As a coach and counselor dealing with attorney burnout, I became fascinated with the neurobiology of our brains and why it matters. I came by this interest honestly after I burned out in 2004 and quit practicing family law. Since then, I have been researching and training to help others heal their pain and struggle with stress and secondary trauma.
The science of the brain has made incredible advances since I burned out. We now have a much better understanding of why our minds work the way they do, and why some people thrive in challenging environments and others suffer too much stress to continue. It all has to do with our evolution.
We Have Three Distinct Brains Housed Within Our Skulls
The first sits atop the spinal column and is popularly known as the Primal (or Reptilian) Brain. This controls our basic functions such as reflex and autonomic bodily functions such as breathing and heartbeat. It also regulates reproduction, survival, and fear.
The second is known as the Limbic Brain, which sits on top of the Reptilian Brain and processes emotions and feelings as well as regulates memories. Some believe that this is the seat of the subconscious mind. There is substantial debate as to where the subconscious mind is located; however, I believe that it depends on the function which is being regulated.
If you define the subconscious as everything that is not conscious, then it more than likely lies in the Limbic and Primal Brain. If you are talking about autonomic functions, that is the Primal Brain. The Limbic Brain includes three structures known as the Amygdala, the Hippocampus, and the Hypothalamus, which control our reaction to threat as well as the fight-or-flight response.
The third is the Neocortex: our rational mind that controls thinking, ideas, and language. It filters information that will be recorded in the Limbic brain and interprets that information as memory. How we think about the world colors our memories.
While each of these structures is distinct and they have separate functions, there is a great deal of overlap and integration. Our baser emotions such as fear, anger, lust, guilt, and shame can be overridden by the Neocortex. Conversely, rational thought can be affected by our primal emotions, fear, anger, lust, panic
How the Practice of Law Affects the Brain
The way the brain deals with stress and trauma (such as the practice of law) is a dance of the interplay between these three brains. Our culture (especially at law firms) glorifies rational thinking associated with the Neocortex and values analysis over feeling. We bury our emotions in favor of intellect. In short: we disregard our Limbic Brains in favor of our Neocortex, which can have damaging effects.
Our feelings and emotions have a biological function beyond our inner landscape. They help us communicate and understand others. Our Limbic Brains communicate as much with each other as we do through spoken language. Safety, anger, rage, disgust, lust, and a host of other feelings or emotions convey messages that other Limbic Brains recognize and understand.
Left on its own, the feelings aroused in our Limbic Brains are short-lived. Where we get into trouble is thinking about the circumstances creating the emotions long past the passing of the circumstance. When we second guess our decisions, regret the past, or stress out over events, it is our Neocortex overriding our Limbic Brain.
Conversely, the Limbic Brain cannot tell whether the Neocortex is observing or reflecting. When the Neocortex sees what appears to be a threat, the Limbic Brain reacts accordingly. the Limbic Brain releases cortisol and adrenaline via the endocrine system, and we fight, flee, or freeze.
However, if our Neocortex wants to contemplate and analyze past events, the Limbic Brain may react as if what the Neocortex is thinking about is happening now. When we don’t pay attention to the negative emotions being generated by the Limbic Brain and suppress them, eventually the conflict between the Neocortex and the Limbic Brain creates stress and burnout.
4 Action Steps to Help Avoid Lawyer Burnout
When people are continually anxious and stressed, conventional wisdom suggests that the Neocortex and rational thought are the solutions. We should just think our way out of our anxiety. However, due to the architecture of the human brain, this is problematic. Here are four solutions to this dilemma.
1. Establish “Limbic Relationships.”
In other words, we must develop relationships with people who are supportive and understanding. A common theme with my clients is the feeling of isolation – the feeling that no one understands what they are experiencing. Being with people we trust and with whom we have rapport is hugely supportive. We can feel heard and understood. When we start feeling safe, the illusions of our rational mind will evaporate.
2. Seek Help.
Finding Limbic resonance as suggested above is helpful, but sometimes you need a guide to lead you to the light. Counselors, therapists, and psychologists are helpful in finding the way back to dry land. If you are suffering from clinical depression or anxiety disorders, sometimes medication is required. Counselors who have experienced burnout and found their way back are also effective. What is most important is to identify the specific triggers that cause the Limbic Brain to react and finding new ways to process them
3. Reprogram Your Rational Mind.
Part of the problem many people face while sliding down the slippery slope to burnout is defective thinking. The conclusions they have formed, the biases (conscious and unconscious) they hold, and the prejudices they maintain all drag them into the angst of burnout. The trick is to find healthier ways to perceive their universe and integrate that into their thinking patterns. One way to describe this is changing the belief that we are defective into the belief we are human. Another is changing the belief that we are victims into the belief that we are heroes. As family lawyers, we have chosen a challenging life – a hero’s life – and we need to believe that we are heroes.
As family lawyers, we have chosen a challenging life – a hero’s life – and we need to believe that we are heroes.
4. Give Your Neocortex a Rest.
Anyone who has experienced the phenomena of overthinking can appreciate how rejuvenating meditation can be. Lawyers tend to overanalyze because they must depend on their Neocortex to succeed, and the Neocortex loves to analyze and think. When it conflicts with the Limbic Brain, we get into trouble. When we meditate, contemplate, listen to music, look at awesome art, or watch a great movie, we can focus more on our emotions, feelings, and intuition. Balancing our focus on our Neocortex and Limbic Brain is hugely therapeutic.
Understanding why we think, feel, and behave the way we do is the basis of self-awareness and self-mastery. This includes an appreciation of how our brain works and why we experience life the way we do. Allowing our Neocortex to run riot over our Limbic brain is a sure path to burnout. Supporting and nurturing our Limbic Brain can bring our emotional life and rational life into balance and heal a stressful existence.
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