Why Can’t Lawyers Relax? – And How They Can

Lawyers /

The lawyers who are reading this article probably already know what I’m talking about. The case is tried, the motion decided, or the closing done. You head out for the evening or go home to celebrate, relax and just take it easy. You find yourself sitting in a comfortable chair with the TV on, or maybe with a good book or companion.

But relief doesn’t come.

Instead of sinking down into a restful, peaceful state, your mind starts to work. “Did I do everything right?” “What about next week’s case?” “Did I bill enough hours today?”

Maybe these aren’t just thoughts – but unpleasant physical sensations. Maybe you feel jumpy, or “itchy”, like you just can’t sit still. You might feel pressure in your head, or your heart is pounding, or uncomfortable electric sensations in your arms or legs. Stress floods through you. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, you might feel totally shut down and numb, like a circuit breaker has flipped. Like someone has turned off the lights, shut the door and vacated the premises.

What’s going on?

All of the above describes the symptoms of a nervous system that has lost its natural resilience. Like all mammals, human beings are biologically designed to identify and respond to threats (also known as stress), take appropriate defensive action, survive (hopefully!), then recover and return to a resilient state. These are biological responses. When threatened, our bodies to mobilize and focus every iota of available energy on survival. Evolutionary forces developed this response over the course of millennia. (Think of a lion chasing our forebears on the Savannah.) We are beautifully designed to activate in response to a threat, and then to deactivate when the threat has passed. This phenomenon is sometimes described as the “fight or flight” response. Once the threat is gone, it no longer serves our survival to expend the tremendous energy it takes to maintain an activated state. In fact the opposite is true. Once the threat has passed, survival usually depends upon conserving as much energy as possible.

However, in modern human beings this process can go awry. Typically this occurs when we have been activated, but (for reasons discussed below) we have not been able to discharge the energy that was charged up in response to the stress. This undischarged energy remains stored our bodies, waiting for an opportunity to complete the cycle of deactivation and return to normal. This can be experienced in the ways described above – the itchy, jumpy, thought-racing “I can’t relax” experience. And if the activation rises high enough, sometimes a “circuit breaker” will flip and turn off, resulting in shutdown and numbness.

What are these “threats” that activate the nervous system? Lawyers may appreciate that when it comes to threats, “you take your plaintiff as you find her”. Basically, a threat is whatever you perceive as a threat. Leaders in the field of trauma research express this principle by saying that trauma is in the person, not in the event. An event that might activate a fight-or-flight response in me might not activate you at all – and vice-verse. Whether we get activated can depend upon our personal histories, our genes, and a variety of other factors. (Of course there are some external threats, like a robber pointing a gun at one’s face, which would be perceived by almost everyone as threatening!) Thousands of years ago, we might have been activated because a lion was chasing us for its potential lunch. Today, lawyers could experience the same level of stress while appearing in court, during a difficult phone call from a client, or while arguing with opposing counsel.

What prevents our nervous system from following the natural cycle of discharging this stress? The “discharge” part of the cycle is controlled by our parasympathetic nervous system (the “PNS”), which is not under our voluntary control. (This is why you can’t just “make” yourself relax.) The PNS is like the brakes in a car. The brakes engage to slow things down when the threat is over, and to discharge any energy remaining from the flight or fight response. When not interfered with, discharges can include visceral, bodily reactions like trembling, deep breaths (breaths that “breathe us”, versus breaths that we voluntarily take), crying, shaking, emotional releases, etc. Any fight or flight responses or movements that were not completed may also need to be discharged.

Unfortunately for human beings, we tend to be our own worst enemies on this score. Both as a culture and individually, we tend to stifle bodily reactions as they are typically interpreted as signs of weakness or as being otherwise socially inappropriate. “Be a man”. “Control yourself”. “Don’t be a sissy”. “Don’t embarrass me”. “Don’t embarrass yourself”. Any of this sound familiar? Lawyers in particular function in environments where emotional (or heaven forbid, bodily) expressions are strongly discouraged. These are the kinds of spoken and unspoken admonitions that come to mind. We consider it admirable when someone doesn’t “fall apart” after a stressful event. Yet “falling apart” (viz. – releasing held tension) is exactly what we may need to do after being activated in order to return to baseline resilience.

What happens if over time, these discharge reactions are repeatedly thwarted? They build up inside. And we become more and more tense – holding places of tension that we experience subjectively as “wired”, jumpy, irritable – the “I can’t relax” experience. If we get overloaded enough, an internal “circuit breaker” can switch on and send us into “freeze” or shut down. The result is numbness, void and depression. Shut down is thus an even more over-charged situation than wired – so much trapped energy got built up inside that the system turns off.

How do you know if your “I can’t relax” experience means you’re carrying around undischarged tension in response to past events? Well, tension that’s caused by events in the present- this week’s short calendar argument, last Monday’s fender bender, today’s fight with your spouse, etc. will usually respond to the application of basic stress reduction and relaxation techniques. A day off (or two, or three), a warm bath, a relaxation CD, meditation, exercise, or pleasant social contact, will all encourage and permit a resilient nervous system to discharge held activation and be restored to its natural balance. When these things don’t work, or work only partially, you’re probably dealing with stored tension. This is especially true if you are so wound up you can’t tolerate even engaging in relaxing behaviors, but feel you have to keep moving all the time. (Lawyers running to keep up their billable hours – take note!)

Discharging built-up energy can require knowledge and help. Simply talking about past events often won’t result in the necessary discharges, and can also run the risk of reactivating the stress as well. We are fortunate to live in a time when science and brain research is beginning to inform the work of psychotherapists and other healing professionals in developing new techniques for addressing these kinds of problems. These new understandings are augmenting our ability to help people regain their resilience and lead more fulfilling lives.

A significant amount of research implicates chronic stress in a variety of physical problems, including but not limited to high blood pressure, immune system impairment, sleep disturbances, heart disease, physical aches and pains, etc. How is your own nervous system doing these days? Are you being a good fiduciary and taking care of its needs? Or should your body hire a team of lawyers to force you to exercise an appropriate duty of care? If your body is threatening to sue you, take a look at the suggestions and resources listed below. Your nervous system – and ultimately all the rest of your body, mind and soul, will thank you!

First Aid for The Lawyer Who Can’t Relax

  1. A regular relaxation practice is absolutely critical. Meditation, yoga, relaxation techniques, deep breathing, tai chi or exercise are all wonderful for this. Interpersonal contact that you experience as supportive and comfortable is important as well. These kinds of resources are also very helpful if you find you need to do the deeper work of discharging activation energy from the past.
  2. After a “threat” (stress) event, allow your body to move in whatever way it might need to, without judgment. As long as it is physically safe for you (and others), let yourself tremble, or shake, or cry, or do whatever it is that your body wants you to do. Do this as soon as it is safely possible after the event, and ideally immediately afterwards. Suppressing your reactions may make it more difficult to access them later.
  3. Take plenty of time to allow tension to dissipate. The part of our brain that is responsible for the fight or flight response is often referred to as the “reptilian” brain, due to its development early in our evolutionary history. It can be helpful to remember that reptiles move v…e…r…y……..s…l…o…w…l…y. Allow a lot of time for your body to recover after a stressful event and for baseline resilience to be restored. Don’t rush to get up and move around after an activating event. (Difficult advice for most lawyers to follow!) It’s better to allow the discharge cycle to complete immediately than to have to go back later to try to let the discharge occur.
  4. Don’t dismiss your physical reactions. Especially if you’re not practiced in noticing your body sensations, they can seem subtle or hard to identify. Stomach butterflies, electric sensations, urges to move your legs or arms, all need respect and attention. Take time to notice these kinds of sensations and follow them until they dissipate.


  • Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body, by Peter Levine, Ph.D. This short, simple book contains an excellent series of exercises based on Dr. Levine’s technique of Somatic Experiencing to release stored tension and to discharge activation from the nervous system. A CD that guides you through the exercises is also included.
  • Trauma Through A Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing, by Maggie Kline and Peter Levine. Although this book was written with children in mind, it provides a beautiful detailed description of the beliefs, body sensations, and solutions that are involved in both the creation of stress reactions held in the body (trauma) and it’s resolution. A really good read if you want to get an in depth, real world understanding of what trauma looks like and how to heal it.

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