As a coach and counselor specializing in addressing attorney burnout, I developed a keen interest in the neurobiology of our brains and its significance. This fascination stemmed from my personal experience of burning out in 2004 and subsequently leaving my family law practice. Since then, I’ve been dedicated to researching and undergoing training to aid others in healing their pain and coping with stress and secondary trauma.
Since my own burnout, significant advancements have occurred in brain science. Our understanding of how our minds function and why some individuals thrive in demanding settings while others succumb to overwhelming stress has greatly improved. It all ties back to our evolution and the intricacies of our brains.
We Have Three Distinct Brains Housed Within Our Skulls
The first part of our brain is situated atop the spinal column and is commonly referred to as the Primal (or Reptilian) Brain. It governs essential functions like reflexes and autonomic bodily processes such as breathing and heartbeat. Additionally, it regulates reproduction, survival instincts, and fear responses.
The second part, known as the Limbic Brain, rests on top of the Reptilian Brain and handles emotions, feelings, and memory regulation. Some believe it to be the seat of the subconscious mind, though the exact location of the subconscious mind remains a topic of debate, potentially dependent on the function being controlled.
If we define the subconscious as everything not consciously perceived, it likely resides in the Limbic and Primal Brain. For autonomic functions, the Primal Brain is responsible. Within the Limbic Brain, there are three key structures – the Amygdala, the Hippocampus, and the Hypothalamus – which govern our reactions to threats and initiate the fight-or-flight response.
The third part is the Neocortex, our rational mind that governs thinking, ideas, and language. It filters information for storage in the Limbic Brain and interprets that information as memory. Our perception of the world influences the way we remember things.
While these brain structures have distinct functions, they also demonstrate significant overlap and integration. Our primal emotions like fear, anger, lust, guilt, and shame can be overridden by the Neocortex, and vice versa, where rational thought can be impacted by primal emotions like fear, anger, lust, and panic.
How the Practice of Law Affects the Brain
The brain’s response to stress and trauma, such as the challenges of law practice, involves a delicate dance between these three brain components. Our culture, particularly in law firms, tends to idolize rational thinking associated with the Neocortex, prioritizing analysis over emotions. As a result, we often suppress our emotions in favor of intellect. This imbalance leads us to neglect our Limbic Brains, which can be detrimental.
Beyond our inner world, our emotions serve a vital biological function. They facilitate communication and mutual understanding. The Limbic Brains within us communicate with each other as effectively as we do through spoken language. Emotions like safety, anger, rage, disgust, lust, and others convey messages that other Limbic Brains can recognize and comprehend.
When left undisturbed, the emotions triggered in our Limbic Brains are typically short-lived. The real challenge arises when we dwell on the circumstances that gave rise to those emotions long after the actual event has passed. Revisiting decisions, harboring regrets, or becoming excessively stressed over past occurrences is our Neocortex taking control over our Limbic Brain.
On the flip side, the Limbic Brain cannot differentiate whether the Neocortex is observing or analyzing. If the Neocortex perceives a potential threat, the Limbic Brain reacts accordingly, releasing cortisol and adrenaline through the endocrine system, leading us to fight, flee, or freeze.
However, when the Neocortex engages in contemplation and analysis of past events, the Limbic Brain may respond as if those thoughts are happening in the present. If we neglect to address the negative emotions generated by the Limbic Brain and suppress them, the conflict between the Neocortex and the Limbic Brain eventually results in stress and burnout.
4 Action Steps to Help Avoid Lawyer Burnout
When individuals experience persistent anxiety and stress, the conventional approach often revolves around relying on the Neocortex and rational thinking as the solutions. The belief is that we should be able to think our way out of anxiety. However, the intricate structure of the human brain complicates this approach. To address this dilemma, here are four alternative solutions.
1. Establish “Limbic Relationships.”
Put simply, it is essential to cultivate relationships with supportive and understanding individuals. Many of my clients often express a sense of isolation, believing that nobody truly comprehends their experiences. Being in the company of trusted individuals with whom we share rapport can be incredibly uplifting. In such settings, we feel heard and understood, and as a result, the illusions created by our rational mind begin to fade away.
2. Seek Help.
Discovering Limbic resonance, as mentioned earlier, can be beneficial, but there are instances where you may need a guide to lead you towards healing. Counselors, therapists, and psychologists can be instrumental in helping you find solid ground once again. In cases of clinical depression or anxiety disorders, medication may be necessary. Counselors who have personally experienced burnout and successfully recovered can also provide effective support. The key is to pinpoint the specific triggers that prompt the Limbic Brain to react and seek new strategies to process and cope with them.
3. Reprogram Your Rational Mind.
A significant aspect of the challenge many individuals encounter on the path to burnout is flawed thinking. The conclusions they have drawn, conscious and unconscious biases, and the prejudices they harbor all contribute to their distress and eventual burnout. The key lies in discovering healthier ways to perceive their world and integrating these perspectives into their thinking patterns.
One approach to this transformation is shifting the belief that we are defective to the belief that we are simply human. Another empowering change is replacing the belief of being victims with the belief that we are heroes. As family lawyers, we have chosen a demanding and heroic path, and it is crucial to embrace the notion that we are indeed heroes in our own right.
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.
Experiencing the trap of overthinking can make anyone value the rejuvenating power of meditation. Lawyers, in particular, tend to overanalyze due to their heavy reliance on the Neocortex for success, as this part of the brain loves to analyze and ponder. However, when this analytical aspect conflicts with the Limbic Brain, problems arise. Engaging in meditation, contemplation, enjoying music, appreciating art, or watching a captivating movie allows us to shift our focus to our emotions, feelings, and intuition. Striking a balance between our Neocortex and Limbic Brain proves highly therapeutic.
Developing self-awareness and self-mastery hinges on understanding why we think, feel, and behave as we do. This involves appreciating the workings of our brain and comprehending how it shapes our life experiences. Allowing the Neocortex to overpower the Limbic Brain is a surefire path to burnout. Instead, nurturing and supporting our Limbic Brain can bring emotional and rational aspects of life into harmony and promote healing from a stressful existence.