Resilience and The Lawyer’s Brain

 
 

You awake to a dozen or more new emails demanding immediate attention and you feel stressed before you’re even out of bed. That may translate into muscle tension, shallow breathing, a racing heart or other physical manifestations of a stress-response run amok. 

Or, you may experience mental hijack by your now activated fear center, sending your thinking brain offline. We’ve all seen or experienced this at some point—a minor event triggers a verbal tirade from an overextended colleague, or an overworked associate goes numb after a sleep-deprived week.

Adversity is the norm in the high-stress, high-demand environments that lawyers inhabit—adverse rulings, difficult clients, obstructive opposing counsel, long hours, looming deadlines, demanding colleagues, and so on.

Whatever the adversity, these events call for nimble thinking and the ability to pivot, without extracting an adverse toll on our mental, emotional or physical health.

Fortunately, resilience—our ability to recover quickly, and grow, from adversity—is an adaptive skill that can be developed and refined.


Response flexibility

To be resilient, lawyers are wise to cultivate response flexibility, the ability to pause, assess, and respond deliberately, rather than reflexively or habitually.

The part of the brain that manages this response is the prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain responsible for all executive functioning.

When stressors abound, the thinking brain is easily hijacked by the reactive part of the brain. Our ability to keep that part of the brain engaged and relaxed in the face of an adverse event, forges resilience neural pathways.

The more the brain is activated in this manner, the stronger the neural connections associated with resilience, become. With training, we’re able to remain engaged, observe, and choreograph a fitting response.


Resilience Supports Career Longevity

Physiologically, resilient lawyers experience stress differently than others. Rather than responding negatively to, or avoiding difficult situations, resilient lawyers experience increased positive emotions in the face of challenge, along with the associated brain patterns for reward and positive motivation.

Resilient lawyers recognize adversity as an event, find meaning in setbacks, and exploit them as an opportunity to improve.

They maintain physiological equilibrium, reinforcing neurogenesis in those regions of the brain that subdue the fear response to an adverse event, and increase resilience.

Resilience plays a key role in the success of lawyers who thrive in the legal profession. With four steps we can build new neural pathways that serve to make resilience one’s default mode, resulting in increased productivity and feeling better.


 

B A R R
Four Tools to Build Resilience

1. Breathe This works for the marines, and will benefit you too.

WHAT TO DO

  • Set a timer for one minute.

  • Breathe in through your nose, smoothly and evenly. Focus on breathing into the lower lobes of your lungs, so that all four sides of your rib-cage expand. Move your breath progressively up into your back, shoulder blades and chest (and up the back of your neck into your head, if possible). If you feel your shoulders lift, keep them down on the next round.

  • Pause and hold for three.

  • Exhale slowly and evenly through the nose until all of the air in your lungs is expelled (like the air from a balloon).

  • Repeat five times or for one minute. To keep your breathing smooth and rhythmic, it may help to slowly count to six as you’re inhaling and exhaling.

  • Note: the exhale lengthens the inhale, so if you’re short of breath, exhale deeply, then inhale.

  • Repeat at intervals throughout the day or whenever you notice a stress response. Soon, smooth rhythmic breathing will become your default.

WHY THIS WORKS

  • Shallow breathing signals the brain that it’s in danger, even if you’re simply sitting at your desk reading email, so it initiates a stress response. Breathing correctly releases a cascade of calming chemicals that signal the thinking brain that it’s OK to stay engaged and online, and signals the body to relax. As little as a single breath is sufficient to mitigate the stress response. One minute of correct breathing a few times per day trains the brain to forge resilience neural pathways, and respond clearly to future adverse events. Correct breathing is smooth, rhythmic and below the heart. With attention, smooth rhythmic breathing can quickly become your default, reducing reactivity and building resilience.

2. ACCEPT As Winston Churchill said, “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”

WHAT TO DO

  • Recent research in health psychology demonstrates that how we perceive a stress response changes its impact. To sustain a net neutral impact, when you’re next faced with an adverse event, notice what comes to mind. If you’re thinking is along the lines of “oh no,” literally shift into, “Ok, now what?” Physiologically, this signals our blood vessels to stay relaxed and open during a stress response, preventing potential damage. You may also notice that your physical experience shifts from tension to motivation and greater responsiveness. Practice shifting this way until it becomes your default response.

WHY THIS WORKS

  • Stress is often accompanied or induced by resistance to the adverse event at hand. Resistance compounds and amplifies a challenging situation, increasing neural pathways that augment reactive responses in the future. The alternative—accepting, then facing an immediate challenge—obviates resistance. Acceptance slows our response time while the brain remains engaged and relaxed, and generates the supportive neurobiological system that builds resilience. The ability to accept the reality of what is, also paves the way for more innovative thinking moving forward.

3. REFRAME

WHAT TO DO

  • Pausing when faced with an adverse event to put it in perspective, puts the brakes on reactivity and builds resilience. Take a moment to think of something or someone that you care about. Feel that warmth in the center of your chest? That’s oxytocin. The brain stem is also loaded with oxytocin receptors, so massaging the back of the neck at the base of the skull—as some lawyers do intuitively—also releases a hit of oxytocin. The simple act of refocusing our experience of the stress response from an adrenaline-induced pounding heart to an oxytocin-flooded rhythmic heart, activates a rush of oxytocin to that region, galvanizes the brain’s built-in resilience mechanism, and diminishes unwanted impacts of stress.

WHY THIS WORKS

  • When we’re stressed, cortisol floods our system. Fortunately, oxytocin, a protective neuro-hormone, is also triggered by stress. Oxytocin protects the heart and cardiovascular system, and encourages social support in times of stress (something many lawyers are loathe to seek, especially in stressful situations).

4. REST Your brain will thank you.

WHAT TO DO

  • When experiencing mental fatigue, which tends to promote reactivity, set a timer for five minutes and do one of the following:

    • Turn away from your computer and gaze out the window. Allow your mind wander without engaging in any particular line of thought. If you find yourself focusing on a particular issue, notice and move on.

    • Channel your inner five-year-old. Remember what it was like to zone out so that the world around you melted away.

    • Close your eyes and follow the rhythm of your breathing, or the sounds around you.

    • Listen to a guided meditation, relaxing music or theta waves.

WHY THIS WORKS

  • Brain rest is our resilience superhighway. Research shows that short periods of nondirected thought enhance new neuron growth in areas that reduce a reactive response, and reinforce resilience, mentally, emotionally, and physiologically. Brain rest is also essential for memory, attention, learning, and neurogenesis generally. Mental effort drains the brain of resources; it requires rest breaks or meditation to recover for the next round of effort.

Our physiology is designed to support us. Taking advantage of that design to maximize our cognitive potential simply makes sense.

Many lawyers expect optimal cognitive function on little sleep, poor nutrition, excessive alcohol, infrequent exercise, and minimal attention to managing stress.

The willing among us recognize that we are more than cognitive machines, and that even minimal brain-hacking tools such as these—along with their neurobiological expression—play a significant role in our career success and our ability to live whole and meaningful lives.

It takes courage for lawyers to pause, reflect, and alter long-standing practices, especially when those behaviors have served us in our professional lives. Yet, the toll of not doing so, on productivity, health, and relationships in real and psychological costs, is high.

The immediate and long-term benefits of ramping up resilience on lawyer’s lives, make those efforts worthwhile.