Stress-induced health risks: fact or fiction?

Issue August 2005

Q:My doctor has expressed some concern about my heart and has suggested I take it easier in my work (for a law firm). He told me that both he and I are in “high-stress professions,” and implied that this was in some way connected with my health. But I am not prepared to leave the practice of law, and I wonder whether his view has science behind it or just opinion.

A:It’s probably some of both, but there are factual reasons for concern. First, it has been documented more than once that lawyers have a much higher incidence of depression and alcoholism than the population in general.

American Psychological Association research indicates that clinically depressed individuals are at more than double the risk for heart attack. The converse is true as well, i.e., men expressing high optimism were, in a Veterans Affairs study, much less likely than pessimists to develop heart disease. (We would assume this is true for women as well, though VA research subjects are overwhelmingly male.) Depression and a variety of health problems are often a result of chronic stress that brings a sense of being trapped and helpless in the face of many demands.

There are a number of measures you can take to reduce stress and improve your mood and health. These may include a reasonable diet and taking time to exercise, have fun and nurture your connections with others. Managing your time in accord with rational priorities is important, and allocating some of your professional time to continuing education can help renew your interests in your own field.

It is worth reviewing how you spend your time to determine whether some tasks are better delegated and whether you are devoting too much of your work day to types of practice that don’t match your strengths. Sometimes a change in environment may be just what you need.

You may try any of a variety of relaxation and meditation techniques, which can provide major physical and mental health benefits when practiced regularly, e.g., improved clarity of thinking, calmness, perspective and creative problem solving.

Talk therapy can be very helpful in a number of ways, including (a) getting support, (b) examining and changing negative thought patterns, and (c) increasing awareness of the choices you make (whether actively or passively) and the areas in which you do have power and impact.

Despite our best intentions, making and sustaining changes in behavior patterns and routines can be extremely difficult. Seeing a therapist can help you remain focused on your goals and reduce the tendency to slip back into a familiar rut.

You need not be clinically depressed or in distress to call LCL. Many people seek assistance to enhance a basically positive career or lifestyle. We offer a fresh look at their situations and consider appropriate resources.

Questions quoted are either actual letters/
e-mails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

Questions may be mailed to LCL, 31 Milk St., Suite 810, Boston MA 02109;or called in to (617) 482-9600. LCL’s licensed clinicians will respond in confidence. Visit us online at