Rewire Your Burned-out Brain

Burnout often results from extended periods enduring the emotional stress precipitated by unaccomplished expectations or failure to fulfill unreasonable demands. The symptoms can include intensified emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, lowered self-worth, changes in eating and exercising habits, social withdrawal, sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.

If You’re Burned Out, Your Brain Has Rewired to Survival Mode

There are specific and reproducible patterns of changing neural activity and brain connectivity associated with the stress buildup that leads to burnout. In the high-stress state subjects’ neuroimaging scans reveal less activity in the higher, reflective brain (Prefrontal cortex/PFC) and more activity in the lower, reactive brain that controls involuntary behaviors and emotional responses. Prolonged stress correlates with structural increases in the density and speed of the neuron-to-neuron connections in the emotion-driven reactive networks of the lower brain and corresponding decreases connections in prefrontal cortex conscious and reflective control centers.

The explanation of these changes is attributed to the brain’s neuroplasticity defined by the phrase: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The brain literally rewires to be more efficient in conducting information through the circuits that are most frequently activated.

When stress is frequent, the more frequent activation of the neural pathways to the lower, stress-reactive brain results in their strengthening from enhanced wiring (dendrites, synapses, myelinated axons). These pathways can become so strong that they become your brain’s fast route to its lower, reactive control centers. The stressful, burned out state when the lower, reactive brain is in charge overcomes the calm, reflective, and productive higher neural processing in the (PFC) – the preferred brain locale for control of behavior and emotional self-management.

As your efforts to achieve unreasonable goals are thwarted or increasing demands recur, and the lower brain dominates more frequently, you lose touch with your reflective brain. With less management coming from your reflective PFC, it becomes harder and harder to logically see these challenges in realistic perspective or to solve problems creatively.

Disappointments take on more emotional power and without your higher brain’s perspective, they are interpreted as personal failures. Your self-doubt and stress further activate and strengthen your brain’s involuntary, reactive neural networks. The spiral down to burnout accelerates as these circuits become the automatic go-to networks. Your brain achieves less success in problem-solving and emotional control and ultimately reacts by withholding efforts to escape the burnout state.

Reset Your Brain’s Default Neural Network from Retreat to IGNITE!

The good news is you can apply what we’ve learned from neuroscience about your brain’s survival mode to take actions to retrieve voluntary control of your choices and emotional wellbeing.

You can activate the same neuroplasticity, that gave dominance to the lower brain networks in the burnout state, to construct a new, stronger positive default response. With increasing successful experiences in achieving goals, you can reset the circuits to redirect your brain to access its highest cognitive resources. You can build up newly improved circuitry switching your responses from retreat to IGNITE for mindful awareness and creative problem-solving!

Since an effort-failure pattern sets up the brain’s survival response to withhold effort, you’ll need to strengthen your brain’s recognition that effort toward your goals can result in success. Your weapon of mass reconstruction can come from your brain’s very powerful drive for its own intrinsic neurochemical reward— dopamine and the deeply satisfying and motivating pleasure it brings. When the brain releases dopamine in rewarding bursts, you experience a deep intrinsic satisfaction along with increased motivation, curiosity, perseverance, and memory. Dopamine is particularly released when your brain recognizes that you’ve achieved a challenge (from the “I get it” of figuring out a joke to the satisfaction of completing a marathon).

To get the dopamine-pleasure response from challenges achieved, you’ll need to plan for your brain to experience frequent recognition (feedback awareness) of incremental progress. The choices of what you set as a goal should be guided by their desirability and the goal’s suitability to be broken down into clear segments. You want to set goals, the progress of which, you can chart or easily recognize with each stepwise challenge and success. The pleasure burst of dopamine’s intrinsic motivation accompanying your brain’s recognition of each progressive increment achieved in the goal pathway will keep you motivated to persevere.

Goal Buy-In for Your Brain’s Neural REWIRING

Buy-in and relevance are important in choosing your rewiring goal. Since your goal is to rewire your brain’s expectations that your goal efforts do yield progress, despite increasing challenge, you need to really want the goal. This is not the time to challenge yourself with something you feel you should do, but won’t really look forward to, such as dieting, climbing stadium stairs, or flossing after every meal.

The idea of planning and achieving goals as a burnout intervention is probably not new to you. These are likely to be activities you’ve considered but didn’t do for the obvious reason. They take time. when it comes to adding another activity to your schedule, past experiences have left you with the expectation that there is not enough time.

These first goals that can provide ongoing awareness of your progress are often tangible (visible, such as planting a garden or making pottery on a wheel, or auditory such as playing an instrument, or physical such as learning tai chi), but your goal can also be spending more time at something you already do, but want to do more frequently or successfully, such as journaling, practicing yoga, or sketching.

You’ll Find Your Own Goal for Buy-In, but Here are Some Examples of Planning 

Physical goals: Notice I didn’t say exercise. That’s not as motivating as “training” for a physical goal you want to achieve, even though they often overlap. If you want to run a 10K, and you enjoy running, the goal for an achievable challenge could first be building up to the distance starting with your baseline distance you comfortably run now. Then, plot out the increments that you’ll consider progressive successes, such as adding 100M each day or a week (with increments based on what you consider both challenging and achievable). Once you reach 10K goal, speed can become the next goal again plotted out in segments of incremental progress before you start.

Hobbies: From woodworking to shooting wooden arrows, hobbies really are opportunities for brain rewiring. Again, plan your stepwise achievable challenge increments. If you select darts, start with a home dartboard—low initial investment and throw from a close, but challenging distance at first. As you get better in accuracy move back further. Record your results with the notations of the distance of each improvement you set as an achievable challenge. If you get so good that you are no longer challenged by the dartboard, try that archery!

Mindfulness and meditation are certainly positive interventions for burnout and will be topics of a subsequent blog.

Your Rewired Brain’s Default Changes from Defeat to Ignite

With your understanding of what happened in your brain to create the hopeless frustration of burnout, you’ll hopefully have more positive expectations to help you put in the effort to try (or retry) suggested interventions. Your own natural dopamine-reward system will then be at work deconstructing the resistance network built by your burnout as you reset your circuits of motivation.

The repeated experiences of dopamine-reward you’ll experience as you monitor your goal progress will literally change your brain’s circuitry. Repeated effort-reward experiences promote the neuroplasticity creating neural networks that expect positive outcomes in your new default network. This is because your brain will build stronger connections into the memory pattern. The expectation in achieving this challenge will bring pleasure. As with other less used networks, the previous lower brain stress-activated go-to response network you developed in burn-out, that caused you to react negatively to stressors, will be pruned away from disuse.

You’ll be rewired with optimism and renew positive expectations about your self-efficacy. With your higher, reflective brain back in control, as you access your perseverance, innovation, and creative problem-solving when you need them.

Just be sure to take the time to break down big challenges into opportunities to recognize incremental progress as you achieve each small step en route to your goals. With that positive recharge, your well-deserved dopamine reward will sustain your brain’s motivated perseverance on to the next step of the path to your goals.

Dr. Judy Willis is a board-certified neurologist and middle school teacher, specializing in brain research regarding learning and the brain. With a unique background as both a neurologist and classroom teacher, she writes extensively for professional educational and parenting journals and has written six books about applying the mind, brain, and education research to classroom teaching and parenting strategies. The Association of Educational Publishers honored Dr. Willis as a finalist for the Distinguished Achievement Award for her educational writing. Check out her website.

 

 

‘Better Call Saul’ Highlights Stress and Mental Illness in the Legal Profession

The ABA Journal reports: “Chuck McGill’s suicide in Better Call Saul reflects what is happening within the legal profession throughout the United States. But anxiety and depression are not confined to practicing lawyers. A study of law school students at Yale University found that 70 percent admitted to suffering from some form of mental health issues. Eighty percent of those respondents considered help, but only half of them actually sought it out. Read the article.

 

Am I Depressed Because I’m a Lawyer?

Patrick Krill, a lawyer turned mental health counselor and consultant to law firms about lawyer mental health issues tries to answer the question: “A predicate to all of this, however, is the need to determine if you are actually depressed. Maybe you just hate your job, end of story. Moving on to a different practice or firm could be the change you need.  Or, maybe you have an underlying medical condition that is masquerading as or causing a depressed feeling.”  Read the rest of his blog here.

Big Law Tackles Mental Health Crisis Issues With On-Site Programs; Is Its Business Model at Fault?

The ABA Journal report that Big firms have long been reticent to openly address addiction and other mental-health problems, despite research showing lawyers face higher rates of substance abuse, depression, and suicide than the wider population,” the article says. “Law firm leaders say the need to keep up appearances in a competitive industry has contributed to the resistance. That attitude, however, is slowly changing. Read the article.

The Strategies That Science Actually Shows are Effective for Depression

From Forbes magazine. As most people who have dealt with depression know, good treatments are hard to come by—but they do exist. Part of the issue is that a given treatment may work for one person and not the other, and it may take several tries before the right therapy, or a combination of therapies, is arrived upon. Here are some of the methods that have been shown to work, and are worth considering. As always, finding a therapist you trust and connect with is often the first step to figuring out which route to take. Read the article here.

Depression Undercover: A Trial Lawyer’s Secret

Once upon a time, I was a trial attorney at a personal injury defense firm. I was good at it.  I always pushed hard; always did the best job possible.  I won a good share of cases, and, of course, lost a few as well.  I was valued highly enough to be made a partner shortly after joining the firm.

But I had a dirty little secret.  I had bipolar disorder, which was well-controlled through a close partnership with a good psychiatrist.  Still, in my mind, if word ever got out, my employers would see me as weak, a liability.  To a degree, I understood.  If the insurance companies that paid the bills learned that one of the firm’s trial attorneys had such a condition, their mandate would be clear: if you want our business, get rid of him. That is what I assumed.

Throughout my career, colleagues would make offhanded remarks about someone “not taking his medication.” I would grit my teeth and ignore it.

Instead, I was able to construct an alter-ego, the “happy warrior.”  I had a smile on my face and a sardonic remark ready on cue. But I went about my daily business feeling like a secret agent in a Cold War spy movie.  If my cover was ever blown, I was certain that my career would be at an end.

Over time, maintaining this secret identity while dealing with the usual strains of trial practice gave rise to a growing depression.  Yet I still performed at a high level and still got results.

Although I had a close friend at the firm, another partner, he would deflect when I tried to talk to him about my depression, so I stopped.  I began to worry that others at the firm might know about me.

Fear and the sense of isolation only fed upon themselves in a continuous cycle.  I finally experienced a severe episode of depression that led to a period of disability.  When I told my boss what was going on, he expressed genuine surprise that I was suffering from depression at all.

When I returned to work, I felt better, but I remained wary.  Instead of engaging in a conversation about what had happened, we all acted as though nothing had occurred.  The computer was rebooted, and business continued on as usual.  I went back undercover, and no one seemed to mind.

Simply due to scheduling conflicts and adjournments, it was some time before I tried another case.  I admit that I was a little nervous, but I was having no trouble handling my case load.  I was puzzled when my boss came into my office one afternoon as I was preparing for the trial.  He asked me if I felt good to go.  He had never done that before.  I said, “yes,” because I felt perfectly up to the task.  I never asked myself, “If he is worried about my performance, why is he even letting me try the case?”

At trial, the insurance company sent an adjuster to audit the proceedings, a routine procedure.  I knew him well, and he had an excellent grasp of the case, even though he had not been involved before trial.  We had constant discussions about what was going on, and we seemed to be in sync.  Suddenly, the insurance company pulled my old friend off the case and replaced him with a mid-level manager who consistently praised my performance.

The case went to verdict, and the jury awarded somewhat less than what the insurance company had offered settle for.  To preclude the possibility of an appeal, the insurance company threw in a few more dollars.  Case closed, on to the next one.  To me, that was a pretty good result.

Was I in for a big surprise.

Shortly after the trial, year-end reviews were scheduled.  I was getting ready for another trial, and I was very excited about it, so I wasn’t really paying attention to what was going on in the office.  Other attorneys were getting their reviews – important because raises would be discussed – but I was never called in.

Ultimately, my case settled after much hard work on all sides, and the usual time for reviews was long past.  I did start to worry then.  I even made a remark to my secretary about it.

The call finally came.  When I stepped into the conference room and saw every equity partner in the firm waiting for me, I knew.  The spy had been caught, but what would happen?

My boss said that they waited to speak with me because they did not want to put pressure on me while I was preparing for another trial.  He asked me if I felt capable of trying cases.  I paused and then broke under the years of strain.  I wept, and answered, “No.”  Whether that “No” was true then or true now or was ever true, it was the most humiliating moment of a 20-year career.

My boss started to dissect my prior trial, telling me that the insurance company’s representative was reporting that I was doing a bad job.  He even told me that the supervisor at the insurance company knew that I had depression.  After the expected awkward silence, another partner suggested that “we find a creative solution” to keep me at the firm.  I made some suggestions over the next few months.  No replies were forthcoming.  I was quietly being swept out the door.  It wasn’t hard to get the message. I found another job and moved on.

The whole experience seemed to confirm everything I feared about being a lawyer with depression.  Currently, I am not practicing, and am seeking other opportunities.

But if the story ends there, what is the point?  Can I offer my account as a teaching opportunity?  At the very heart of the tale lies the sad truth that we, as lawyers, trained to be superlative communicators, can utterly fail to make each other understood when it comes to depression.  Should I have been more candid about my condition?  My employers never told me what concerns they had or what they knew.  Could all of us have been proactive for our mutual benefit, especially after I returned to work?  I believe that there had been an opportunity to open a constructive dialogue, but my fear told me to keep my mouth shut.  I cannot speak for my former employers, although I highly doubt that they held any malice.  I doubt that they thought much about it at all until some critical pressure was brought to bear, whether from within or outside of the firm.  Unfortunately, by the time everyone was talking, my job at a firm I loved was gone.

I miss working there.  I still have close friends there.  I see them when I can, which is not often enough.  Just recently, I ran into my secretary, and we briefly chatted about my plans for the future.  And then she said something that cut me to the quick: “You were a good lawyer.”

— Anonymous guest blog

The Heart of the Matter: Lawyers, Anger, and Depression

I’ve felt plenty of anger over my twenty-five years as a litigator.

Sometimes, and thank God they were few and far between, I would blow up at opposing counsel or a client.  More often, my anger would sometimes simmer just below the surface.  This is an all too common reality for today’s lawyer.  “By definition, the adversarial system is conflict-ridden, and conflict creates certain types of emotions like anger, guilt, and fear, which causes stress, says Amiram Elwork, Ph.D. author of the book, Stress Management for Lawyers: How to Increase Personal & Professional Satisfaction.

According to Chicago litigator, Shawn Wood, the “nature of civil litigation involves two lawyers (often Type A personalities) squaring off against one another under circumstances where there will be a winner and a loser, and part of each lawyer’s job will be to capitalize on any possible error in judgment that the other side makes.”  I really don’t buy into this completely.  Many lawyers that I know aren’t “Type A” personalities.  They are usually hard working and successful.  But, it can take a tremendous toll on their mental and physical health.  They struggle with the simmering variety of anger.

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