July 18, 2019

Killing Them Softly (Part Two): What Stress Does to the Brain

rhodesStress in the law is a given. We know that from personal experience, but if we need more authority on the point, we needn’t look further than the 2013 Colorado Lawyer Satisfaction and Salary Survey, which reported that 94% of respondents said the law is stressful sometimes (48%), often (37%), or always (9%).

Brain scientist John Medina describes the impact of long-term chronic stress on the brain in his book Brain Rules:

Stress hormones can do some truly nasty things to your brain if boatloads of the stuff are given free access to your central nervous system. That’s what’s going on when you experience chronic stress. Stress hormones seem to have a particular liking for cells in the hippocampus, and that’s problem, because the hippocampus is deeply involved in many aspects of human learning. Stress hormones can make cells in the hippocampus more vulnerable to other stresses. Stress hormones can disconnect neural networks, the webbing of brain cells that act like a safety deposit vault, storing your most precious memories. They can stop the hippocampus from giving birth to brand new baby neurons. Under extreme conditions, stress hormones can even kill hippocampus cells. Quite literally, severe stress can cause brain damage in the very tissues most likely to help your children pass their SATs.

The problem begins when too many stress hormones hang around in the brain too long, a situation you find in chronic stress, especially of the learned helplessness variety. . . . Like a fortress overrun by invaders, enough stress hormones will overwhelm the brain’s natural defenses and wreak their havoc. In sufficient quantities, stress hormones are fully capable of turning off the gene that makes [counter-stress hormones] in hippocampus cells. You read that right: Not only can they overwhelm our defenses, they can actually turn them off. The damaging effects can be long-lasting, a fact clearly observed when people experience catastrophic stress.

“Clearly, stress hurts learning,” Prof. Medina concludes. “Most important, however, stress hurts people.”

Some of the people stress hurts are law students and lawyers. Prof. Austin’s Killing Them Softly article talks about the specific stresses of law school:

The stresses of attending law school are legendary. After peppering seventy-five first year law students with questions about their experiences in their 1L year at the University of Memphis law school, Andrew J. McClurg asked students about their dominant feeling at the end of the year. The answers were disproportionately focused on anxiety and stress. Students reported grave concerns over upcoming finals, grades, and failing law school. They described suffering from “sheer, unrelenting exhaustion” and a “level of mental exhaustion I did not know existed.”

Four of the six universally recognized emotions are negative: fear, anger, sadness, and disgust. Stress involves some combination of these adverse emotions. Stress, a concept borrowed from engineering, “can be defined as the amount of resistance a material offers to being reshaped and reformed.” If too great a load is placed on the beam supporting a structure or the law student trying to learn the law, it/he is damaged or collapses.

When stress persists for a few hours or days, a law student may experience a bad mood. Longer-term stress can cause stress-related disorders such as panic attacks, anxiety, or depression; the physical effects include increased blood pressure, heart palpitations, breathlessness, dizziness, irritability, chest pain, abdominal discomfort, sweating, chills, or increased muscle tension. These symptoms are caused by the stress response originating in the emotional brain.

Next time, we’ll talk more about how stress hurts the people who study and practice law.

Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic appeared in an article in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. His ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned about personal growth and transformation, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. If you enjoy reading this blog and would like to contribute a blurb to Kevin’s upcoming collection of these posts, please email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

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