There are two kinds of stress, but both involve the activation of the fight-or-flight system. Acute stress is short-lived and designed to help get us through short-term challenges, such as a court hearing or a weekend 5k. Chronic stress causes an extended stress response. And that means uninterrupted stress hormones coursing through the body and brain.
One of the most important parts of the lawyer brain is the hippocampus. It is our memory processor. It can grow new brain cells, but it is extremely susceptible to damage from stress hormones. Stress hormones can shrink or kill brain cells in the hippocampus, causing memory problems. They can also curtail the birth of new brain cells, known as neurogenesis.
The impact of stress on cognition includes deterioration in memory, concentration, problem-solving, and language processing. Curiosity, creativity, and motivation are also diminished. These cognitive problems are likely due to stress hormones, which suppress neurogenesis, and cause neurodegeneration and cell death in the hippocampus. And the brain cells that remain do not function as well. Research using brain scans shows that hippocampi shrink in size in people who experience post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, and repeated jet lag.
Law practice and law school can cause chronic stress, so lawyers and law students should work to minimize or combat the effects of chronic stress.