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Tips for dealing with pandemic-induced stress levels, mental health

By Michaela Paukner, BridgeTower Media Newswires

There has been a lot to lose sleep over lately — skyrocketing COVID-19 cases, contested election results, the racial inequality that permeates so many parts of society. But when you find yourself actually having trouble with sleep, it might be time to seek out some help.

In late June, the Centers for Disease Control surveyed approximately 9,900 U.S. adults about their mental health. Forty percent reported struggling with mental health or substance use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The study found reports of anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide greatly increased from 2019. Thirty-one percent of the respondents said they had experienced symptoms of anxiety, triple the rate in 2019. Likewise, 31 percent reported suffering depression, four times the rate in 2019.

Dr. Beth Lonergan, director of behavioral services at UW Health in Wisconsin, said she and her colleagues have seen an increase since the beginning of the pandemic in the number of people seeking help with their mental health.

“These are a lot of layers that are piled on already such a demand for performance in the workplace,” Lonergan said.

Well before COVID-19, relentless competition, pressure to perform and perfectionism in the law was tied to high rates of depression, suicide and substance abuse among lawyers. Lonergan, who joined UW Health after a stint working with lawyers and high-level executives as an organizational consultant, said many attorneys had enough stress in their lives without the additional worry of a global pandemic. Now some are finding themselves pushed over the line into unhealthy and destructive behaviors.

“For people who may be doing pretty well at baseline, they’re beginning to experience more distress,” Lonergan said. “For people already potentially struggling, it can certainly exacerbate that.”

Working from home also can harm mental health, especially for legal professionals. Although telecommuting might allow for a highly efficient use of time, it also can also result in isolation.

“An intense level of competition in law might result in discouraging people from connecting and recognizing that maybe we’re all struggling,” Lonergan said.

Paying attention to how you’re feeling physically and mentally can help you to know when stress is taking its toll. Lonergan said poor sleep and changes in diet — such as reaching for more junk food when you normally make healthy choices — are telltale signs. Stress can also manifest itself with physical symptoms such as stomach aches and headaches.

At work, difficulty concentrating, worsening productivity and feeling burnt-out can signal a need to alleviate stress. People also can become irritable and seek to avoid others, even when they don’t see much of anyone while working from home.

“The temptation to isolate is really counterproductive,” Lonergan said. “Find ways to recognize that it’s pretty widespread, and you may not be the only one feeling that way.”

Lonergan said one activity that’s indispensable to mental health is physical exercise.

Make time to go for a walk during the day or find an online workout that’s offered at times that are convenient for you. Yoga classes, in particular, incorporate meditation and mindfulness practices, proving double benefits.

“They can help you be more in touch with how [you are] doing, but also some of the breathing techniques really help to bring your stress level down,” Lonergan said.

While you’re working, one way to alleviate stress and improve your concentration is to make sure you’re finding meaning in what you’re doing. You can do this in part by looking back and recalling both what drew you to the legal field in the first place and what you hope to accomplish for your clients, your company and the public good.

“For many people, it’s finding that niche that works for you,” Lonergan said. “You don’t have to leave the profession. Attorneys in particular have such a great range of environments they can work in. Chances are, there’s a niche that’s a good fit for you.”

If you’re in a leadership role, allowing employees greater autonomy can go a long way toward helping them feel more satisfied with their jobs, Lonergan said. She said there’s no shame in seeking help from a mental health professional whenever you find stress might be a destructive force in your life.

“It’s really hard to overestimate how helpful that can be,” Lonergan said. “It just really helps to let some air out.”

Therapy can help to identify early warning signs that stress is taking a heavy toll and provide you with ways to ward off substantial depression or anxiety.

“For many people, it’s a matter of going to get a tune-up,” Lonergan said. “Really dealing with that stress and finding some good tools to manage it. There’s no reason to wait.”

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