Lawsuit stress the dark side of litigation

Lawsuit Stress: The Dark Side of Litigation

Back in 1989, an author named Paul R. Lees-Haley, Ph.D., proposed a psychological disorder that he called Litigation Stress Syndrome. At the time, mental health professionals largely ignored him. Lees-Haley was otherwise notable for providing consulting services to big tobacco companies and arguing that mold spores didn’t affect indoor air quality. 

Despite his credibility issues, Lees-Haley was onto something. Both psychology and law professors are discovering how litigation contributes to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and physical illness. Whether you’re sitting at the plaintiff’s or defendant’s table, a lawsuit takes a toll on your mental health. You can find good legal representation to resolve the case quickly, but you should also anticipate significant litigation-related stress.

Litigation’s Toll on Plaintiffs

To illustrate this idea of litigation-related stress, let’s look at the Exxon Valdez case. The Exxon Valdez spill happened in 1989, but the trial didn’t begin until five years after the oil spill. After the initial trial ended with a $5.2 billion award for the 40,000-plus plaintiffs, the Supreme Court cut the damages from $2.5 billion to just $500 million. The litigants had to relive the traumatic events, again and again, for almost two decades.

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, people affected by the spill were asked questions from the Impact of Events Scale (IES). For example, victims would rate statements like “I had trouble staying asleep” or “My feelings about it were kind of numb” on a scale of zero to four. Zero meant that victims experienced these symptoms “not at all” while four meant that victims were “extremely” distressed by the symptoms.

As expected, many people reported significant levels of stress, but those who were litigating against Exxon had the highest levels of what psychologists call “intrusive stress.” Intrusive stress involves intrusive thoughts, mental images, flashbacks, nightmares, and unpleasant emotions, which are caused by an unwilling re-imagining of traumatic events. Intrusive thoughts often lack what psychologists call “autonoetic awareness.” Instead of experiencing memories as though they’re in the past, victims experience them as though they’re happening in the present.

Defendants Hurt, Too

Although some defendants, like Exxon, have clear liability in a court case, many people find themselves being sued even though they’ve done nothing wrong. In medical malpractice cases, solicitors often tell their clients (the doctors being sued by their patients) that they can’t talk about the case to anyone. They’re left feeling ashamed and completely isolated while they await the outcome.

Seventy percent of doctors win malpractice cases, but those victories come at a cost. Between 70 and 86 percent of doctors report symptoms of depression, along with anger, frustration, and tension, during these lawsuits. Even worse, 16 percent experience a physical illness related to litigation stress. Two years after a lawsuit, some doctors still feel angry, depressed, ashamed, and isolated. They still blame themselves, whether or not they lost the lawsuit.

How to Cope

When you’re a plaintiff, righting a wrong through the litigation process can boost your self-confidence. On the other hand, it becomes impossible to put difficult events behind you. Find out as much about the litigation process as you can to reduce your anxiety. Also, find a support group or talk to a therapist both during and after the lawsuit.

When defendants are accused of breaking the law or being negligent in the workplace, they often push themselves harder and put in longer hours at work. However, instead of spending more time at work, it’s better to focus on your personal wellbeing. Cultivate a hobby and talk about your feelings, perhaps with someone who’s been in a similar situation. Many malpractice insurance providers offer one-on-one support, or the insurer might offer a support group for people in similar situations.

Manage Stress Now

It’s tough to know how long a lawsuit might last and what the outcome might be. Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms like overeating, drug and alcohol abuse, isolation, and lashing out at loved ones. Also, avoid looking ahead to the magical day in which all of your problems will end. Take life one day at a time, and don’t let litigation keep you from enjoying your life now.

Whatever has lead to the situation should be addressed and, when the issues have resolved, take something from it. We understand it is a painful process but a healthy attitude and outlook can make a huge difference. For further help and support on anxiety and stress, please read the Mental Healthy guides linked in the menus above.  

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