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Stressed and Depressed Guys in Blue Suits

Posted Dec 08 2010 4:24pm

Beneath the body armor of their pin-striped suits, male lawyers carry a terrible burden. Corrosive levels of stress bombard them and they’re expected to pony up and take it by fellow lawyers and judges and themselves. There is a serious disconnect between the conversations going on inside their heads about how they really feel about their inner turmoil and the ways they present themselves to their busy world as competent, confident and glacial under pressure.

Studies show that lawyers suffer from elevated rates of stress and depression –  more than double the rates found in the general population. There are some physiological and psychological clues as to why this is so for men in the legal profession.

A new study finds that stressed men have diminished activity in brain regions responsible for understanding other’s feelings.  The study concludes that under stress, men tend to withdraw socially while women seek emotional support.  Recently, I was preparing for a trial scheduled to go on a Monday.   I had worked hard the whole weekend and was cranky and exhausted.  Sunday afternoon, my wife asked if I felt okay and whether I was stressed.  I shrugged off her question and said that I really didn’t want to talk about it. 

Yet in times when my wife is stressed, she turns to me for support and encouragement – and she’s a lawyer too.  As a man in the legal profession, I expect myself to just bear it and soldier on through the mud of litigation.  If you can’t take it, you can’t cut it goes the mindset in the legal culture.  As if there were no middle ground, no way to express this sense of free-floating anxiety.  As if it was all that simple.

There was an interesting article in yesterday’s ABA Journal, “ Lawyers under Stress are Critical, Cautious and Distant, Personality Test Shows .” The tests, administered to 1800 lawyers at big firms, were conducted in collaboration with Hogan Assessment Systems, found that, on average, the lawyers:

• Generally do not seem to have a strong need for public recognition, although there is a subset of lawyers who seem to crave recognition and notoriety.

• Tend to deal with others in a direct and matter-of-fact way, but may come across as cold, critical and argumentative.

• Tend to be self-critical and temperamental but are also self-aware, open to feedback, and emotionally expressive.

• Are most attracted to environments that emphasize quality and are less commercially focused than professionals in other industries.

• Tend to value education and educational activities.

While these stress-related problems don’t necessarily cause male depression, they are additional risk factors for those are predisposed to it.

Terrence Real, author of the book “ I Don’t Want to Talk about It ,” makes an important point about how men deal with their melancholy: for every male who discloses his depression and gets treatment, there are four others who are able to hide it and won’t get help. He writes:

“Covert male depression has three main domains: self-medication, isolation and lashing out. Self-medication may be drinking, drugging, womanizing and even watching excessive amounts of television. Some forms of self-medication are tolerated by our culture so it is hard to get across that what these men are doing is stabilizing depression.

A covertly depressed man will isolate himself and withdraw from intimacy with his partner, his kids, his friends. He can’t afford to be intimate with others because he is desperately trying not to be intimate with himself.

Lashing out can mean violence and domestic abuse. Untreated depression may be an integral part of many male batterers.”

Men drive their pain deeper into the well of their being to avoid dealing with it, to avoid facing the fact that they feel overburdened and, perhaps, afraid.  Alone at the bottom, there is darkness with no ladder out.  Many of them will need an escape rope dropped into them by other caring people, if they are lucky to have such people in their lives.  They feel odd and alone; like they are the only man alive with this problem.

In fact, depression is a secret pain at the core of many men’s lives, and one that goes largely undiagnosed and untreated. Watch the trailer of the recent documentary “Men Get Depression” which aired on PBS:

Check out this stress blog by therapist, Elizabeth Scott.

For a quick fix, check this web article “ Eight Immediate Stress-Busters .”

Read an article I wrote for lawyers in December, 2008 edition of Trial Magazine, “The Connection between Stress, Anxiety and Depression.” It is a companion to Dr. Andrew Benjamn’s wise advice, “Reclaim Your Life, Reclaim Your Practice.”

Read Terrence Real’s book because it’s important for all of us to learn about depression from a male perspective.  Also check out the website Mid-Life Men which offers stories from guys about their depression experiences.

Have your wife read Is He Depressed or What? Many women ask themselves this question every day wondering whether their husband or boyfriend’s short temper, tendency to withdraw, and mysterious physical complaints might be indications of some deeper psychological issue. The book offers an overview of the ways men typically express signs of depression. It provides strategies they can use for improving communication, dealing with relationship complications, and coping with men’s physical symptoms related to depression, such as insomnia and sexual dysfunction.

Above all, the book helps your spouse avoid becoming lost in your depression. By paying attention to their own needs, they can best preserve their well-being and peace of mindand so are able to offer the most support to you.  I often suggest that men buy this book for their wives rather than ask their wives to go out and buy it.  This demonstrates that you are in this together, that you care about her feelings and that you want her to understand.

Get help.  Therapy is not scary and you don’t have to go it alone. Therapy will help you to feel better by having someone to talk with.  Check out this article where a therapist answers seven questions about how therapy works and what to expect. It is something productive you can do about your stress, anxiety and depression and it can help you to develop some better coping skills.  If you are concerned about being seen, many therapists have early morning or late evening hours. You also tell them that you have a concern about being seen by fellow attorneys or judges and request that he or she not schedule you at a time when that therapist may be treating someone you don’t want to see.

Men, you can’t handle exorbitant levels of stress and depression on your own.  It’s not shameful to get help.

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