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Feeling the burnout: Take care of your practice by taking care of yourself

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For Don Murn, the recession served as a painful reminder of how important it is to take care of one’s self.

“My practice is pretty much concentrated on real estate, so when the economy collapsed a large portion of my clients were in turmoil; I think I had 44 clients go into bankruptcy in 2009. They were losing everything. It was carnage,” said Murn, a partner at Madison-based Axley Brynelson.

Murn himself had invested heavily in real estate. The combination of personal and professional loss proved devastating.

“I didn’t really want to start drinking,” he deadpanned. “So to cope I started exercising. I started to pay attention to my body and what it did to my performance. And the more I did it, the more I found it helped.

“The big thing was handling the stress. I recognized that when you’re under the gun all the time and you’ve got fight-flight response and cortisol whipping through you, it really affects your health. Your body isn’t meant to be jacked up constantly on adrenaline. I could handle stress so much better through diet and exercise. It almost became a spiritual journey.”

Dieting and exercising are not for everyone, though. Others might find more solace in talking to family and friends or even visiting a therapist.

The main thing is to recognize that something should be done, said Gayle Victor, a non-practicing lawyer and a founder of Care for Lawyer, a group with roots in Chicago that has been providing therapy services to attorneys since 2010.

NAMASTE

Thinking about starting an exercise routine? How about yoga?

According to a recent study, more than 36.7 million Americans practice some type of yoga to heal the body and focus the mind. Yoga practitioners are projected to spend $5.8 billion on classes in 2016, according to the study.

Need more impetus to hit the mat? You’ll be in good company. The Milwaukee-Waukesha metro area ranked fifth in the study for the best cities in which to open a yoga studio.

Lawyers, she said, are often reluctant “to express any kind of vulnerability, and they tend to think it’s only them. One of the things they have to learn is it’s kind of universal; they think they’re suffering in silence, but it isn’t just them.”

In the first-ever attempt to gather nationwide data concerning lawyers’ mental health, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs surveyed nearly 15,000 licensed attorneys in 19 states. In the end, 19 percent of the respondents reported troubles with anxiety and 28 percent reported some degree of depression. The results meant the depression rate among attorneys was nearly four times that found in the general population.

“I think a lot of this starts in law school,” said Victor, who practiced law for 25 years before getting her master’s degree in social work.

But temporary coping mechanisms, such as neglecting one’s self and suppressing one’s emotions, can quickly become habits. And those can lead to mental health troubles and more harmful habits such as drinking and drugs.

It doesn’t help that the so-called lawyer personality — marked by tendencies toward perfectionism, skepticism, constant questioning, constant pushing and an unrelenting drive to work hard — almost predisposes lawyers to certain health troubles, Victor said.

“The perfectionism gives you an overdeveloped sense of control: If you just work hard enough you can control things,” she said. “And, if you make a mistake, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. … They think they have to be that way; they have to feel this way, its part of the profession and the work. But you don’t have to feel that way. You can learn to manage those areas. You can learn to have a more balanced life.”

When trying to ward off the ill effects of stress, a person can get off to a good start simply by knowing the warning signs.

“Trouble usually presents itself in more than one area of life,” Victor said. “So it will bleed over to your relationships, your family, your social life. Also, in terms of the work, if you’re making mistakes or avoiding deadlines or missing deadlines or avoiding making calls, where you’re really not functioning properly, those can be signs.”

A general sense of inadequacy, obsessive thoughts, even physical symptoms, such as heart palpitations and sweating, can be signs of anxiety and depression. Self-medicating or obsessive habits, like over-exercising, can also mean trouble.

Murn learned that last lesson the hard way.

“My entry drug was P90X, pretty extreme out of the gate,” Murn said, referring to a popular exercise regimen.

P90X generally calls for exercising six days a week over the course of 13 weeks. Breaks are encouraged after every cycle. But not everyone follows the recommendations.

“I didn’t really take breaks,” said Murn, who did two or three rounds of P90X before cycling into three or four rounds of its even tougher cousin, P90X 2.

“Like many lawyers, I overdo things. And I overdid it and beat myself to a pulp. For a period of six years, I just pounded,” said Murn, who estimates he got down to 8 percent body fat during that time. “My daughter said, ‘Geez, dad, you look like hell.’ I got up every day at 6 a.m. and worked out for an hour and it was usually seven days a week.”

Becoming better informed about nutrition and exercise helped Murn change his habits. These days he tries to strike more of a balance. For a recent half-marathon, he held himself to train only three days a week.

But, he said, he’s still on guard against obsessive ways of escaping stress.

“I think the downside for a lawyer personality, for my personality, is you’re driven,” Murn said. “You get yourself worked up and it becomes another addictive behavior, so that life-work balance and listening to your body is so important.”

Victor agreed, adding that lawyers can find help in everything from private therapy to the lawyer-assistance programs sponsored by their state bars.

The important thing is to realize you often can’t get better on your own.

“Address it when you first start to see it,” Victor said. “It can impact the whole way you look at your profession. You can enjoy your work on a whole different level.”


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