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Lawson explores the causes of and cures for stress – from DNA on up

Senior Editor News in Photos
Lawson explores the causes of and cures for stress – from DNA on up
Alan Lawson

Justice Alan Lawson

So, check this out:

Supreme Court Justice Alan Lawson used this shadowed checkerboard illustration, created by MIT Professor of Vision Science Edward H. Adelson in 1995, during his February 25 CLE seminar on the well-being of lawyers. The seminar was the first of three on lawyer health and wellness sponsored by the Standing Committee on Professionalism and the Bar’s Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism.

The illustration was part of Lawson’s explanation not only of how to cope with stress but how the brain and the human system are wired to respond to stress – and frequently not in the most productive ways.

And hence Adelson’s image. One of the unshaded dark squares is labeled “A” and one of the shadowed light squares is “B.” The question: Which is darker?

The seeming obvious answer is A.

The real answer is they are the same shade of grey. (You can scroll down on the Wikipedia link for a picture of a grey strip linking the two squares that dispels the seeming undeniable illusion they aren’t the same. CLE participants were sent a digital copy of the image and invited to do a more fun alternative: Print the image out, cut out the square B with scissors, and place it next to A.)

“All our life, you’ve seen checkerboards and you always see them the same way,” Lawson explained. The brain has stored those images and so when it interprets an image from the eye, it relies on that memory and decides the light square is lighter than the dark one – even when they are not, he said.

The brain also has stored experiences and along with the way humans come hard-wired that can aggravate stress and the ability to deal with it, even when the situation is not life and death, Lawson said.

The autonomic nervous system, he said, is finely tuned to run the human body, sending 20 to 30 trillion red blood cells coursing through more than enough veins, arteries, and capillaries to circle the globe twice. That subconscious process also is highly adapted to detect danger and possible physical demands, governing the fight-or-flight reflex.

Under the autonomic system, when stressed, “blood is taken from areas of the brain where it’s perceived as not needed and sent to where it’s needed,” Lawson said. “Stress makes you stupid and the medical explanation for that … is one of the first places blood flow is taken from is the higher function parts of the brain. You don’t need those higher reasoning levels when you need to fight or flee.

“The more stressed you are, the more your judgment, everything that makes you a good you, literally gets turned off…. You don’t have the ability to reason well.”

It does other things. In redirecting energy and resources to meet threats real or perceived, the body takes away from the immune system, saying in effect, Lawson said, “If you’re about to get eaten, we don’t care about that virus, so forget about that.”

Likewise, the body’s continued work of regenerating itself by cell reproductions slows down. Lawson said research has shown that DNA stands are capped by telomeres, sort of like the ends of shoelaces. Scientists have discovered the telomeres play a crucial role in cell reproduction and stress reduces the length – and hence longevity – of telomeres.

If the subconscious systems stimulate fear, frustration, irritation, doubt, jealousy, boredom, and other stress inducers, then the parasympathetic nervous system is its opposite, Lawson said, stimulating the higher brain functions and allowing love, courage, optimism, appreciation, enthusiasm, creativity, and more.

Scientists know that love triggers the release of oxytocin, Lawson said, and when that happens, “It doesn’t matter what was going on in your environment; everything is OK, you could handle it. A feeling of love of life, you actually love life. That triggers the parasympathetic nerve system.”

The brain doesn’t tolerate the opposing states simultaneously.

“It is physiologically impossible to be stressful and happy at the same time,” Lawson said. “If you’re stressed, you’re not going to be feeling happy.”

How do lawyers find the better state? Lawson gave a range of advice. He noted proven breathing exercises (take in a full breath for three or four seconds, and then slowly exhale, taking twice as long. Repeat two or three time), better posture, and physical activity.

But it’s also a matter of attitude, and he said many people seek satisfaction and happiness through more professional attainments or material goods. Lawson thinks the ancient Greeks got it right.

“We have this crazy view that happiness is obtained outside ourselves. When that doesn’t work, we move to the process, ‘Maybe I need something more,’” he said. “Happiness or fulfillment is truly an inside job, as was written about 4,000 years ago – all that you seek is within you. That’s where we need to start. The Greek philosophers sort of had this figured out when they said, ‘Know thyself.’”

Instead of following the human trait of focusing on what’s wrong or bad, spend time appreciating the more numerous examples of what’s right. Or as Lawson noted, around a hundred things had to go right to get up in the morning and drive to work; ignoring those and instead getting stressed because of getting stuck in traffic or a malfunctioning coffee machine will only produce stress.

“Look for [positive] examples, the more you find them, the more an internal shift will happen, the more you will find the universe is friendly and more will happen,” Lawson said.

“….The only thing that stands between you and a fulfilled life is some time reprogramming yourself to learn you can handle what life brings at you and you can handle it with the higher emotions of peace and joy, and you can enjoy your life.”

Lawson’s CLE is available through professionalism center’s webpage at:

The second session will be Wednesday, March 3, at noon on Preventing the Other Pandemic: Lawyer Suicide Awareness and Tools for Prevention. That program will be moderated by Charise Morgan-Joseph and feature Jane Marks, LMFT, and Bar Board of Governors member Wayne LaRue Smith. To register for that, go to:

The final seminar will be Wednesday March 10 at 1:30 p.m. on Three Giant Steps Inside to Health, Happiness & Success in the Law. It will be moderated by Daliah Weiss and feature Florida State University law Professor Lawrence Krieger and Theresa Revell Krieger, a certified personal trainer, massage therapist, and health coach.

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