of depression, and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety. The study found that younger attorneys, in the first 10 years of practice, exhibit the highest incidence of these problem. The first empirical study in 25 years confirms lawyers have significant substance abuse or mental health problems, more so than other professionals or the general population.


According to the report issued by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, in August 2017, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, a lawyer’s well-being comprises six areas: Occupational, intellectual, spiritual, physical, social, and emotional. In each of these areas, we as legal professionals need some level of control. Our mental health suffers when there is a loss of that control. Below are two avenues that attorneys can pursue to begin their journey to better mental and physical health.


Mental Health Resources within the Legal Profession

There are resources available to Florida attorneys. One is Florida Lawyers Assistance Inc. (FLA), which provides services relating to substance use or mental health to assist attorneys, law students, and other legal professionals. For more information visit the FLA website or call 1-800-282-8981. FLA is independent of The Florida Bar, although it does receive funding from that organization. Paramount to FLA is the protection of confidentiality for those attorneys who contact FLA for help. It was formed in 1986 in response to the Florida Supreme Court’s mandate. A second is The Bar’s Mental Health & Wellness of Florida Lawyers Committee, which works to destigmatize mental illness, recommend best practices and remedies, and help bring more balance into members’ daily professional lives.


The ABA also has mental health resources:


Lifestyle Changes for Improved Physical and Mental Health

There are daily lifestyle changes we can implement immediately to help alleviate stress, anxiety and reliance on alcohol; improve sleep patterns and mental clarity; and increase performance. Below is practical advice for starting this process today!


Eliminate Negativity and Set Boundaries

Consider replacing the news with uplifting music. This constant negativity from the news starts the day off with negativity. The day should start positive. If something or someone is affecting your positivity, set a boundary. You control who impacts your circle and setting boundaries is very important to taking back your personal power.


Be Active Daily

Aerobic exercise has antidepressant and anxiolytic effects and protects against harmful consequences of stress (Salmon 2001). Exercise is linked to protection from harmful effects of stress on physical and mental health although causality is not clear (Salmon 2001). Thus, exercise is paramount to mental health and clarity. Make time for it! Walk during lunch and eat lunch at your desk.


Also, set attainable goals. Be “in active motion” every day for 20 minutes – walking, running, dancing, basketball, biking, swimming – anything. This creates time with family, as they can walk with you. You are outdoors in the fresh air; it clears your head and promotes conversation. If all you did was walk, you have accomplished your goal, your blood pumped, and your muscles moved.


Make Sleep and Relaxation A Priority

Begin a sleep regime. Leave caffeine for the mornings. Avoid late night exercise. Eat your final meal early, so food has time to digest. Take a hot shower or bubble bath to relax. Take all-natural melatonin and begin to calm down. Turn off the television. Put the phone down. Avoid social media. Put on relaxing music or background noise. Use aromatherapy with calming scents such as lavender or eucalyptus.


Drink an herbal tea (chamomile, hops, lemon balm, licorice root, and/or valerian root). (Brown 2015, 140). Add a cinnamon stick to your steeping tea. Cinnamon regulates blood sugar and is a powerful fungicide and anti-microbial agent (Albers 2015). It is a natural anti-inflammatory, lowers blood pressure, stabilizes blood sugar, and improves insulin sensitivity (Albers 2015). Stabilizing blood sugar and lowering blood pressure has a calming side effect. Teas that lower stress levels are Gingko, Ginseng, Licorice, and Peppermint (Brown 2015, 148). For symptoms of depression, consider a tea with Ginseng, Hawthorn, Lavender, Lemon Balm, and/or St. John’s Wort (Brown 2015, 312).


Eat a Balanced Diet

The key to eating a proper diet to reduce stress and anxiety is to simultaneously stop eating anything containing inflammatory foods (gluten, corn, soy, sugar, and dairy) and start consuming a high fat, moderate-protein diet (Kassell 2019). A study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that sugar had a direct correlation to increased anxiety in rats, along with irregular eating including a high fat, high sugar diet given on different schedules, which showed higher anxiety in those that had a propensity to binge (Murphy 2013). In short, there is a correlation between high sugar and anxiety.


Experts state the acceptable macro for a normal person is 45-65% carbs, 20-35% fats, and 10-35% protein (Van De Walle 2018). My macros are different, which are 10% carbs, 35% protein, and 55% fat. The carbs may look strikingly low, but on a 2,000-calorie diet, this equates to 200 calories, or 50 grams of carbs. This is too much to go into ketosis but enough to give me energy without added sugar that inhibits cognitive thought, creates anxiety, and worsens depression. There are plenty of calculators on the internet to help find your perfect macro for your age, exercise level, and goals. Find your macro and follow it. There are nutrition apps, such as MyFitnessPal, to log food and provide the macros.


Eliminate Added Sugar

The most important thing is to eliminate added sugar. The average woman should have no more than six teaspoons of sugar daily and nine teaspoons for men (Harvard T.H. Chan). This equates to 24 grams for women and 36 grams for men. Adding more than this amount increases anxiety symptoms (Harvard 2018). While a well-balanced diet is necessary for our bodies to function properly, learning where sugar comes from is very important (Harvard 2018).


While all sugars are carbohydrates, not all carbohydrates are sugar. For example, in one serving of Honey Gold baby potatoes there are 16 grams of carbohydrates but only 2 grams of natural sugar per serving. In moderation, this is a natural, unprocessed food with low sugar. Alternatively, look at orange juice. One orange contains 9 grams of sugar (Diet & Fitness Today). One cup of fresh orange juice is made with approximately 3-4 whole oranges (Brooke 2021). So, one 8-ounce glass of orange juice contains approximately 36 grams of sugar, over the recommended amount for women and meeting the amount for men.


“There’s no nutritional need or benefit that comes from eating added sugar” (Harvard T.H. Chan). During chronic stress a person will crave highly processed foods, which causes higher levels of cortisol to produce more cravings for high-sugar foods (Harvard T.H. Chan). Reducing the amount of added sugar in your diet will level out your body’s chemical reaction thereby causing less overeating and less stress-eating (Harvard T.H. Chan).


Follow Eating Patterns That Reduce Anxiety

There is no cure for anxiety but paying attention to one’s diet can help calm it (Sawchuk 2017). Do not skip breakfast. Eat some form of protein and fat for breakfast; avoid simple sugars such as cereal, bagels, and donuts. Eat a small amount of low-sugar complex carbohydrates. Carbohydrates increase serotonin in the brain which has a calming effect (Sawchuk 2017). Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and avoid too much caffeine (Sawchuk 2017). Eat lots of vegetables and learn to love their natural taste.


Introduce Anti-inflammatory Foods Into Your Diet

When eating a poor quality diet, we dip into nutrients contained in our bones, soft tissue, organs, glands, skin and hair (Given 2017, 8). When eating this way, our body is depleted and inflammation begins, which contributes to stress, anxiety, depression, cravings (including sugar and alcohol), and weight gain. In fact, the inflammation problem is so widespread that just about every disease can be linked to it in some way (Given 2017, 13).


Many foods have inherently anti-inflammatory properties. Adding these foods to your diet will help calm internal inflammation. Spices with anti-inflammatory properties include turmeric, cinnamon, and ginger (Given 2017, 22). Chai tea contains cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and ginger, all of which are natural anti-inflammatories. Eat unprocessed foods that have antioxidant properties to fight free radicals such as foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, grass-fed meat, nuts, seeds, onions, garlic, and leeks (Given 2017, 13-14). Just sprinkling turmeric over sautéing vegetables or shrimp and adding cinnamon in your nightly chamomile tea begins this process.


Use Weekends to Meal Prep

Cook two or three meals, cut up vegetables, and separate out snacks. In the morning, grab-n-go. This is much healthier than getting fast food, saves money, and has such a positive effect on your mental health because you have taken control.


Avoid Peer Pressure Drinking

Just flat tell people you don’t drink. Not all lawyers drink. However, there are a few things to reduce peer pressure. Ask the bartender to give you ginger ale in a wine glass. The yellow color of the ginger ale gives the appearance of wine. Get a Sprite and grenadine, which has the appearance of vodka. Alternatively, provide an excuse: “I can’t have the sugar,” “I’m driving,” or, my personal favorite, “I’m in training right now.”


Consider 12-Step Programs

AA and NA are available everywhere any day and time, in-person or via zoom. These programs center on acknowledgment of a “Higher Power” and they are highly successful in helping people learn to live without substance abuse. If you are looking for a Christ-centered program, consider Celebrate Recovery.


Anxiety, depression, and alcoholism are very debilitating but there are many things that food and exercise can do to alleviate root causes related of anxiety, depression, insomnia, mental focus, and overall mental health. When we have these issues, our life can feel out of control. The first step to getting control is to accept what we cannot change and then change the things we can. You can start today!


DISCLAIMER: Nutrition and exercise are not a replacement for seeking treatment from a medical professional for mental health or substance abuse issues. I am not a medical doctor or nutritionist, and nothing in this article should be construed as medical advice. All readers should seek the advice of their personal medical professional.

 

Catherine V. Arpen, Esq. is a PIP insurance defense attorney with Kelly Kronenberg Attorneys at Law. She was previously with Dutton Law Group in Tampa. Arpen is experienced in the defense of PIP and bodily injury insurance claims, corporate collections, judgment enforcement, family law, and employment law. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast, hiker, runner, and triathlete. She can be reached via email.

 

References

Albers, Psy.D., Susan, “A Soothing Drink to Calm Your Nerves.” Accessed December 5, 2021.


Brooke, Charlotte, 2021, “How many oranges to make a cup of orange juice? (3 variables).” Accessed December 4, 2021.


Brown, Jennifer, 2015, Medicinal Tea, 132 - 148, New York: Good Books.

Diet & Fitness Today, “Amount of Sugar in an Orange.” Accessed December 4, 2021.


Given, NC, Madeline, 2017, The Anti-Inflammatory Diet Cookbook, 8 - 22, Rockridge Press.

Harvard T.H. Chan, School of Public Health, “Stress and Health.” Accessed December 4, 2021.


Harvard Medical School, 2018, “Eating Well to Help Manage Anxiety: Your Questions Answered.” Accessed December 4, 2021.


Kassel, Gabrielle, 2019, “This New Diet Is Supposed to Help Your Anxiety – So I Tried It.” Accessed December 4, 2021.


Murphy, Michelle, 2013, “Diet-Regulated Anxiety.” Accessed December 4, 2021.


Salmon, Peter, 2001, “Effects of physical exercise on anxiety, depression, and sensitivity to stress: A unifying theory.” Accessed December 4, 2021 (abstract).


Sawchuk, Ph.D., L.P., Craig N., 2017, “Coping with Anxiety: Can diet make a difference?” Accessed December 4, 2021.


Van De Walle, MS. RD, Gavin, 2018, “The Best Macronutrient Ratio for Weight Loss.” Accessed December 4, 2021.

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