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Thinking Your Way Out of Anxiety: What Lawyers Need to Know About the Brain 

By Gray Robinson

Nurturing your limbic brain can bring your emotional life and rational life into balance and help heal your pain. 

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 law. The science of the brain has made incredible advances since then. We now have a much better understanding of why our minds work the way they do — including why some people thrive in challenging environments and others burn out. 

How the Reptilian Brain, Limbic Brain and Rational Mind Work Together

What we know now is that we have three distinct brain systems 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 needs 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 this is the seat of the subconscious mind. There is some debate over where the subconscious mind is located, however. I believe that it depends on the function being regulated.  
  • The third is the rational mind — the neocortex, which 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 three is distinct and has 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 like fear, anger, lust and panic. 

The way the brain deals with stress and trauma is a dance of the interplay between these three brains. Our culture (especially law) glorifies rational thinking, associated with the neocortex, and values analysis over feeling. We tend to bury our emotions in favor of intellect. In short, we disregard our limbic brains in favor of our neocortex, and this can have damaging effects. 

Can You Think Your Way Out of Anxiety and Stress?

When people are continually anxious and stressed, conventional wisdom suggests that the neocortex and rational thought are the solution. We should just “think our way out” of our anxiety. Unfortunately, the architecture of the human brain makes this problematic. However, there are 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, a feeling that no one understands what they are experiencing. Being with people we trust and have a rapport with helps us feel heard and understood. When we start feeling safe, the illusions of our rational mind will evaporate. 
  2. Seek help. Finding limbic relationships 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. What is most important is identifying the specific triggers that cause the limbic brain to react and find new ways to process them. 
  3. Reprogram the 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 the universe and integrate that into your thinking patterns — for example, changing the belief that you are defective into the belief you are human or changing the belief that you are a victim into the belief that you are a hero. As an attorney, you have chosen a challenging life, a hero’s life, and you need to believe you are a hero.
  4. Give the 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. However, we get into trouble when the neocortex conflicts with the limbic brain. By meditating, contemplating, listening to music, looking at awesome art or watching a great movie, we can focus more on our emotions, feelings and intuition. Balancing focus on our neocortex and limbic brains 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 your neocortex to run riot over your 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 help us heal our pain. 

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Categories: Well-Being, You At Work
Originally published November 30, 2022
Last updated January 2, 2023
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Gray Robinson Gray Robinson

Sir Gray Robinson is a lawyer, writer, speaker, mentor, consultant and coach for lawyers who are struggling with their practices. He was a divorce lawyer for 27 years, handling hundreds of divorces, custody and support cases. Gray quit in 2004 due to stress and burnout and has devoted himself to helping lawyers and clients deal with the pressures of practicing law. Gray is the founder of Lawyer Lifeline, a restorative program that guides legal professionals through anxiety and stress to fulfillment and passion. In. 2023, he was inducted as a knight of The Royal Order of Constantine the Great and St. Helen, an organization that has existed since 312 ACE. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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