Got Stress? You May Be Harming Your Brain

The Coffee House 6, a Publication of the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association, Spring 2015

2 Pages Posted: 3 Oct 2015 Last revised: 10 Nov 2015

See all articles by Debra S. Austin

Debra S. Austin

University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Date Written: October 1, 2015

Abstract

Stress, is a concept that is borrowed from engineering and when too great a stress load is placed on a lawyer, he or she can suffer from damage or even collapse. Acute stress is short-lived and the body reacts to it by mobilizing resources to deal with intellectual or physical challenges. Chronic stress is long-lasting, persisting for many days or months, and results in serious physical and mental symptoms.

The human response to stress is to engage the fight-or-flight system ensuring survival. This response was meant to address acute stress, lasting for short periods, to manage immediate predator threats. The endocrine system releases the stress hormones adrenalin and glucocorticoids (the preeminent glucocorticoid is cortisol), which elevate heart rate and blood pressure, slow digestion, and suppress immune responses. Chronic stress causes a lengthy stress response and the lawyer body and brain suffer.

Long-term elevated levels of stress hormones can cause impaired immune response, increased appetite, decreased muscle mass, and increased mood swings, irritability, anxiety, and depression. If a lawyer spends too much time in fight-or-flight overdrive, his or her cognitive performance can also be impaired. Sitting deep in the lawyer brain and shaped like a pair of horns, one in the left hemisphere and one in the right, is the brain’s memory processor. The hippocampus is critical to the work of lawyers because it processes client facts, statutes, cases, and regulations, and facilitates their transfer into long-term memory. The hippocampus is one of a few places in the brain that can grow new brain cells in a process called neurogenesis. And it is extremely sensitive to stress.

The impact of stress on cognition includes deterioration in memory, concentration, problem-solving, and language processing. Curiosity, creativity, and motivation are also diminished. These cognitive problems are likely due to stress hormones, which suppress neurogenesis, and cause neurodegeneration and cell death in the hippocampus. And the brain cells that remain do not function as well. Research using brain scans shows that hippocampi shrink in size in people who experience post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, and repeated jet lag.

There is some good news about stress and brain health. Neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, the growth of new brain cells and the development of new brain networks, allow for healing the stressed lawyer brain. The prescription for optimal brain health is a combination of aerobic exercise, adequate sleep, and restorative practices. Any exercise that raises the lawyer’s heart rate increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain; elevates key neurotransmitters; and produces a brain cell building block called Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor. Research indicates that any amount of aerobic exercise improves brain function, but the more fit the body, the greater the brain resilience and cognitive capacity. Sufficient sleep is critical for consolidating memories, which happens largely during REM sleep cycles. Restorative practices such as mindfulness, meditation, gratitude, and yoga strengthen the rest-and-digest system and calm the fight-or-flight response. These practices can lower heart rate and blood pressure, improve digestion, strengthen the immune system, and reduce stress hormone levels.

Lawyers know they need to take care of their physical health, but they also need to cultivate brain health. The brain-boosting benefits of exercise, adequate sleep, and restorative practices can rehabilitate the stressed lawyer brain.

Suggested Citation

Austin, Debra S., Got Stress? You May Be Harming Your Brain (October 1, 2015). The Coffee House 6, a Publication of the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association, Spring 2015. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2668377

Debra S. Austin (Contact Author)

University of Denver Sturm College of Law ( email )

2255 E. Evans Avenue
Denver, CO 80208
United States

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