On Well-Being

Relaxing the anxious lawyer brain takes practice

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Jeena Cho

Photo of Jeena Cho courtesy of the JC Law Group.

I think about getting into a car accident or catch myself checking the weather, hoping for a really bad storm so I won’t have to go to the hearing: This is what a lawyer shared with me during a coaching call. It’s a feeling that’s also familiar to me—one that I never shared with other lawyers until I realized that keeping a stiff upper lip only perpetuates the problem.

According to a 2016 study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, 19 percent of lawyers experience anxiety and 23 percent experience chronic stress.

I, too, fell into the category of lawyers experiencing overwhelming stress and anxiety. But, like most lawyers, I didn’t give much thought to being proactive and looking for tools to let go of the stress and anxiety.

I lived for years in a constant cycle of exhaustion and tension. I assumed if I could just work harder, get through my cases faster, do more with less time, these issues would resolve themselves. It didn’t seem abnormal that I’d fantasize about catastrophic events happening so that I wouldn’t have to go to the mediation, court hearing, client meeting or other work-related, anxiety-provoking events.


Recently I led a mindfulness retreat for 25 lawyers from across the country. The theme was “Find Your Ease.” The word ease means to relax one’s efforts.

A retreat is a wonderful opportunity to disrupt everyday habits in a new environment. It’s a chance to learn and practice how to relax the constant efforts we tend to engage in. It’s a chance to create new habits and try different tools to see which ones work to lessen feelings of stress and anxiety.

It’s common to get to a retreat only to find yourself full of anxiety or stress-inducing thoughts. The mind doesn’t have an off button, and just because you’re sitting at the beach overlooking the endless blue ocean doesn’t mean your mind can’t be back at the office frantically working away.

I like to approach relaxing the mind the same way I approach gardening. I can make sure to tend to the plant with just the right amount of water, enrich the soil just so, space it properly, keep an eye out for signs of disease—but ultimately, how well the plant does or how much fruit it produces isn’t up to me. Similarly, I can regularly engage in activities that create the optimal conditions so the mind can relax but still recognize that might not happen.

Getting to know your own mind and figuring out what helps it to relax takes a willingness to get to know yourself—a willingness to try different things and see what works.

One of the many benefits of having a regular mindfulness and meditation practice is experiencing less stress and anxiety. However, these practices won’t give you instant results. Similar to exercising the physical body, meditation practice will train the mind over time. One of the most common challenges beginning meditators have is that they notice more stress and anxiety during the session.

It’s a frustrating experience when the mind doesn’t cooperate and continues to work overtime when you’re trying to relax. You sit down, eyes closed, paying attention to your breath, and you realize the mind feels like there’s a tornado going through it.

What does happen over time is that we can learn not to allow these thoughts to pull us away. We can learn to catch ourselves when we’re engaged in these destructive thoughts and return back to this moment. We can learn to see the thoughts for what they are—a habit of the mind. Over time, we can replace the broken record with a more pleasant tune.


Resilience refers to one’s ability to survive and thrive when faced with life’s many stressors. We can learn to be more resilient through deliberate practices, including fostering deep, meaningful relationships with others; changing how we think about life’s obstacles; accepting that changes are a natural part of life; and taking good care of ourselves.

With the constant demand and stress of billable hours, there can be a natural tension between carving out “me time” versus time we dedicate to work. Finding balance doesn’t happen magically. We can falsely believe that there will be some magical moment where every item on the to-do list has been completed, and then there will be time for self-care. What we often fail to see is that self-care practices help us to be more resilient and effective, and better at keeping overwhelming stress and anxiety at bay.

Each person has different needs in terms of how much self-care they need to feel whole and balanced. Also, over time, what we do for self-care will likely shift. In my 20s, I used to enjoy rock climbing; now I prefer low-impact activities such as hiking and yoga.

Sometimes lawyers express that they feel guilty when they take time for themselves. The feeling of guilt is also just another thought, a habit of the mind. Caring for your well-being isn’t a selfish act. It’s the foundation for ensuring that you can be the best lawyer possible.



    1. Sit in a comfortable position, or practice lying down. Allow the eyes to close.
    2. Begin to notice the breath as the air moves in and out of the body.
    3. Notice whether you’re holding tension anywhere in the body.
    4. Deepen the breath and see if you can lessen the tension.
    5. Invite the body to relax. You can silently think “Relax.”
    6. If you notice anxiety rising in the body or mind, label the experience. For example, “I am experiencing anxiety.”
    7. Just like clouds in the sky, feelings of anxiety will come and go.
    8. You might imagine the anxiety is like the clouds in the sky. Sometimes there may be a thunderstorm going through the mind with lots of dark clouds. Other times there will be no clouds, as on a beautiful spring day.
    9. Notice when the mind adds extra thoughts, judgments or narratives about the anxiety.
    10. Gently return the mind back to the breath.

Listen to an audio version of this meditation at jeenacho.com/wellbeing. Adapted from The Anxious Lawyer.

Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms, focusing on strategies for stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She is the co-author of The Anxious Lawyer and practices bankruptcy law with her husband at the JC Law Group in San Francisco. This article was published in the September 2018 ABA Journal magazine with the title “Find your ease: Relaxing the anxious lawyer brain takes practice.”

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