Anxiety Alchemy - March 2021

The ILTA Hub Newsletter

Anxiety Alchemy

by Amanda Chaboryk, Disputes and Litigation Data Lead, Norton Rose Fulbright LLP

The pandemic has brewed the perfect storm for a remote environment that could lend itself to working long hours, often in isolation.  At the same time, the pandemic has created rising demands for professional service companies and advisory firms, in addition to increasing requests for financial and legal advice.  Previously, long hours were often carried out in the office, with the accompaniment of social interaction and teamwork to boost morale.  This was also complemented by the benefit of ‘learning through osmosis’ and organic corridor conversations, particularly of benefit to juniors, but nonetheless advantageous to all levels.  Invariably, the blur of work and home life and often anti-social working conditions, has led to burnout, anxiety and other welfare issues.  

On a general basis, we have all experienced varying levels of anxiety.  In an article by the UK mental health charity Mind, anxiety is defined as “what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid- particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future”. A very common situation, is defaulting to the worst-case scenario, which is actually coined ‘catastrophizing’ (and also known as cognitive distortion). On that note, we naturally spend an abundance of time brainstorming the outcomes of different scenarios, such as playing out how a difficult conversation with a colleague or supervisor will unfold. Difficult conversations are a part of daily life and they do not necessarily get easier in time.  We just get more experienced and better equipped at dealing with them. Notably, many professions are centred on proactive risk mitigation. Handling risk professionally doesn't make addressing personal risks or difficult conversations any easier, although parallels can be drawn and experience is of course helpful. 

Anxiety partly exists to make us vigilant and cognisant of real life threats; it is an essential part of both our emotional and physiological anatomy! This makes us human and arguably more effective at our jobs, which involves in some way or another, the mitigation of risk. The positive elements of anxiety aren’t often emphasised, so it’s important to stress that a bit of worry is normal and almost useful on occasion.  For example, reviewing an email or even recalling one if there are mistakes or a missing attachment results in increased accuracy and better communication.  Outside of the academic setting and work, we might be worried about forgetting items on a trip, so we create lists to ensure we have everything. As such, a bit of worrying can be productive and proactive. Below are a few simple examples of how negative descriptions can be considered positive attributes: 

Worrier? -> meticulous to detail 
Unsettled? -> proactive to take action  
Hyper? -> energetic / enlightening 

On the other side of the spectrum, overwhelming anxiety can lead to a negative impact on our daily lives.  Even a low-level of anxiety can be disruptive, such as reoccurring worries which occupy a lot of our time and mental energy. Understanding how we cope with anxiety and what we do in the face of it is key to managing our lives and reactions to pressure.  Pressure in any professional environment is a given and this needs to be accepted.   Particularly in a high performance culture, pressure is likely going to increase as our responsibilities (and lives) get more demanding and fast paced.  This leads to the important point that we need to constantly find new ways of dealing with such pressures to remain calm, collective and in control. In order to conquer anxiety we need to be cognisant of our anxiety, even if it involves changing our habits, thinking, behaviour and responses.  A few helpful questions to ask yourself are: 

• What sets off or contributes to my anxiety? 
• Will this matter in a day, a week? 
• Do I see any regular patterns? 
• Do I notice early warnings or symptoms (for example, increased heart rate, sweating, irrational thoughts, etc.)? 

It is helpful to recognise and identify thinking errors, with a few representative examples below: 

  1. Mental filtering: ‘I told you so, I knew this would happen’ 
  2. Disqualifying the positive: ‘Yes, my presentation was okay but…’ 
  3. Catastrophising: ‘I missed this deadline, I am going to get in trouble…’ 

      We can slip into thinking in the ways mentioned above from time to time. Whilst there is no ‘best way forward’, we can make changes by noticing and gently amending our cognitive errors in order to make anxiety more manageable. This leads to an important question – should we set apart time in our day to worry? Sometimes, writing down our fears or anxieties can remove their power and help us make purposive action. A helpful trick is to label and organise our worries by (i) hypothetical or rational, and then (ii) those within or outside our control.  Allocating around fifteen minutes a day and going back to determine which took place could lead to purposive action and greater control of our fears. Whilst we can’t always control how we feel and how others react, we can control how we respond and be mindful of the impact our responses have on others.  

      Worries/Fears Hypothetical Rational  Within my control? Outside of my control?

      Useful resources

      • Anxiety and panic attacks (Mind) 
      • Tips on keeping fit for the law (The Law Society Gazette) 
      • How to Help a Lawyer Who Is Struggling with Anxiety (Best Lawyers) 
      • The dos and don’ts of helping someone with anxiety (Priory Group) 
      • Leading through Anxiety (Harvard Business Review) 

        About the Author 

        Amanda Chaboryk is a Disputes and Litigation Data Lead at Norton Rose Fulbright, passionate about disputes analytics, legal informatics and well-being.