Your Brain, Law School, and Law Practice:  Mind Your Stress Levels

I invited you in January to get to know your brain better.  If you have been following my relationship guide this year, you may know a bit more about how your brain learns, thinks fast, acts out of habit, and buckles under situational pressure.   But it is December – my last post -  and we have only scratched the surface of that complex jumble of neurons. Yikes, under this time pressure, I better get to an important subject – stress. 

Stress and the Law

Exams, deadlines, and holiday pressures, not to mention events in the larger universe can cause feelings of generalized anxiety or even specific dread. There is no shortage of factors in our environment that contribute.  I read yesterday, for example, that a NASA scientist says we are overdue for an “extinction level” cosmic event. And that is on top of last month’s presidential election. How much more worrying can I take now that an asteroid hurtling toward earth has been added to my list?  Your brain can easily generate your own personal catalog of stress inducing events, cosmic and otherwise. 

Let’s face it, law presents a constant series of conflicts and demands.  Law school can overwhelm you with the amount you need to learn and the competitive job market can be daunting.  The stress, however, does not end at law school.  Unless you find a legal position practicing conflict resolution among meditative monks, you need to find a way to handle the hurdles that will inevitably clutter your path.  The legal system is adversarial, your clients are usually in trouble (that is why they are seeing you), and you have a lot of responsibility for creatively solving their legal problem.  Frankly, if you are not a bit tense, you may have a more serious personality disorder.  But let’s handle the case of regular stress and leave psychopathy for the experts. 

A Strategic Plan

Now a little worry may spur you to study or finish your overdue blog post.  A lot of worry may paralyze you.  Left to its own devices, the brain may not be able to get out of its negative comfort zone on its own. You are not stuck, however, with the current state of your mind – you can cultivate a more positive brain with some strategic planning. 

So what to do?  Let’s start with what not to do.  Don’t binge watch a television series to de-stress.  Although plenty of fun under normal circumstances (and a definite must on a long plane trip) passive watching does not engage (and distract) your brain effectively.  Now, binge watching while using a treadmill - better.  Exercise is the experts’ favorite prescription for coping with stress, learning more, and thinking creatively. Make it a habit as a preventive measure. 


From Moving your Body to Quieting Your Mind

Even more useful is experimenting with mindfulness. Mindfulness has gotten some good press lately and it might work for you as a tool for long term survival in the law.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, a founder of the movement, and defines mindfulness as "paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally."  The idea is to experience the present moment, noticing without judging our thoughts, feelings, and environment.  Now, wait you say, that seems counterintuitive because the present moment is filled with negative emotions.  But the idea is to suspend instant judgment of the events currently happening and review your response to those events.  You may be automatically reacting, out of habit, without thinking.  Remember, we talked about the value of engaging system 2 critical thinking processes to override our system 1 gut reactions.  Here is another example where pushing the pause button may allow you to override the automatic but inappropriate response to a situation.  Mindfulness is a way to make system 2 thinking more of a habit.

Consider the situation where you receive a grade that seems too low and you spiral to thoughts of unfairness, helplessness, or frustration.  Pause and consider your feelings and choose your response. You may choose to engage in catastrophizing or only seeing the negative with your grade.  You might, after further consideration, find it is an early opportunity to discover that you have a lot to learn, or that you need to change your approach to learning.  The trick is the learning from the experience (I need a new approach) and not simply stressing on it until other events overtake you and it fades to the background leaving you to repeat a losing cycle.  

In law practice, you might meet other lawyers who cause negative emotional reactions ("that guy is unbelievably stupid").  Before either expressing that emotion or acting in a way consistent with that feeling, pause.  Is there a grain of truth in what was said, or is there some nugget of knowledge about their thinking process that we might derive from the interaction?  Perhaps that lawyer really is not very bright but that reacting with that honest assessment will do nothing to further your client's cause.  With mindfulness, you might begin to notice things you overlooked or possibilities that were previously hidden because you responded before you had the time to evaluate the best response.  

It makes sense that taking a break from the brain’s automated approach to life can improve our ability to find solutions to the stresses we face, rather than constantly reacting A mindfulness approach requires taking the time to learn (look for classes near you and try it) and the time to practice the skill, but it can have fundamental benefits in managing stress and improving our brain’s response to the world.  

Marybeth Herald is a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and author of Your Brain and Law School (2014.)

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