Identifying and combatting judicial stress[1]

Mr P Harvey[2]

The article provides a personal account of work-related stress as a judicial officer, and practical advice to prepare mentally and physically to handle the stresses of the role, and to identify the symptoms of stress and to have them treated quickly and effectively.

It is only in fairly recent times that much has been said about the effect of stress on judicial officers. Justice Kirby[3] has identified articles going back to 1981 but the emphasis has been on the stresses of the job rather than the responses of the judicial officers to those stresses.

Professor Cooksey’s paper[4] refers to the general types of stress, breaking them into two groups, the desirable stress that can enhance our performance, and distress, which impedes it, and he lists the objective causes of stress. He considers the constant tug of war going on between the demands of our evolutionary roots (experiential thinking) and “civilised” expectations (characterised by rational thinking), stressing the importance of distinguishing between a functional and a dysfunctional stress response. He takes these generalised concepts concerning stress and relates them to the feelings one experiences when actually involved in the judicial process, in particular, the formulation and delivery of decisions. It is these feelings, ie, the subjective response of the body to the stressors it has to face, that determine whether or not you will suffer adversely from the stress that you will inevitably encounter in your judicial career.

It is my hope today that I can, by personalising the issue more than by taking an academic approach, bring home to you the importance of preparing yourself mentally and physically to handle the stresses of your job in a healthy way, and, if you are suffering from the symptoms of stress, to identify those symptoms and to have them treated quickly and effectively.

Richard Gates has talked about the things lawyers do to themselves that exacerbate the effect of the stressful environment they find themselves in, such as sleep deprivation, overdosing on caffeine and/or alcohol etc.[5] He says “lawyers sometimes lose sight of the human processes side of the legal profession with unfortunate outcomes for their own health and happiness”. Regrettably, things don’t necessarily change when lawyers become judges.

Richard emphasised[6] that it is essential that judicial officers look at this issue of stress in a meaningful way now. I offer myself as an example of why you should do something about this now.

In doing so I want to emphasise that I am not going to deal with the objective stressors that have been referred to by Justice Kirby[7] and by Professor Gates, nor to the techniques available to reduce the level of stress these cause, such as the effective management of time and the need for adequate exercise and relaxation, etc. My aim is to emphasise the importance of recognising that the answer to problems caused by unremitting stress ultimately lies with you, and that once this is realised, the solution can be an amazingly simple one, and one that will serve you well for the rest of your judicial career.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you a type-A personality?

  • Do you like to be in control — of your work, your home, your life generally?

  • Are you a perfectionist?

  • Do you make heavy demands on yourself?

  • Are you sensitive, emotional and worry easily?

  • Are you the one in the family or at work that everybody depends on?

It might be said that these attributes, or most of them, are desirable in one who carries the burden of judicial office, who is constantly forced to adjudicate between the state and its citizens and between citizen and citizen.

But also ask yourself the following questions, because they refer to attributes you would not wish upon anybody, judicial officer or otherwise:

  • Are you tired all the time, depressed, angry, feeling pressured, prone to illness?

  • Have you or a member of your family recently had a serious illness?

  • Is your blood pressure high, or are you on constant medication for it?

  • Do you suffer palpitations, horrible sensations in the pit of the stomach, unexplained chest pains, periods of breathlessness, quick breathing, hot and cold flushes, sweaty hands, racing pulse?

  • Are important decisions being delayed: are you putting off dealing with difficult matters?

  • Are you worried that you may be developing a serious psychological problem … that you may be suffering a mental disease?

Obviously if the answer to any of these questions is yes, any physical symptoms should be followed up with your doctor. You may have heart disease, tumours of the brain, cancers of various organs of the body, bipolar disorder, late onset diabetes or other serious, perhaps life-threatening, illnesses or diseases. On the other hand, you may have none of these, but be suffering to a greater or lesser degree from stress. And, let me emphasise again, it is not the stressors themselves that cause these problems, but your reaction to them.


Who am I, you may be asking, to lecture judges on the effects of stress? The answer to that is that I suffered unknowingly from the effects of stress for many of the 15 years I spent on the Licensing and Local Court bench, and it is only in very recent times that I have learned how to address and to overcome the problem.

I was one who thought “it can never happen to me”. I would like to make as sure as possible that it doesn’t happen to you. In other words, I would like to personalise the theory — to bring home to you as strongly as possible that this is not something that can be left until you first notice the symptoms … that might already be too late. It nearly was for me!

And I also want to emphasise that once identification of the problem has been achieved, the most difficult part is over. The cure and the antidote can often ultimately be most simple, such as merely taking a few deep calming breaths whenever symptoms of stress appear.

But how do you recognise the symptoms of stress?

For me, the first problem was that I didn’t really accept that stress existed. And I anticipate that a fair percentage of you here today view the subject with some scepticism. Sure, being a member of the judiciary is a demanding job, but so what? I’m trained both academically and experientially, I’m intelligent, I know when to seek assistance. What’s the problem? I can handle it. I don’t need any assistance, and I certainly have no time for all those alternative methods of approaching health problems.

The then Chief Magistrate of NSW told me personally in 1998 that the magistracy was not a stressful job. A judge attending this conference a few years ago described the topic as “bullshit”.

I certainly accept that for some of you there is very little, if any, possibility that you will develop adverse reactions to stress. Professor Beverley Raphael, in her paper delivered to the New South Wales Compensation Court in May 2000,[8] pointed out that even the very disturbing traumatic events that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, such as repeated exposure to violent deaths, do not psychologically traumatise most people. But for those of us who may be susceptible to the damaging effects of stress, it is extremely important to be aware of its potential for serious damage to our quality of life, and even its threat to life itself, fatal.

One of the problems for members of the judiciary is that the stress is insidious and compounding. And so the effects of that stress on the individual can be overlooked, not only by themselves but even by their colleagues and close ones, until the “disease” is well advanced.

I was impervious to the problem, even after I had begun to experience bizarre reactions. The catalyst for the move to inappropriate responses to stressful situations can often be a significant life event. In my case, with the benefit of hindsight, I believe it to have been a life-threatening illness suffered in 1988, after I had been on the bench some five years. It was not long after that that I started to become frustrated with work and my colleagues, angry at lawyers, intolerant of stupidity.

I used alcohol as a shield, and drank coffee to excess, but luckily kept more or less to a reasonable standard of fitness. I started to suffer manifest symptoms of an anxiety disorder, without of course appreciating it at the time. This culminated in rushes of blood to the head, at times in my legs vibrating with pressure when I was driving, periods of rage at news of inappropriate political activity or disturbing news items, feelings of impotence to do anything about anything, hands shaking, and then ultimately, whilst on circuit in the south of the state, admission to Albury Hospital with atrial fibrillation in 1991.

Extensive cardiac tests showed that I had no heart damage, and the cardiologists sent me away with their best wishes and nothing else. Following this distressing incident, I started to accept that I may be the victim of stress, but in an objective rather than subjective way. That is, I blamed outside forces such as pressure of work and study, family problems etc. I had co-incidentally discovered the inability of many members of the medical profession to look beyond the mere physical problem confronting them to the reasons why that problem had occurred, that is, the real cause and not the apparent cause.

It was sometime after this that I became aware that I was suffering from peptic ulcers, another manifestation of stress. The response of my physician was to caution me to take things easy and make sure I took a holiday every year, but again there was little appreciation of the need to look beyond the immediate complaint to its causes.

There were other indications that all was not well. When your family or your colleagues or court staff give you little gifts such as “the stress express”, stress socks, a “mood-barometer” to hang on your wall, or little figures to hang on your door handle with words such as “caution, high stress levels within” on them, they may not just be being funny but rather, either consciously or unconsciously, be trying to tell you something about yourself.

Despite receiving a number of such gifts, I continued blithely unaware that I may be in any way at fault in any of this, blaming the job, fate, politicians and even my then spouse, for the situation I found myself in.

It was only when I entered the bizarre realm of panic attacks that I became aware that there was something seriously wrong, although I had still had no idea that it was my inappropriate responses to stress that were the cause of this terrifying manifestation of anxiety.

I find such an experience difficult to describe, even now many years after the event. I liken it most to a living death. Others have described it in the following terms:

Actor Garry McDonald (then only 22):[9]

I went to a party where people were smoking dope, had some, and suddenly this extremely ghastly wave of terror shot through me, with hideous, crippling, sweating panic — I had to flee. I was an ashen, trembling wreck all the next day, my self-confidence plummeted. I thought it must have been an attack of paranoia that people sometimes get smoking marijuana, so I swore off dope forever. But the panic attacks kept returning.

Bev Aisbett, a Melbourne illustrator and cartoonist, (then 39):[10]

This tidal wave of cold terror came out of nowhere and slammed into me. I was in a shocking state, my heart and mind racing, shaking. I felt disconnected and sickeningly out of control, as I was falling through space in sheer, crazed terror. It went on like this all day in surges, and when it finally stopped I wept like a child with relief. Then, my God, it kept coming back.

Bronwyn Fox was a national credit manager (then 30):[11]

Whammm … it felt like I’d been struck by lightning. An electric shock whizzed through my body, my heart pounded furiously, I couldn’t breathe, I was choking, nauseous. I had this weird out-of-body experience and felt sure I was watching myself dying from a heart attack. I was consumed by horrific fear and panic and wanted to scream and run for help, but I could only manage to grip the wheel and shake uncontrollably.

Now I hear you say, horrible as this is, what is its relevance to me?

Well firstly, anxiety disorders, the result of inappropriate responses to stress, affect one in eight of the population. If my view is correct, that judicial officers are by their nature and calling more controlled, more perfectionist, more sedentary, more scrutinised, more lonely in their work, then they are even more likely to be victims of stress than the average person. In their working environment, they have precious little opportunity to follow the fight or flight response to a stressful situation. Furthermore, being intelligent and, at least till now, in control of their lives, they are at risk of being the last to accept that they have a problem. Thus of the 30 or so people attending this course, it is possible that five or more are experiencing the serious effects of unremitting stress, and that many more of you may face them in the future if you fail to take proactive steps right now.

It may be that you are experiencing symptoms which are not recognised by your medical advisers as being stress related. Physical manifestations of stress can mimic a variety of “real” illnesses, from heart attack to bowel cancer.

Garry McDonald took 24 years to find a cure. Those of you who were wondering why he was unable to complete a comeback series as Norman Gunston, some years ago now know the reason why.

The tragedy with a lack of correct diagnosis, and lack of understanding from your peers, your family and the general community as well as the medical profession, is that inadequate or inappropriate treatment can lead to an insidious cycle, whereby people develop avoidance behaviours and become subject, as I did, to real life-threatening illnesses, such as high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, ulcers, stress-induced cancers. At the least, you may lead a very unhappy life constantly limited by fear.

Evidence pouring in from many quarters suggests that stress may indeed impair our immune systems and increase the risk of illness. Both massive stressors — death of a spouse or a child, divorce, marital discord, a major depression, chronic care-giving for a family member with Alzheimer’s disease and everyday stressors, such as taking a set of examinations, have been linked with decreased immune function and, in the case of the more extreme stressors, increased mortality. Stressful periods have been shown to precede the onset of immune-related disorders such as multiple sclerosis, post-polio syndrome, and juvenile diabetes. People who are more psychologically stressed are less resistant to respiratory infections that cause the common cold. Stress also appears to play a role in the development of cancer: stress, including social stress, will cause tumors to grow faster in laboratory rodents, and render the rodents’ bodies less capable of rejecting a tumor. In humans, stressors such as major depression are associated with increased risks of cancer years after the depression. Cancer victims in support groups live longer, while people with few social relationships — a situation associated with greater stress — have shorter life expectancies and are at greater risk for a variety of diseases.[12]

You may think this is a black picture I have painted, but now comes the happy part.

Whilst stress-induced anxiety — particularly that which used to be called a nervous breakdown — and stress-induced depression, are still classified by many as mental illnesses, they are in fact physical manifestations of stress. And they can be dealt with by physical responses.

This is because the “illness” is not a direct result of the response to stress, but damage caused by the stress-response itself.[13] As Professor Cooksey pointed out,[14] responses to stress can be either damaging or non-damaging. An example of a beneficial stress response is that known as the “runner’s high” that kicks in after about half an hour of aerobic exercise, such as jogging, swimming, etc. This high results from the release of beta-endorphin from the pituitary gland. Sapolsky says that to his knowledge, there is no stress-related disease that results from too much opioid (endorphin) release during sustained stressors[15] but if that release results from some more permanent or more severe stress than mild exercise, or from the direct intake of opiate drugs, it will be of short-term benefit only and the pain will soon return.

The clearest example for me of a harmful response to a stressful event came when I was fitted with a Holter monitor to test my blood pressure over a 24 hour period. This was done because every time I visited my GP I recorded very high blood pressure. The fitting of the monitor showed that, thanks to keeping reasonably fit, my average blood pressure was within the normal range. However, there were two occasions during the 24 hours when both my systolic and diastolic pressures were way above normal — when I was delivering a decision and when I was imposing sentence — stresses related directly to the judicial process.

There are two lessons from this. First, giving decisions and imposing penalties are stressful on the judge just as they are on the judged. You must equip yourself to deal with the stress occasioned by the process in a healthy way.

The benefits of exercise and relaxation techniques in combatting stress in the long term have become well known.

The second lesson is to beware of the inclination of doctors to give you medication for high blood pressure when that high reading in the surgery may not indicate a weakness in the heart or blood vessels but rather an anxiety response which should be treated in an entirely different and less harmful way.

Although drugs may be called for to treat acute conditions, the optimum treatment of stress-related disorders requires a drug free approach.

I was fortunate that after some years of trauma without obtaining effective relief through the medical profession, I was directed to a caring and intelligent GP who immediately recognised acute symptoms of stress and anxiety. Her immediate reaction was to write me a medical certificate saying I needed at least three months leave. I can still remember the rush of relief that flowed through me at this recognition of the problem. That in itself was a first step towards a cure.

As it turned out, I never needed to take that leave, because, whilst referring me to a psychiatrist with the aim of gaining entry into St Vincent’s anxiety clinic, she also referred me to a psychologist/aromatherapist whose relaxation techniques, including massage, led me to a state of bodily relaxation that I had no memory of ever reaching before and to the realisation that a cure was at hand. I did ultimately attend a cognitive behaviour therapy clinic but my cure had already begun with that introduction to the benefits of relaxation.

It substantially followed the recognition that responsibility for dealing with stress is yours alone. That is, if you blame the court process, the parties, the pressure of lists, the inadequate resources available to do your job properly, or any other outside agency, for the stress you are experiencing, you will not develop an appropriate response to stress. What you must do is accept that it is your body that is responding inappropriately, and only you can fix it. In the end result, although the pathway may be rough, you can train your body to deal with stress by an acceptance of stress and by relatively simple relaxation techniques. Peace lies on the other side of panic.[16] Step back from your problems and take a deep breath.[17]

There will continue to be many stressors that you can objectively do nothing about. Accepting lack of control over things you cannot change is important. Maintaining practices that keep your body and mind fit and healthy is obviously advantageous. The aim for all of you who have not already experienced symptoms of stress is prevention; for those who are suffering, cure; for those who have suffered and can identity symptoms of stress in others, assistance to your fellow judges.

Listening to your body’s reaction to stress can be a lifesaving technique. Not listening or reacting inappropriately can be a fatal reaction. The choice is yours.

In my experience, the best way to determine whether you are unduly stressed is to ask yourself whether you are happy. If, in the hard day to day grind of being a judicial officer, you can nonetheless maintain a happy mood, you are on the right track. Achieving and maintaining this condition will add considerably to the enjoyment of your chosen profession and protect you from the ravages of stress.

Having gained the ability to deal with stress doesn’t mean you will never again be affected by it. The pressure of the job is constant. Situations will continue to arise that cause you some level of distress. Some of us are genetically programmed to react more acutely than others. It is thus important to continue to use whatever techniques work for you, whether it be relaxation therapy, walking, meditation, aromatherapy, counselling, discussion groups, prayer or yoga: whatever works for you.

The point of this introductory paper is to emphasise that uncontrollable stressors will arise in the best managed judicial proceedings, often without warning, but that you can be ready, equipped to deal with them, in a way which, at the end of the day, will leave you not a stressed out wreck, but a relaxed and happy person looking forward to life’s challenges.

Stress can be a lifesaver or a killer. It’s up to you.


R Cooksey, “Dealing with stress”, Industrial Relations Commission Annual Conference (Judicial Commission of New South Wales), Hunter Valley, NSW, June 1998.

K Cooper, Can stress heal?, Bookman Press, Melbourne, 1997.

R Gates, “Happy and healthy or wealthy and dead: the things lawyers do to themselves”, New Zealand Law Conference, Dunedin, New Zealand, April 9–13 1996.

J Hawley, “dreadlocked”, Good Weekend, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May 1997.

M Kirby, “Judicial stress”, AIJA and Judicial Commission of New South Wales, Inaugural National Judicial Orientation Programme, 1994.

B Raphael, “Traumatised worlds”, Compensation Court of New South Wales Annual Conference, Bowral, May 2000.

R Sapolsky, Why zebras don’t get ulcers, W H Freeman & Co, New York, 1994.

C Weekes, Peace from nervous suffering, Harper Collins, Sydney, 1997.

Other Readings

B Fox, Power over panic, 2nd edn, Prentice Hall, 2001.

A Meares, Relief without drugs, Fontana, Glasgow, 1983.

R Telfer, Continuing learning in the professions, Cyril O Houle San Francisco: Vossey Bass, 1980.

A Page, Don’t panic! Overcoming anxiety, phobias and tension, Gore & Osment, 1993.

B Aisbett, Taming the Black Dog, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2000.

[1] Paper delivered to National Judicial Orientation Program, Sydney, October 2003 (updated March 2013 and August 2021).

[2] Retired Magistrate (now deceased), Licensing and Local Court, New South Wales.

[3] M Kirby, “Judicial stress”, AIJA and Judicial Commission of New South Wales, Inaugural National Judicial Orientation Programme, 1994 at p 21.

[4] R Cooksey, “Dealing with Stress”, Judicial Commission of New South Wales, Industrial Relations Commission Annual Conference, Hunter Valley, NSW, June 1998.

[5] R Gates, “Happy and healthy or wealthy and dead: the things lawyers do to themselves”, New Zealand Law Conference, Dunedin, New Zealand, April 9–13 1996.

[6] R Gates, Magistrates’ Orientation Programme, Leura, March, 1999.

[7] Kirby, above n 3.

[8] B Raphael, “Traumatised worlds”, Compensation Court of New South Wales Annual Conference, Bowral, May 2000.

[9] J Hawley, “dreadlocked”, Good Weekend, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May 1997, at p 12.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] R Sapolsky, Why zebras don’t get ulcers, W H Freeman & Co, New York, 1994, at p 147.

[13] ibid at p 177.

[14] above, n 4.

[15] Sapolsky, n 12.

[16] C Weekes, Peace from nervous suffering, Harper Collins, Sydney, 1997, p 59.

[17] K Cooper, Can stress heal?, Bookman Press, Melbourne, 1997, at p 241.