For a profession that is trained to stay level-headed and unemotional—especially during crisis—many of us in the legal field are finding ourselves exhausted by the emotional roller coaster ride of these past months. “If I didn’t have a family and a job, I’d get into a ball and stay there,” one attorney-client shared with me in her resilience coaching session in June. “I’m usually energized to fight for social justice, but all I want to do is crawl into bed and stay there, hoping I’ll feel better when I come out the other side.” Just the week before, she eagerly participated in the Black Lives Matter protests and was planning ways to foster racial equity at her firm. “Something’s off with me,” she said. “I feel exhausted and hopeless, when just last week I was fired up and ready for action.” She was not the first client who shared with me confusion about a flip-flop in their physical and emotional response to current challenges. Another client shared, “I am sick of worrying about getting sick,” he said. “I have no idea how to keep my family and me safe or how to be in the world right now. If everything would go back to normal I’d be fine, but until then, I feel stuck, like I’m just biding my time at work and home.”
Each of us experiences the world differently based on our personal and professional history and our past setbacks and challenges, in addition to the unique combination of factors that make us who we are (our race, religion, national origin, immigration status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic history, genetics, beliefs, mindset, etc.). As unique as each of us is, and as differently as we each may perceive the human experience, neuroscience research has identified four distinct ways our nervous systems respond to “cues of danger.”
A “cue of danger” is anything that alerts our nervous system that something is “off” and that our safety, contentment, and/or connectedness is at risk. A cue of danger may be big (for example, a client goes into a rage and threatens to make a Bar complaint against you when the judge rules for the opposing side), or small (a client expresses mild annoyance that it took you 48 hours to get back to him). For many of us, change and uncertainty registers as a cue of danger. This is especially true in the legal field where our jobs center around mitigating loss, predicting likely outcomes given our client’s situation, then advocating for the best possible outcome while preparing for the worst. Every day, lawyers are looking for “cues of danger” in our clients’ cases, and we may stay hyper vigilant for cues even after the work day is done and we go home to our families and personal lives. Trying to assess risk as it relates to the pandemic can be particularly disconcerting for lawyers: we can’t “see” COVID-19 and we can’t solve it, which can be paralyzing for lawyers, judges, and professors who like to be able to find solutions to problems and prevent loss. With more unknowns than usual, it is likely more challenging than ever to counsel our clients or rule on a case with calm confidence. We may perceive all of the unknowns as cues of danger, which can leave our nervous systems continuously on edge, causing us to feel uncertain and afraid. “I feel like I can’t take a deep breath,” another attorney-client shared with me. “I can’t settle down and all I want to do is check the news, even though the news makes me feel more anxious.”
The four ways neuroscience research found that our nervous system will respond to cues of danger are: fight, flight, freeze, and fold. (Note that while some mental health professionals include “fawning” as a fifth way people may respond to cues of danger, I will not be discussing it here.) Whether it is a threat to our health—such as the coronavirus—or a threat to our personal or societal well-being—such as racial injustice—our nervous system responds in a way that it believes is our best chance for survival. Depending on the circumstance and the way our individual nervous system operates, we may be mobilized to move toward a threat (fight); or to move away from a threat (flee/flight). Other times, we may be unsure whether to move toward or away from a threat and get stuck (freeze); or at times we may shut down or collapse and withdraw (fold) when our nervous system detects a cue of danger. When our nervous system is in fight, flight, freeze, or fold, neurobiologists call this a “dysregulated state.”
Many move between the different nervous system responses to cues of danger depending on the day and situation. For example, you may be experiencing these four dysregulated nervous system states during the pandemic like this: feeling angry that you are facing financial problems and being argumentative with your business partner or your family when talking about finances (fight); feeling anxious about losing your job or your practice and frantically looking for a new job or career (flight); feeling unsure about what to do with immense financial uncertainty and feeling confused about whether you should fight to keep your job or move in a new direction (freeze); or feeling totally overwhelmed by your current situation, hopeless about the future, and withdrawing from social connections and professional engagements (even virtual), hoping you can come back online when everything is “back to normal” in an imagined “safe future” (fold).
Take a moment now to reflect on how you are responding to any current cues of danger in your life, whether it be the coronavirus, social unrest, racial inequality, personal or professional challenges, health concerns, etc. You may want to think about one thing at a time, or even one specific incident that you registered as a cue of danger today. Think about how your nervous system responded. Did you have an impulse to fight, flee, fold, or did you freeze? Or have you, at different times, felt some of each?
Optimally, as we better understand our nervous system responses, we can be more mindful about which state we are in. Identifying when your nervous system is dysregulated is our first step toward helping it return to a state of regulation. Of course, if there is a real threat to your immediate physical safety, you want it to kick in and help you to fight or flee or even fold (think “possum”) to help you survive that incident. In fact, the four nervous system responses to cues of danger are designed for immediate action and a quick resolution to the threat. But if the cue you perceive is about a future danger that may or may not occur and in ruminating about it we feel undesirable stress, it’s ideal to catch yourself the moment you notice you are in fight, flight, freeze, or fold. Then, do something right then—to help regulate your nervous system.
A regulated nervous system feels calm, breathing is steady and slow, muscles are relaxed, emotions are even, and the mind is clear. The sooner we notice that our nervous system is dysregulated—i.e., not feeling calm, clear, and relaxed—the sooner we can help ourselves return to a regulated state. From a regulated state, we can respond to the cue of danger for ourselves—and for our clients—feeling steady, capable, and able to problem solve with others in meaningful and effective ways. While we may momentarily feel dysregulated (e.g., angry about the situation and feel like fighting; scared and feel like fleeing; hopeless and feel like collapsing; not sure what to do and feel frozen), ideally we can train our nervous system to return to a place of clarity and calm confidence, and then take helpful action in a reasonable amount of time.
Finding ways to return to a regulated nervous system state is much easier than you may expect and takes less time than you may anticipate. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, I have virtually trained and coached over 15,000 lawyers, judges, professors, legal administrators, legal support staff, and law school students nationally about how to stay resilient in challenging times. There are quick and effective ways to move out of a dysregulated nervous system state and back into a regulated state. As we—the legal profession in North Carolina—connected virtually over the past few months, we learned that what is happening in our lives right now is difficult for all of us in different ways. And yet, we are also learning from each other that there are many positive changes happening in our lives and profession, including many of us having more time to spend with our families, identifying where we can “shore up the ship,” and having opportunities to share our stressors with each other so that none of us feels alone.
It’s inspiring to hear from CLE participants and individual clients how using the nervous system-regulating tools is having a positive impact on their health and well-being, and on their productivity and optimism about the future. For example, some participants are taking leadership roles at their firm to foster the hiring and retention of lawyers of color. Some are motivated to pursue a job that’s better aligned with their goals and purpose. Others are finding ways to improve their personal health by using the tools to get better sleep.
This fall, while we may continue to be physically distanced from our colleagues in the Bar, we can also feel more connected than ever by the unifying experience of going through a historic time of uncertainty and dysregulation together. We can acknowledge how strange it feels to be a lawyer whose job it is to fight, to feel instead like collapsing; or to be a judge whose job it is to feel clear, instead to feel muddled; or to be parents whose job it is to guide their children, to feel stuck. By joining together as a Bar, we can better understand our nervous systems’ responses, and experience the benefits of calming our nervous systems together. Wouldn’t it be meaningful to move forward as the clear-thinking professionals we are trained and hired to be and enjoy being the legal leaders our world is looking for to navigate issues arising from both the pandemic and systemic racism—regardless of the uncertainty and roller coaster ride of these times?
If you’d like to read about how to regulate your nervous system using “mini-moments of well-being,” read the article I wrote previously for the Journal.
If you’d like to listen to an in-depth discussion of the human nervous system’s response to cues of danger, check out this interview by my polyvegal theory teacher Deb Dana, clinician and coordinator of the Kinsey Institute Traumatic Stress Research Consortium, on the Sounds True Insights at the Edge podcast: bit.ly/Fall2020Pathways.
Laura Mahr is a NC lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing mindfulness based well-being coaching, training, and consulting for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Her work is informed by 13 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, a love of neuroscience, and a passion for resilience. If you would like to bring Laura to your firm or event to conduct a well-being CLE or do one-on-one resilience coaching with Laura, contact her at consciouslegalminds.com.
If you’d like to learn more about stress reduction and improved cognitive functioning using mindfulness, check out: “Mindfulness for Lawyers: Building Resilience to Stress Using Mindfulness, Meditation, and Neuroscience” (approved for up to four hours of credit of online, on demand, mental health and/or general CLE in NC), consciouslegalminds.com/register.