Stress and the Lawyer Brain

Dr. Larry Richard

By Dr. Larry Richard

I’ve posted before about lawyer negativity and low Resilience. Today I want to address a related topic–How stress affects people in general and lawyers in particular. When we experience a stressful situation, we each react differently. Some people cope really well with stress, take it in stride, aren’t knocked over by it, and recover quickly when they are affected by it. Others are more vulnerable to the effects of stress–we cave in more readily, suffer more, and have a harder time getting back to equilibrium. Earlier this year, a prominent neuropsychologist, Richard Davidson, published a book called The Emotional Life of Your Brain, in which he presents findings from his 30 years of research. He makes the case that every person has a certain “Emotional Style” that is the collective result of how that individual is wired in each of 6 types of brain circuitry. Each circuit is like a dimmer switch, with a high and a low end, and on each circuit, we have a “set point” or a comfort zone. Each of these circuits can be reliably measured in a scientific way.

One of those circuits Davidson specifically calls “Resilience”, which refers to how quickly one recovers from an assault to the system such as being stressed out by an external event. Some people naturally recover quickly from such stresses; others are naturally slow to recover. We all start out in life with a set point, a comfort zone, a home base. The most important point he makes is that recent research suggests that we can change our set point by how we think and by how we pay attention. Davidson has done extensive research, for example, on the impact that mindfulness meditation has on brain circuitry, and he has shown that continued practice produces profound changes in these circuits, and as a result, changes in how practitioners respond to stress.

One of the other circuits that Davidson discusses is called “Outlook”, and it has to do with how positively or negatively one views the world–and how long they can sustain a positive affect. At one end is the person with a sunny disposition, a positive view of life, a “glass half full” mindset. They not only feel positive, but they’re able to sustain that positive feeling for longer periods of time. At the opposite pole is the pessimistic, negative, cynical person. Davidson has shown that there are brain circuits that remain electrically active longer in the positive person, but turn off more quickly in the negative person.

We don’t have data about how lawyers score on Davidson’s 6 brain dimensions. Measuring these circuits requires sophisticated and expensive laboratory equipment. But we do have lots of personality data that convincingly show that lawyers are very low on resilience. We also have evidence from research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania that a negative outlook can actually foster lower resilience. And–good news–the converse is also true, i.e., when people are trained to think more positively, their resilience can be fortified.

All of this research is incipient. Much more needs to be done. But there is more evidence than ever before that the following propositions seem true:

a) People vary in the degree to which they have a positive or negative outlook.

b) People vary in the degree to which they bounce back from setbacks (i.e., resilience).

c) A negative outlook may, in fact, foster lower resilience.

d) By training people to modify their cognitions, they can be taught to change to a more positive outlook set point, and they can be taught to increase their resilience set point.

e) These kinds of changes can have enormous beneficial consequences in their personal and work lives.

For more on this topic, see this blog post by Daniel Goleman, the psychologist who gained fame from writing the bestselling book on Emotional Intelligence:

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

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