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Stress can be beneficial. It can serve, for example, as a motivator for completing filings in a timely manner. But too much stress for too long creates distress, a remarkably different (and potentially harmful) emotional response to a set of circumstances. The kind of extreme anxiety distress presents can (and often does) take its toll on counsel: the rate of turnover in law firms, especially with young lawyers, is at its highest ever. That's why it's important to take mental breaks. Here’s why:
Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that carry information across gaps between nerve cells by way of biological bridges called synapses. When learning new information in particular, neurotransmitters must pass through a region of the brain called the amygdala before reaching the ever-important brain region called the prefrontal cortex.
A generally accepted theory is that the prefrontal cortex is fundamental to attention and behavioral inhibition. It creates connections between past occurrences and future predictions to direct goal-oriented behavior.
The amygdala is part of limbic system in the temporal lobe and is responsible for a person’s “fight-or-flight” response. When it is over-activated, a person can become stressed, making the amygdala act like a mental stop sign. Information no longer reaches the prefrontal cortex. And even if a person is not stressed, the amygdala can simply reach its capacity, reducing its ability to allow information through its networks.
Brain Breaks can alleviate stress placed on the amygdala and restore the brain’s supply of neurotransmitters. Put differently, specific pathways of synapses become overheated and need time to cool down. Switching tasks allows that cooling to occur.
Try implementing Brain Breaks in your own practice at least once an hour during periods of heavy work, like writing that big summary judgment motion or appellate brief. A Brain Break need not reduce your capacity for production, but simply needs to create a shift in your work flow. For example, try doing the following throughout your work day:
- Toss a ball while you summarize your argument aloud
- Draw a sketch of your client on the witness stand
- Sing a song
If the use of Brain Breaks can help your practice, then run with it.* And if you’re too stressed, check out Creative's course “Get Wise: Mindfulness for Attorneys.”
Matthew Town is an attorney and author living in Seattle, Washington. He is a frequent user of Brain Breaks. He can be contacted at Matthew.Townie@gmail.com.
*Nothing in this blog post constitutes medical advice.