Legal Practice,  Work Life Balance

Feeling the Pressure: How to Respond to Stress

We talk about stress, burn out, vicarious trauma, whatever you want to call it A LOT. For me, it’s important to discuss what stress and trauma look like in this profession because it impacts not just how much we enjoy the day to day practice but ignoring it  can result in real negative physical/mental effects.

This has been at the forefront of my mind lately because of a recent incident at work. It was an unusually hectic week and it culminated with an in an incident that caused a huge adrenaline rush (in a bad way). In the heat of the moment, I felt fine and in control. But a day later once the busy-ness subsided and I had time to assess what happened, my body responded by giving me a huge tension headache. And while there is no rhyme or reasons to my migraines this one felt different and I realized the headache was likely less to do with my “usual” migraines and more a reaction to what had happened at work.

I connected it with the stress at work because I learned the hard way, in law school, that for me, stress manifests physically in big and small ways. My TMJ acts up, I get bad headaches, muscle strains, etc. It’s lovely. But now because I recognize the symptoms, even when I mentally feel fine, I know how to respond and cope so that my body’s response calms down.

And that is what I encourage all of us to do. We can’t always avoid the stress that comes with the job and knowing how our bodies are responding will be the key in making sure you don’t fall trap to harmful coping mechanisms. 

But the first step is admitting that stress and vicarious trauma impacts you. That can be hard to do because we still grapple with an industry norm that says we have to be “tough” and just grin and bear whatever gets thrown our way.

And I’m going to share with you what saved me early on in my career:

You will feel stress and trauma as an attorney.

Accept that this is a hazard and it doesn’t make you soft for experiencing these feelings. We deal with tough issues, high-risks, work with/for difficult people; all circumstances that–even if mentally we feel we’re coping with fine–physically our bodies will react to, which can lead to those ailments and icky feelings.


In my previous role (because I did it for so long), I was much better at reacting to stress. Now, I’m adjusting because the things that used to potentially trigger a stressful reaction (i.e. reading about an incident of abuse) aren’t part of of my work anymore. Now the stress is more related to figuring out byzantine systems, with a lot of pressure to perform/provide, all the while navigating other people’s negative emotions. It’s different!

So here’s how I’m adjusting:

  1. I’m going to add more exercise to my week. Not only is this what many readers recommended as their go-to stress relief, but I know in the past this has helped so it makes the most sense to get back on the wagon.
  2. I’m going to really commit to a better sleeping schedule. Sleep is the key to everything!
  3. I’m also going to draw boundaries better. Tbh the situation that happened last week was a first for me (obvi I don’t want to go into details but will say it didn’t involve anyone I work with). And while I’m used to get yelled at and chewed out frequently (nature of the work) as I reflect on the situation, I should have walked away the moment I felt disrespected. My attempt to turn a rant into a dialogue was futile and I should have recognized that earlier on and walked away. So lesson learned on my part. Hopefully this doesn’t happen again any time soon, but if it does I’m giving myself permission to not just stand there and take it.

And if you’re in the midst of finals stress or just regular lawyer stress, what can you do to treat yourself better?

Do you recognize how your stress manifests for you? Do you feel your coping mechanisms are healthy?

Because for me, as soon as I understood that there was little escaping the stress that comes with the job that gave me the opportunity to figure out the best ways to help myself. And hopefully you feel like you’re able to recognize how this work impacts you and treat yourself kindly as well!