Your Brain on Stress

By Mia Kontnik
NALP Bulletin+
March 2024

Let’s explore an emotion that we all experience — stress. Are there benefits to stress? How does stress impact the legal profession? What can we do to manage stress better?

Distress is a physical and mental condition produced by negative expectations about uncertainty and potential adversity in the future. As uncertainty arises, the amygdala — your brain’s security alarm — reacts to the unknown as a threat sending out distress signals to the rest of your brain and activating your flight or flight response. These days, uncertainty (typically) doesn’t have sharp teeth and large claws, yet your physiological response to it prepares for battle or to flee a sabretooth tiger. Your heart starts beating faster, your breath quickens, and your hands get clammy. Your sensory inputs intensify, your chest constricts while a cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters floods your brain. You are undoubtedly familiar with these symptoms having battled the bar exam.

Typically, the prefrontal cortex — home of executive functioning in your brain — steps in to moderate your body’s response. However, anxiety, which is persistent worry even in the absence of a stressor, can disrupt communication in the prefrontal context inhibiting your decision-making capabilities. Stress helped early humans cope with the uncertainty of life. However, in the modern-day classroom, courtroom, or boardroom, the inability to access your executive functioning is injurious.

Stress itself can be positive, eustress, or harmful, distress. A healthy dose of stress captures your attention and improves functioning including enhancing your senses, reflexes, and endurance. This heightened awareness can help in public speaking, test taking, or negotiations. Further, new challenges in work and life often lead to eustress — beneficial stress. That positive stress promotes motivation and goal directed activity and produces excitement about pushing your boundaries. The growth achieved through persevering through challenges can help build self-efficacy, improve resilience, and help provide deeper meaning.

Your Perception of the Experience Is Key

When a task is too challenging the experience feels overwhelming. While a challenge perceived to be difficult but within your capabilities allows for persistence leading to a sense of achievement. When facing difficulty, positive self-talk and focusing on variables within your control can help you experience eustress, not distress. Still, eustress can lead to chronic stress. Constant challenge does not serve you; challenge must be balanced with relaxation and self-care.

The pitfalls of distress are familiar — insomnia, muscle tension, and cardiac distress among others. The legal profession ought to have heightened awareness of these issues because anxiety is an epidemic in the profession. Lawyers are trained to identify and assess threats teaching them to filter the world through a lens of hypervigilance. Further, law is a demanding, high-stakes profession that often requires lawyers to be on call, meet difficult billable requirements, cope with high turnover and understaffing, and address client demands.

Lawyers and law students are exceptionally impacted by anxiety. While roughly 4% of the global population struggles with anxiety disorders, the 2020 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession reports that 19% of lawyers have symptoms of severe anxiety and 23% of law students suffer from mild to moderate anxiety. Law students hesitate seeking help due to concerns about the impact self-disclosure would have on their job prospects, bar admission, and social stigma.

If you, a student, or a lawyer, is struggling with distress consider trying mindful breathing to help you transition from your flight or fight response and into a rest and digest state. Regular exercise can help divert you from rumination, and it releases helpful hormones, increases a sense of resilience, and activates the prefrontal cortex. Turn the "what ifs" racing through your mind into a to do list to convert uncertainty into action steps.

As an organization, consider focusing on social connections to foster feelings of belonging and to improve physical health and well-being. Replace a culture of perfectionism with a culture aimed at fostering a growth mindset in employees. Help students and lawyers use their strengths. Finally, the profession must aim to reduce the stigma around stress, anxiety, and mental illness. Being open about these issues can facilitate connection, reduce social isolation, and promote diversity, equity, and inclusivity.

Mia Kontnik ([email protected]) is a career counselor at the University of Denver – Sturm College of Law. She is the Well-Being Champion for the Newer Professionals Section and is a member of the Disability Work Group of the DEI Section.

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