Do you want to hear the bad news, the worse news, or the good news?
Let’s start with the bad news. Recent studies have demonstrated (to no lawyer’s surprise) that the study of law and the practice of law are highly stressful situations. This is hardly news, though. Big yawn. You and I both know that the law’s I-can-handle-anything culture shrugs at such pronouncements.
But there is worse news. According to University of Denver Professor Debra Austin, that level of stress demonstrably kills brain connections. In her words, it is the hormones, the glucocorticoids, flooding our systems in times of stress that disconnect neural networks and kill brain cells. The more constant the stress, the more damage done to the delicate synaptic framework supporting our lives as lawyers and law students. Professor Austin refers to the flood of stress hormones as the triggering of the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, a/k/a the SNS/HPAA. When we are under continual stress, our brains are marinating in a SNS/HPAA reaction and suffering the consequences. That’s right. It wasn’t your imagination. The Erie doctrine probably did kill something during your first year of law school. And the bar exam? It’s a wonder anyone has a neural network left at the end of that process.
How could I possibly have arrived at this point? I used to kill brain cells having fun in college. Now, I probably do the same or more damage worrying about my cases.
I also promised that there was good news. Professor Austin did not leave us worrying ever more excessively about how much worrying we were doing without also pointing out the exit ramps. I bet that you intuitively know what these stress-busting activities are: these are the activities that make you feel better. We’re talking about making sleep a priority, about using exercise to help us rebalance and refresh, and about taking time for contemplative practices. All of these activities help us shut down the SNS/HPAA storms that engulf our brains and our lives.
The hard part is figuring out how to integrate these brain-saving activities into our lives. Perhaps it all starts, though, when we decide to thrive as a lawyer or law student, rather than to merely survive.
“As an irrigator guides water to his fields, as an archer aims an arrow, as a carpenter carves wood, the wise shape their lives.” Buddha
 What kind of lawyer would I be without a citation? Debra S. Austin, “Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die From Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance,” 59 Loy. L. Rev. 791 (2013).
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