Four Tools to Rebuild Resilience

By Judith Gordon

Resilience—one’s ability to recover quickly, and grow, from adversity—plays a key role in the success of lawyers who thrive in the legal profession. Lawyers face adversity every day, but fortunately, resilience is an adaptive skill that can be developed and refined. With four steps we can build new neural pathways that serve to make resilience one’s default mode, resulting in increased productivity and feeling better.

Resilience and The Lawyer’s Brain

You awake to a dozen or more new emails demanding immediate attention and you feel stressed before you’re even out of bed. That may translate into muscle tension, shallow breathing, a racing heart and other physical manifestations of a stress response run amok.  Or, you may experience mental hijack by your now activated fear center, sending the thinking brain offline. We’ve all seen this in practice—a minor event triggers a verbal tirade from an overextended partner, or an overworked associate goes numb after a sleep-deprived work week.

To be resilient, lawyers are wise to cultivate response flexibility, the ability to pause, assess, and respond deliberately, rather than reflexively or habitually. The part of the brain that manages this response is the prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain responsible for all executive functioning. When stressors abound, the prefrontal cortex is easily hijacked by the reactive part of the brain, so the ability to keep that part of the brain engaged and relaxed in the face of an adverse event, forges resilience neural pathways. The more the brain is activated in this manner, the stronger the neural connections associated with resilience become. With training, we’re able to remain engaged, observe, and choreograph a fitting response.

How Resilience Supports Career Longevity

Physiologically, resilient lawyers experience stress differently than others. Rather than responding negatively to or avoiding difficult situations, resilient lawyers experience increased positive emotions in the face of challenge, along with the associated brain patterns for reward and positive motivation. They recognize adversity as an event, find meaning in setbacks, and exploit them as an opportunity to improve. They maintain physiological equilibrium, reinforcing neurogenesis in those regions of the brain that subdue the fear response to an adverse event, and increase resilience.

Four Tools to Build Resilience: BARR

  • Breathe. This works for the Marines and will benefit you, too.
    • What to do:
      • Set a timer for one minute.
      • Breathe in through your nose, smoothly and evenly. Focus on breathing into the lower lobes of your lungs, so that all four sides of your ribcage expand. Move your breath progressively up into your back, shoulders blades and chest (and up the back of your neck into your head, if possible). If you feel your shoulders lift, keep them down on the next round.
      • Pause and hold for three.
      • Exhale slowly and evenly through the nose until all of the air in your lungs is expelled (like the air from a balloon).
      • Pause.
      • Repeat five times or for one minute. To keep your breathing smooth and rhythmic, it may help to slowly count to six as you’re inhaling and exhaling.
      • Note: the exhale lengthens the inhale, so if you’re short of breath, exhale deeply, then inhale.
      • Repeat at intervals throughout the day or whenever you notice a stress response. Soon, smooth rhythmic breathing will become your default.
    • Why this works: Shallow breathing signals the brain that it’s in danger, even if you’re simply sitting at your desk reading email, so it initiates a stress response. Breathing correctly releases a cascade of calming chemicals that signal the thinking brain that it’s ok to stay engaged and online, and signals the body to relax. As little as a single breath is sufficient to mitigate the stress response. One minute of correct breathing a few times per day trains the brain to forge resilience neural pathways, and respond clearly to future adverse events. Correct breathing is smooth, rhythmic and below the heart. With attention, smooth rhythmic breathing can quickly become your default, reducing reactivity and building resilience.
  • Accept
    • What to do: As Winston Churchill said, “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” Recent research in health psychology demonstrates that our attitude toward a stress response influences its impact. In particular, notice your thoughts the next time an adverse event occurs. Pay attention to the words that come to mind. If you’re having thoughts along the lines of “oh no,” literally shift into, “Ok, now what?” You may notice that your physical experience shifts from tension to motivation and greater responsiveness. Physiologically, this also trains the blood vessels to stay relaxed and open during a stress response, preventing potential damage. Practice shifting this way until it becomes your default response.
    • Why this works: Stress is often accompanied or induced by resistance to the adverse event at hand. Resistance compounds and amplifies a challenging situation, increasing neural pathways that augment reactive responses in the future. The alternative—accepting, then facing an immediate challenge—obviates resistance. Acceptance slows our response time while the brain remains engaged and relaxed, and generates the supportive neurobiological system that builds resilience. The ability to accept the reality of what is, also paves the way for more innovative thinking moving forward.
  • Refocus
    • What to do: Think of something or someone that you care about. Feel that warmth in the center of your chest? That’s oxytocin. Pausing when faced with an adverse event to put it in perspective, and moving into a more positive frame of mind, puts the brakes on reactivity and builds resilience. The brain stem is also loaded with oxytocin receptors, so massaging the back of the neck at the base of the skull—as some lawyers do intuitively—also releases a hit of oxytocin.
    • Why this works: When we’re stressed, cortisol, a massive destroyer of brain cells, floods our system. Fortunately, a protective neuro-hormone known as oxytocin is also triggered by stress. Oxytocin protects the heart and cardiovascular system, and encourages social support in times of stress (something many lawyers are loathe to seek, especially in stressful situations). The simple act of refocusing our experience of the stress response from an adrenaline-induced pounding heart to an oxytocin-flooded rhythmic heart, activates a rush of oxytocin to that region, galvanizes the brain’s built-in resilience mechanism, and diminishes unwanted impacts of stress.
  • Rest your brain, even briefly.
    • What to do: When experiencing mental fatigue, which tends to promote reactivity, set a timer for five minutes and do one of the following:
      • Turn away from your computer and gaze out the window. Allow your mind to wander without engaging in any particular line of thought. If you find yourself focusing on a particular issue, notice and move on.
      • Channel your inner five-year-old. Remember what it was like to zone out so that the world around you melted away.
      • Close your eyes and follow the rhythm of your breathing, or the sounds around you.
      • Listen to a guided meditation, relaxing music or theta waves.
    • Why this works: Brain rest is our resilience superhighway. Research has shown that brain rest—short periods of nondirected thought—enhances new neuron growth in areas that reduce a reactive response, and reinforces resilience development, mentally, emotionally, and physiologically. Brain rest is also essential for memory, attention, learning, and neurogenesis generally. Mental effort drains the brain of resources; it requires rest breaks or meditation to recover for the next round of effort.

Human physiology is designed to support us. Taking advantage of our physiology as designed to maximize our cognitive potential simply makes sense. Many lawyers expect optimal cognitive function on little sleep, poor nutrition, excessive alcohol, infrequent exercise, and minimal attention to managing stress. The willing among us recognize that we are more than cognitive machines and that even minimal brain-hacking tools such as these—along with their neurobiological expression—play a significant role in our career success and our ability to live whole and meaningful lives.

It takes courage for lawyers to pause, reflect, and alter long-standing practices, especially when those behaviors have served them in their professional lives. Yet, the toll of not doing so—on productivity, health, and relationships in real and psychological costs—is high. The immediate and long-term benefits of ramping up resilience on lawyer’s lives, make those efforts worthwhile.

Judith Gordon

Founder, LeaderEsQ, LLC

Judith Gordon is a former practicing attorney, coach, facilitator, and lecturer at UCLA School of Law. Before turning to law, she did graduate work in microbiology/immunology. Judith founded LeaderEsQ, LLC to provide attorneys with the mental fitness tools they need to enhance performance and build sustainable careers in law. She can be reached at judith@leaderesq.net or (310) 968-7270.