Your Voice

How lawyers can manage stress and cortisol levels during the COVID-19 crisis

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James Gray Robinson

James Gray Robinson.

I have published many articles about stress and wellness for lawyers. It is quite the popular topic because of the fact that stress is one of the legal profession’s worst hazards. Lawyers have a disproportionately high percentage of addiction and depression.

According to a study released at the 2016 ABA Midyear Meeting, more than 20% of lawyers have struggled with substance abuse or mental health problems. And stress can lead to weight gain and even obesity—in fact, more than 40% of the general population, including lawyers, were classified as obese, according to 2017-18 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So why is work-related stress so unhealthy?

Dealing with stress is even more critical during this time of the novel coronavirus. Stress can be exacerbated by not only the fear of catching the virus but also the effects of the pandemic on our economic and financial well-being. Everyone you meet could be a carrier of the virus.

Stress-related health problems likely stem from the hormone known as cortisol. Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands into the body in response to fear or stress. It is a major chemical component of what is known as “fight or flight” syndrome.

There are two kinds of stress that trigger cortisol: rational stress and irrational stress. Rational stress is the appropriate response to a threat, while irrational stress is the inappropriate chronic response to perceived threat.

For example, the adrenaline rush in which a mother can turn over a car that rolled over her child is helpful. The chronic stress from pressures related to job performance, results and long work hours are unhealthy. When the release of cortisol is followed by intense physical action, the cortisol is dissipated; chronic stress without release will lead to the buildup of cortisol in your system.

If you have any of the following symptoms, your system may be overloaded with cortisol:

• Weight gain and obesity

• Stretch marks

• Slow healing of infections

• Bruising

• Acne

• Headaches

• Severe fatigue and weakness

• Depression, anxiety and irritability

• High blood pressure

• Digestive issues

• Mood swings

• Sleep disorders

Weight gain is a function of elevated cortisol because it creates the desire for sugar and triggers an increased appetite to fuel your body’s defensive physical reactions. If we don’t release the stress, we will probably gain weight, elevate blood pressure, experience anger and get sick—all because of cortisol.

Stress and cortisol may begin reaching unhealthy levels starting in law school. The pressure of making good grades, passing the bar exam, and making a living practicing law can severely affect lawyers.

It is hard to predict when the effects of chronic stress and cortisol will impair our lives, but it is safe to say, the longer we suffer from chronic stress and high levels of cortisol, the worse the symptoms will become.

There are ways to reduce cortisol in our systems, based primarily on reducing the stress of perceived threat. Understanding the role of unresolved stress as the culprit goes a long way toward relieving it.

Intense physical activity. The reason our bodies produce cortisol is to enable us to have intense physical activity. If we don’t engage in intense physical activity, we will pay the price. Any activity that raises our heartbeat will do. The intensity of the physical activity depends on how much stress you are suffering. Higher levels of stress require higher levels of physical activity to lower cortisol levels. Sometimes all it takes is a walk in nature.

Polyvagal techniques. These are stretches combining eye movements to activate the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve is activated, stress in the body is released. Find out more about these techniques in my recent article.

Reduce sugar consumption. This includes high fructose and glucose foods, not just foods with refined white sugar. While a discussion of sugar’s impact on the body is a subject for another article, suffice it to say that high levels of glucose are just as bad as high levels of cortisol.

Laughter. Watch a funny movie, a comedian or TV show. Laughter and a sense of humor turn off the fight or flight response that creates cortisol.

Consider supplementation. Ask your medical care provider about natural supplements that can help reduce stress. Ashwagandha, chamomile and passionflower are all reported to help with stress.

Understanding what happens medically when we don’t manage our stress is key to understanding why we feel so rotten and unhealthy. Knowledge is the first step in recovery. When we understand that the overproduction of cortisol may be a simple answer for numerous symptoms we may be experiencing, our health issues may not be so overwhelming.

It is not the practice of law that is unhealthy; it is how we respond to the day-to-day stressors that are inherent in the profession that makes the difference.

James Gray Robinson, a third-generation trial attorney and expert in family law, practiced for 27 years in his native North Carolina until 2004. Since then, he has become an individual and business consultant who works with a wide range of people, professional organizations and leading corporations. Robinson’s mission is for all people to have fulfilling, peaceful career experiences and work environments. At age 64, Robinson passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. Learn more about his work at or email him at [email protected]. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

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