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Calming the Stressed Brain

Calming the Stressed Brain

This week, I was preparing for a presentation which considered the impact of stress on our cognitive functioning. According to the Harvard Medical School,

"researchers believe that when one part of your brain is engaged, the other parts of your brain may not have as much energy to handle their own vital tasks…For example, if you are in a dangerous or emotionally taxing situation, the amygdala (the part of your brain that governs your survival instincts) may take over, leaving the parts of your brain that help to store memories and perform higher-order tasks with less energy and ability to get their own jobs done. "The basic idea is that the brain is shunting its resources because it's in survival mode, not memory mode," says Dr. Ressler. This is why you might be more forgetful when you are under stress or may even experience memory lapses during traumatic events."

Unfortunately, we can’t remove stress from the practice of law. But good (or excellent!) cognition is essential to what we do, as lawyers and students, so we want to ensure that we have good stress management strategies and that we have an action plan in place for when we encounter stressful situations.

I want to share a story to illustrate my own experience with stress interfering with cognition and then some strategies that could have helped.

I was awakened by my doorbell ringing around 3 am on a Friday night and was frozen in fear. Who would be ringing my doorbell in the middle of the night? Having seen too many horror movies when I was a teenage (yes, it was a long time ago), the only plausible answer was that it was some kind of slasher serial killer. I buried my head under my pillows and willed the doorbell ringer to go away.

As I started to relax a few minutes later, the doorbell rang again, and my panic level rose. Ringing someone’s doorbell once at three in the morning was one thing, but ringing a second time was a whole different animal. I waited, not moving, and the doorbell rang a third and fourth time, each ring about two or three minutes apart.

I phoned a friend who keeps their cell phone on at night for emergencies so that someone would know what was happening at my house (in case I disappeared and was never heard from again.) Like many houses built about thirty years ago, my front door is part glass and the stairway from my second floor is visible from the front door so I didn’t feel I could go downstairs at all. My friend suggested that I look out a second story window facing to the street to see if any cars were in front of the house (i.e., was one of my kids parked out there?) I could move to the front of my house on the second floor without being visible, but there were no cars in sight.

The doorbell rang the fifth and sixth times while I was consulting my friend. It was clear that the doorbell ringer was not going to go away, so my friend reassured me that calling the police was reasonable. I remembered my neighbour telling me that she had woken up one night and heard someone calling for help, so this idea was in my head. She hadn’t called the police because she had no idea what direction the call had come from, and we don’t know what happened. So, on the basis that it was possible that that there was someone outside needing assistance, I justified a call to the police since I did not feel safe to investigate it myself.

I called 911 and explained my situation and asked if it was something they could help me with. The dispatcher was very kind and asked me a few questions, including whether I live alone. I explained that my adult children all had their own places so that while they have keys to my house, I live alone. I told her that they would have texted me if they were going to show up at my house in the middle of the night. She made sure that I had turned on my security system and said that she would stay on the line with me while the police were dispatched to my house. While we waited on the phone, the doorbell continued to ring every few minutes. I heard someone go around to my backdoor—the situation was escalating, but I calmed myself with the knowledge that the police were coming.

The dispatcher eventually told me that the police had arrived at my house and to stay upstairs until I was told that it was safe to go downstairs—I didn’t need to be told that more than once! And after a few minutes, the dispatcher said that the officers attending at my house wanted me to go downstairs and open the front door. I was still quite scared to open the door, but the dispatcher was on the line with me, and the police were there, so I screwed up my courage. I opened the door and could see the two officers. One said, “do you know this young man?” I looked over, and one of my sons was sitting on my front step, cell phone in his hand and looking sheepish.

My son was apologizing profusely to me, and I was apologizing profusely to the police officers. I asked my son why he hadn’t texted me—texting is how we communicate for the most part. He said that he had been trying to call me on my phone, which was of course silenced over night. We were both doing reasonable things in order to communicate, but we were at cross purposes, and we were both too tired or stressed to be thinking our best. To make matters even worse, when I woke up the next morning, I remembered that my security system includes a doorbell camera!

The back story isn’t important—he had decided to take a cab home from some event and gave my address rather than his address without thinking of it. Once he was dropped off on my driveway, he started looking for his keys and realized he didn’t have them, so he rang the doorbell. When I didn’t answer the door, he tried calling but my phone was turned off (or on some do not disturb function that didn’t show receipt of calls) and he didn’t think to text me, thinking I would be asleep and that it would take a phone ringing to wake me up. It all made sense in its own way.

I was stressed—frightened in fact—and I was focused on my fears, which is what stress can do to us. My cognitive functioning was not at my best. I should have texted my kids and asked if anyone happened to be at my house ringing the doorbell, and I should have remembered that I had a doorbell camera even though I don’t really know how to use it.

When I last studied biology, we were taught that stress (or perceived stress) led to initiation of our fight or flight response: when we encounter a stressor, our physiological systems focus on empowering us to either fight or flee, involving an increased blood flow and heart rate while non-essential (in the moment) systems like our GI tract become dormant. However, science now recognize that there is a third response: freezing. My analogy for this is playing dead if you encounter a predator who may be hunting for live prey! So, there are some situations where freezing makes sense from an evolutionary point of view.

And many of us have had the experience—perhaps in a courtroom or a boardroom—where someone asks us a question we can’t answer, and we froze. In the legal profession, being hit with a question we can’t answer is a stressor. If we don’t answer the question properly, our clients’ rights may be endangered, and our worry-prone lawyer brain shifts into overdrive, causing us to freeze--perhaps as an adaptive alteration of flight which unfortunately we know we can’t do because of our professional obligations!

When our stress response is triggered, there are physiological consequences. Contrary to what many people believe, stress is not just in our heads. Here is what Anxiety Canada tells us about how our bodies react to stress:

  • Oxygen and blood are diverted to our large muscles, necessary for the flight or flight responses, and this includes the diversion of oxygen and blood from our heads, causing us to feel light-headed.
  • Our pupils enlarge so more light is admitted, allowing us to better see the potential danger, which can cause us to see black spots or other visual distortions.
  • Blood is diverted from our fingers to our large muscles, so our fingers may tingle.
  • Our arm and thigh muscles will tense up to enable us to fight, freeze or hold ourselves still.
  • We may sweat more because our bodies are working harder.
  • Our hearts pump blood and oxygen to our arm and thigh muscles.
  • Our digestive system slows down so that energy can be diverted to power muscles.

None of these physiological impacts enhances complex problem-solving, so calming ourselves down is important.
One of the easiest techniques is breathing. Not the short, urgent breaths we want to take when we are panicking, but slow deep breaths that actually help us slow down our racing heart rate, frantically pumping blood to our large muscles.
There are many apps that can help you moderate your breathing, but there are very effective techniques you can use without technology and without drawing attention to yourself. I am a fan of square breathing, where you rhythmically hold your breath as you count slowly after inhaling and exhaling. Here is a visual that is easy to commit to memory:
There is also triangle breathing:
 The 4-7-8 pattern is popular. You breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and exhale slowly for 8 seconds.

Other breathing techniques involve different patterns, but I found that square (or box) breathing works for me. The beauty of breathing exercises is that if one pattern doesn’t work for you, you can try another pattern!

With these breathing techniques, you repeat the cycle until your breathing rate calms. It is extremely unlikely that one cycle through is going to be enough, so be prepared to continue to try several times. You will notice that it gets easier to slow your breathing as you progress through repetitions. And if your slower breathing rate relapses to a faster rate, just start over again. Low tech, impossible to detect, and effective!

I am also a fan of 5-4-3-2-1 as a grounding tool. When your thoughts are chaotic, perhaps because you are immersed in stressful chaos, you can engage in your senses to drown out competing priorities and find clarity. It can also help moderate your breathing.

It is also really simple to do. In sequence, you name:

  • 5 things you can see (so, sitting in my office I can see a stapler, my keyboard, my cellphone, a pen and a highlighter)
  • 4 things you can touch (I like to use things that have different feels, so a warm cup of coffee, a cold glass of water, a soft Kleenex, and a pad of Post-it notes)
  • 3 things you can hear (the fan, some laughter from down the hall, my keyboard)
  • 2 things you can smell (my coffee and flavoured gum in my purse)
  • 1 thing you can taste (coffee, again)

I am not sure if any of these techniques would have helped me during my doorbell quandary, but I was half asleep and the half that was awake hit panic mode. If I had been able to slow myself down from assuming that Jason from Friday the 13th was on my front doorstep, I might have thought that a quick text to my kids might have elicited helpful information (and that the worst that would happen is that they would laugh about my strange message in the morning.) Had I received a text back from my son, I could have de-escalated the situation without calling the police. Similarly, if my son hadn’t been caught up in “I am stuck outside Mom’s house at 3 am and she isn’t answering the door but her car is here so she must be here,” he may have thought to send a text in addition to dialing my phone number when I wasn’t picking up.

Equip yourself prophylactically from being defeated by a stressed brain by planning ahead so that you know you have tools on hand when stress next strikes. Remember that simple breathing exercises can have a calming effect, and that if you are calm, you will be better able to engage in good thinking. Know that when you are heading into a situation that has the potential to become stressful—and, as lawyers, we excel at imagining how situations can descend from normal to out-of-control trainwrecks in seconds—you have a plan that involves modulating your breathing. We can’t always control a stressor. Our bodies react because we need that reaction to occur! But we can learn how to dissipate the stress impacts so we can think clearly and make good decisions.