Fear and adrenaline stress - welcome to the world of lawyers


Everyone has a primitive reaction to fear. Fear sets off a complex set of physiological reactions in the body that gets you ready for fight, flight, or freezing. This commonly called “fight-or-flight response” or “adrenaline rush” is crucial if you suddenly face, say, a grizzly bear or a mugger, or when you need to pull a car off of a child, but when adrenaline rushes are made part of everyday professional life, things go a little off course.

The first adrenaline rush of my legal career happened the first week of law school. University of Nebraska College of Law, Contracts class with Professor Denicola. . . .

You wouldn’t ordinarily think of a classroom discussion as a life-or-death situation warranting a trigger of your body’s fight-or-flight response, but if you have ever been in a law school classroom, you would know why.

So there I was in Professor Denicola’s class, and became the first in our class to be inducted into the Socratic method of teaching. I thought I was ready for the possibility of being called on, but when Professor Denicola called on “Ms. Kramer” to give the summary of the first case, I went blank. I looked down at my notes and literally could not read them. They could have been hieroglyphics. I could see letters and words, but the part of my brain that connected those to producing audible sounds literally shut down.

It wasn’t until years later that I understood what happened to me that day. When the brain’s amygdala fear center triggers, it sets off a cascade of physiological reactions in the body. For example, heart rate and blood pressure increase, hormones including adrenaline and cortisol are released into the blood stream, all giving the body a boost in physical strength. Sensory capabilities are limited, resulting in tunnel vision and auditory exclusion. Fine motor skills disappear and cortisol interferes with complex thinking. Sometimes the body just freezes, unable to react to its environment (sort of like a possum who plays dead when faced with an attacker). Basically, physical strength increases and mental strength decreases.

That day in law school, my high brain, the portion of my brain necessary for critical thinking, was overrun by my low, primitive brain, the amygdala, because of the fear created by the teaching method that is central to legal education. . . .

Over time I developed coping mechanisms to deal with the fear inherent in the legal teaching paradigm, but my body’s visceral reaction to this fear remained and was repeated every time I appeared in a courtroom or at a deposition for 20 years of practice as a trial lawyer. My “coping mechanism” became apparent 20 years later in a FAST (fear adrenal stress training) self-defense class when I almost flew across the room to put my hands around the throat of my instructor, but that will be the subject of a later chapter.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Melody A. Kramer, Legal Greenhouse | Attorney Advertising

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