I am a lawyer coach who specializes in helping professionals deal with attorney fatigue, lawyer burnout and lawyer depression.

Why Lawyers Need to Know about Cortisol

I have published many articles about stress and wellness for lawyers. It is quite the popular topic due to the fact that stress is one of the legal profession’s worst hazards. Lawyers have a disproportionately high percentage of addiction and depression. Depending on the survey, addiction is higher than 20% and climbing.

Over 40% of the general population, including lawyers will gain weight and may become obese. Why is law-related stress so unhealthy?

Dealing with stress is even more critical during this time of Corona Virus. 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. 

The problem likely stems 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 which 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 where a mother can turn over a car which rolled over her child is helpful. The chronic stress of 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 will lead to the buildup of Cortisol in your system.

More precisely, when we feel stressed, the hypothalamus releases Corticotropin Releasing Factor, which stimulates the pituitary gland to produce Adrenocorticotropic hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands to secret Cortisol.

If you suffer from any of the following symptoms your system may be overloaded with Cortisol:

  1. Weight gain and obesity
  2. Stretch marks 
  3. Slow healing of infections
  4. Bruising
  5. Acne
  6. Headaches
  7. Severe fatigue and weakness
  8. Depression, anxiety and irritability
  9. High blood pressure
  10. Digestive issues
  11. Mood swings
  12. Sleep disorders

Weight gain is a function of elevated Cortisol because it creates desires for sugar and triggers an increased appetite to fuel 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 reach 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 life, but it is safe to say the longer we suffer 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 that unresolved stress is the culprit goes a long way towards how to deal with it.

  1. Intense physical activity. The reason our bodies produces 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.
  2. Polyvegal Techniques. These are stretches combining eye movements to activate the Vegus nerve. When the Vegus nerve is activated, stress in the body is released. Find out more about these techniques in my recent article
  3. Reduce Sugar Consumption. This includes high fructose and glucose foods, not just refined white sugar. While a discussion of sugar 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. 
  4. Laughter. Watch a funny movie, a comedian, or TV show. Laughter and a sense of humor turns off the fight-or-flight response that creates Cortisol. 
  5. Consider Supplementation. Ask your medical care provider about natural supplements that can help reduce stress. Serotonin, Ashwanaga, Chamomile, Passionflower, GABA and adrenal support 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 inherent in the profession that makes the difference.

James Gray Robinson was a third-generation trial attorney, specializing in family law, 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. At age 64, Gray passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. Learn more about his work at jamesgrayrobinson.com or email [email protected].