Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Vulnerability & Resilience

Obstacles do not block the path, they are the path.
~ Zen Proverb

Life-threatening fear can evolve into long-term anxiety.  Many are experiencing fear from the pandemic, exposure to over-policing, and economic instability.  Some recover from fearful experiences, while others face prolonged anxiety and post-traumatic stress.  Vulnerable people are at risk of life-long anxiety from exposure to a single life-threatening experience.

Recent research induced fear in two types of mice and used brain imaging to map the evolution of fear into long-term anxiety.  Scientists created fear vulnerability in one group of mice by knocking out their serotonin transporter gene, creating the SERT-KO mice group.  SERT-KO mice are a validated model for PTSD.  The other group were wild type mice (WT).  They exposed both groups of mice to a single dose of predatory fox odor, an accepted fear protocol, causing an acute fear response. 

Researchers measured behavior and brain activity in both groups before and after exposure to the predatory smell.  Exposure to the fear protocol caused defensive behavior in both groups of mice immediately after exposure and lasting for 9 days.  After that, the WT mice returned to exploratory behavior, demonstrating recovery, while the defensive behavior continued in the SERT-KO mice for 23 days.  

Brain scans of both groups showed the expected activation in the panic button amygdala, but also unexpected activation in the reward circuitry.  The reward system in the brain is where bad habits can blossom such as overindulging in comfort food, cocktails, online shopping, and gambling.  It is where the brain forms networks of brain cells when we self-medicate.

As you, your loved ones, friends, colleagues, students, and clients deal with stress and anxiety, research shows that we come to stressful situations with differing degrees of vulnerability.  We have various baseline levels of sensitivity to our environment, which psychologists have described using flowers.  A study of 906 adults found that 31% were highly sensitive orchids, 40% were medium-sensitivity tulips, and 29% were resilient dandelions.  We will also have different responses to stressful events, including self-medication risk.

Practices that enhance mental strength and reduce stress may improve resilient recovery and limit persistent anxiety, while also minimizing our vulnerability to bad habits.  These include exercise, meditation, mindfulness, and gratitude. 

Lawyers are expected to be resilient.  Athletes can offer guidance.  Author Brad Balukjian interviewed retired baseball players about how they dealt with their retirement.  It was an immediate, agonizing struggle for most of them to stop playing the sport they loved and participated in for decades. 

After periods of grieving, some used the resilience they deployed during the game, the capacity to focus on the present moment, to find new meaning and purpose in their lives.  Because you only get 3 or 4 chances at bat during each game, you have to shake off whatever happened last time you were at the plate, and focus on the opportunity before you.  In retirement, one of the players relied on Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s teaching:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Balukjian wonders about the pandemic’s impact on the nation’s mental state, with sheltering at home causing more focus on regretting the past or worrying about the future.  He asks, “Will we use the power of agency in a healthy way both for our own mental health and society at large?”

A leader in another sport, Boston Celtics’ basketball player Marcus Smart, donated his plasma after recovering from COVID-19 stating, “I encourage everyone, if you have the antibodies, to go donate because, like I said, you don’t know whose life you might change or help with that.”  He described the opportunity to help and potentially save another’s life as humbling.  Research shows that prosocial behavior, or helping others, lowers stress and increases well-being for the helper.

Takeaway:  Stress and obstacles take their toll on us and those around us in different ways, but we can undertake practices that improve our mental strength and encourage those around us to do the same.  We can also show empathy and compassion, knowing that vulnerability and the capacity for resilience is experienced differently in others. And we can find ways to help others, which will end up also helping ourselves. 

Sources

University of New Mexico, How Fear Transforms into Anxiety, Neuroscience News, July 9, 2020, https://neurosciencenews.com/fear-anxiety-16625/

T.W. Uselman, D.R. Barto, R.E. Jacobs, and E.L. Bearer, Evolution of Brain-wide Activity in the Awake Behaving Mouse after Acute Fear by Longitudinal Manganese-enhanced MRI, NeuroImage, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811920304614?via%3Dihub

Debra S. Austin, Drink Like a Lawyer: The Neuroscience of Substance Use and Its Impact on Cognitive Wellness, 15 Nev. L.J. 826 (2015), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2503021.

Debra S. Austin, Windmills of Your Mind: Understanding the Neurobiology of Emotion, 54 Wake Forest L. Rev. 931, 939-43 (2019) https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3374006.

Brad Balukjian, When Baseball Players Retire, They Turn into Accidental Buddhists, CNN, July 9, 2020 (also the author of the new book, “The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife,” and is co-founder of the Pandemic Baseball Book Club), https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/09/opinions/retired-baseball-players-covid-19-accidental-buddhists-balukjian/index.html.

Maria Popova, Viktor Frankl on the Human Search for Meaning, Brain Pickings, https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/03/26/viktor-frankl-mans-search-for-meaning/.

Mass Live, Boston Celtics’ Marcus Donated Plasma Following Coronavirus Diagnosis, Calls for Others to do the Same, July 7, 2020, https://www.masslive.com/celtics/2020/07/boston-celtics-marcus-smart-donated-plasma-following-coronavirus-diagnosis-calls-for-others-to-do-the-same.html

Anna Mikulak, Lending a Helping Hand to Others Dampens Effects of Everyday Stress, Neuroscience News, Dec. 14, 2015, https://neurosciencenews.com/help-stress-mental-health-3275/.

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