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  • 7 March 2022
  • 2 years

Stress Associated With Legal Matters

Ana Barros

Clinical Psychologist

“The glorious uncertainty of the law was a thing well known and complained of, by all ignorant people, but all learned gentleman considered it as its greatest excellency.”—Richard Brinsley Sheridan

If you are not a legal expert, dealing with legal matters can be overwhelming. Having to make sense of subpoenas, or court orders, wondering if there will be an equitable distribution, a legal custody, a hearing, or mediation. Legal matters are usually filled with uncertainty, ambiguity, and unpredictability.

Uncertainty and ambiguity diminish how efficiently and effectively one can prepare for the future, and this will result in feelings of anxiety due to the realization that little is in one’s control. We begin to ask ourselves questions like: What does this mean? How will it impact my future? When will this get resolved? Will I get out of it with what I want? What if I lose? How much is this going to cost me?

These questions and worries often become excessive and intrusive as the legal issue goes on and can result in disruption of daily functioning. Other signs of anxiety include agitation, restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, trouble sleeping, isolation, and irrational fears.

Why does this happen? When we are going through a stressful situation, our brains believe that there is a real, life-threatening danger and sends signals to the nervous system to activate a primal survival instinct, also known as the fight-or-flight reaction. What this means is that our body gets physically ready to flee the danger or to protect itself from the threat by fighting it off. One of the things that happens, for example, is that adrenaline is pumped into the bloodstream so the heart beats faster in order to push the blood to the muscles and vital organs. As a result, blood pressure and pulse rate go up. Another change that the body undergoes is a change in breathing. Our body needs as much oxygen in the lungs as possible so the brain gets more oxygen, which increases alertness.

These and other changes happen so quickly that people aren’t aware of them, and sometimes we react before we even have a chance to visually process what is happening. That is why people can jump out of the path of an oncoming car, for example, even before they think about what they are doing.

This is a primitive reaction, and if we were not rational beings, it would just be a reaction to a moment of danger. However, we are rational beings, which means we think, remember, and can relive situations in our mind. That sounds good if it weren’t for the fact that we have automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) running around in our heads. These are the thoughts that make our brains believe that we are always in danger causing the body to react, even when we are in the safety of our home on a calm sunny day.

When dealing with legal matters, until they are completely resolved, the uncertainty of the outcome can be a cause of overthinking and worrying about the future.

So, what can we do to minimize these stubborn and uncomfortable ANTs and all the emotions they stir up? Here are a few tips:

  • Get reliable legal counsel. Having an attorney or solicitor who you trust and who can explain exactly what is going on with your case and what the options or possible outcomes are at any given point is one way to reduce the stress and uncertainty. Do not be afraid to ask all the questions you have. Write them down, and either email them or set up a meeting to discuss them.
  • Pocket your ANTs, and assign time to reflect on them. When I say pocket your ANTs, what I mean is have a small notebook (that will fit in a pocket) or use the notes section of your phone, for example, so that any time your ANTs show up, you can write them down (getting them out of your mind for the moment and onto your notes). Then, assign some “worry time” for yourself. During this worry time (can be 30 minutes or an hour of your day), you can let yourself worry about what is going on. This allows you to feel more in control of those unruly ANTs, and it gives you permission to worry about what is going on, without it feeling too overwhelming.
  • Allow yourself time to relax. Spend time with your support system (friends or family). Focus on your self-care by engaging in activities that you enjoy that relax you and help clear your mind. Listening to guided meditations is a good way to empty your mind of what is happening and fill it up with more positive thoughts.
  • Focus on keeping healthy. Remember that a healthy body leads to a healthy mind, so eating, sleeping, and exercise play an important part in your self-care. Watch out for an increase in unhealthy coping habits like nicotine, alcohol, and food.
  • Reach out for counseling. A counselor can help you to make some sense of your feelings and provide you with positive coping strategies to manage the stress you are going through.

Finally, remember to breathe. Everything we go through, no matter how challenging, is an opportunity to grow and learn. As Nelson Mandela once said, “I never lose. I either win or I learn.”

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