Stress is what you think: The importance of a clear mind

By Senior Judge Susan R. Miles

1220-Meditation-StressThe Saturday morning queue in front of Whole Foods was about 10 deep. I figured it would take at least five or 10 minutes to clear the vestibule, correctly masked in pleated cloth. Pulling on latex gloves, I glanced up to find myself in the crosshairs of a scowling glare from the guy ahead of me. I startled for a second. After 22 years on the bench, I’d seen this piercing look many times. Just not at the grocery store.

The burly guy, dressed in baggy canvas camouflage shorts, turned to his female companion and said in a bullhorn voice, “this mask stuff is bulls***. What a bunch of god-da**ed sheep.” The woman, holding a mask in her own hand, turned toward me, an expression of apology etched on her brow. Camo-guy continued his rant about the ridiculousness of the shutdowns and mask mandates. Finally cleared to enter the store, he turned toward me and started making baa-ing noises like a sheep, while hopping up and down and scratching his ample torso to mimic a monkey. I wondered if she would be safe while he was in that state of agitation.

I could relate to camo-guy. During several of my early years on the bench I manifested symptoms of Black Robe Disease, allowing my stress to come out sideways in the form of churlishness and anger. One tirade in particular triggered a notice from the Board of Judicial Standards of an accusation that I had conspired with the local court administrator to deprive the complainant of his right to appeal a decision. Although the complaint did not directly relate to my demeanor, the lawyer who filed it undoubtedly did so in reaction to an angry outburst I lobbed at him. 

While the complaint was dismissed for lack of merit, it did serve as a wake-up call that I needed to get to the root of my stress and anger. I called Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. Four (free) therapy sessions got me to a place where I could begin to understand that my anger was a symptom of a deeper problem: multiple stressors, including the inability to shake off a sense of nagging guilt and conflict over an earlier, agonizing decision to terminate parental rights. 

Eventually I found my way to a meditation class offered through the local school district’s community education program and developed a practice that saved my career and changed my life. Meditation gave me the ability to see and relate to stressful events in a new way, discovering that I didn’t have to be prisoner to my own unfiltered thoughts. 

The mind is what the brain does.1 We in the legal profession are perpetual thinking machines: calculating, criticizing, creating, and communicating. We are professional fretters. Will I make this deadline? Solve this problem? Win this case? What if I fail? And we are all judges. Of ourselves. Of others. Sometimes it may seem the only way we can cope with unfiltered thinking is to escape through mindless distractions. Eating. Binge streaming. Social media. Drinking. Gambling. Drugs. Shopping. The list goes on and on. And when those strategies don’t work and we sink deeper into a pool of misery, we are more prone to anger, anxiety, and depression. We are more susceptible to addictive behavior. Worse yet, we neglect our well-being and our relationships, and discount pleasantries that could restore us to a healthy balance. 


People who are resilient to stress assess events and conditions as they arise and are able to respond appropriately. Saki Santorelli, the former clinical director of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, aptly states that the ability to see and understand what is going on inside and around us is an essential skill if we are to be less subject to unconsciously driven actions. Through cultivation of mindfulness, he counsels that we may change our relationship to threatening events and develop an ability to handle stressful situations effectively.2 

Stress begins with our perception of events or conditions through any of our many sense doors, including the external ones of sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and the internal ones of proprioception, vestibular, and some would argue, thought. Simply put, an event occurs, we perceive it through sense doors, filter it through the mind, assess whether or not the event (or ongoing condition) represents a threat or danger, and if so, whether or not we have sufficient resources at hand to overcome the stressor. The same process occurs whether the threat is actual, as in a car careening out of control in our direction, or imagined, as in a personal conditioned belief that we lack the wherewithal to successfully convince a judge that our client’s cause is just.

Stress reactions

Should our exposure to stress be significant or sustained, we become likely to experience any of the common stress reactions of fight, flight, or freeze. These reactions originate in the amygdala, deeply seated in the brain’s limbic system. We have the amygdala to thank for keeping us alive when it is necessary to flee a real threat, like a saber-toothed tiger, but the amygdala lacks the ability to self-regulate in situations where our stressor is simply the product of our imagination. Returning briefly to camo-guy, he correctly perceived a real threat from covid-19, which he exacerbated by perceiving new threats from social distancing and masking requirements. When he reacted to the sight of my mask and the requirement that he wait in line to get into the grocery store, his amygdala went into high gear and gave birth to the angry outburst.

But there’s more. Once a fight, flight, or freeze stress reaction has been activated, then contemporaneously our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is triggered. The ANS regulates internal states of the body, including heart and respiration rates, blood pressure, the digestive process, and ultimately, the release of adrenaline and cortisol.3 Its components are the sympathetic nervous system, which arouses the foregoing phenomena and prepares us to fight or run away from danger, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which restores our bodily and hormonal systems to normal once our perception of danger has abated. Over time, sustained stress results in over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system, creating deleterious impacts on our physical and emotional health. We are susceptible to a tendency to cope with this state of stress by indulging in unhealthy behaviors, including excessive consumption of food, drink, and illicit drugs, as well as compulsions like overindulgence in gambling, shopping, or working, to name but a few.

Mindfulness changes the brain

We are better than this, to paraphrase Rep. Elijah Cummings. Although our stress reactions have been conditioned over a lifetime, they can be modified or eliminated. With practice, homo sapiens have the ability to change unskillful perceptions of events by bringing awareness to our thought processes. Happily, the remedy is simple. But simple doesn’t mean easy. 

Cultivating present, non-judgmental awareness of our thoughts, also known as mindfulness, begins with examining our perceptions of stressors. Through mindfulness informed by meditation, we can learn to recognize, both cognitively and somatically, thoughts and perceptions of stress as they arise. Once equipped with this ability, even entry-level meditators can engage the body’s parasympathetic nervous system to help bring hormonal and endocrinal releases back into balance, alleviate health risks, and quell the tendency to behave in a reactive, regrettable manner. In many cases, this intervention merely involves taking a well-timed breath.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging studies have documented that our neural pathways are changeable, or plastic, and mindful meditation changes these pathways over a short course of daily practice.4 Amygdala-driven stress reactions give way to reasoned responses governed by our pre-frontal cortex, which even increases in physical size relative to the amygdala. Potential outcomes include a greater capacity for concentration, resiliency, and even compassion for ourselves and others,5 discovery of our inner sources of implicit bias and racism,6 and recognition of maladaptive coping strategies before they become entrenched.7

The importance of practice

In all honesty, cultivation of mindfulness of thought and perception takes commitment. Daily, I “sit” for about 30 minutes, bringing awareness to my breath. Inevitably, thoughts interrupt my concentration and I either investigate them or let them go, depending on the type of thought. It’s a process that I have to repeat over and over during my meditation period. As time permits during the day, I might practice mindful stretches and other physical movements to hone my awareness of my body’s stress clues. 

Learning to meditate initially involves concentration on a single object of awareness, commonly the breath. After a few weeks of practice, the student usually shifts her concentration to other objects of awareness, including thoughts. That’s when things get interesting. The meditator soon learns the art of “dis:” recognition and acceptance of distressing thoughts and reactions that can be disarmed, while letting go of negative self-judgment. 

Paying attention to my breath for 30 minutes in the morning trains my mind in the same manner that consistently showing up at the gym trains my body. The benefits are worth the time commitment and, paradoxically, a mindfulness practice can save time by enhancing discernment of time-wasting, mindless habits. When we can recognize and cut out superfluous distractions, the time to practice emerges. 

Hundreds of meditation apps offer a possible alternative to a daily practice, and their effectiveness is beyond the scope of this article. Simply put, there is wide variation in the educational value of apps, which are heavily reliant on guided meditations, though all of them at least afford a peaceful respite during a stressful day.8 For my money, the true benefit of my daily meditation practice is the insight I gain from understanding the foibles of my own mind, which I don’t feel I can learn from an app.

Another way of looking at the time commitment is that a mindfulness practice is not a selfish indulgence. Meditators have a quieting effect on those around them. The lawyer who comes unglued in the face of stress may cause harm to the organization and cause he represents, while the lawyer who manifests calm under trying circumstances will inspire the confidence of clients and colleagues alike. Though I did not have a quieting effect on camo-guy, I was able to resist the temptation to get back in his face because I realized he was not a true threat, just as I’ve stopped making hand gestures to drivers who tailgate me. What I do know is that, although I am not impervious to stress, my relationship to it has improved. Ask my husband. 

In the end, I am spending my retirement teaching mindfulness to lawyers, judges, legal professionals, and the general community because collective peace of mind benefits our profession and all who we represent. 

Senior Judge SUSAN R. MILES was a judge in the 10th Judicial District from 1997 to 2018 and served as assistant chief judge of the 10th District, as well as president of the Minnesota District Judges Association and Minnesota Women Lawyers. She teaches Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at the University of Minnesota and is founder of TheSettledMind.com.


1 Hanson, Rick, Ph.D., Buddha’s Brain (New Harbinger, 2009) p. 52.

2 Santorelli, Saki,Ed.D., “Mindfulness and Mastery in the Workplace,” Engaged Buddhist Reader (Parallax Press, 1996), at 41.

3 Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., Full Catastrophe Living (Bantam Books, 2013) 312-15.

4 Holzel, Carmody, et. al., “Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density,” National Center for Biotechnology Information (2010).

5 Davidson, Richard, Ph.D. and Begley, Sharon, The Emotional Life of Your Brain (Hudson Street Press, 2012), p. 224.

6 See generally, Magee, Rhonda, The Inner Work of Racial Justice (Tarcher Perigee, 2019).

7 Riopel, Leslie, “Mindfulness and the Brain: What Does Research and Neuroscience Say?” PositivePsychology.com, accessed 8/17/2020. 

8 Vilardaga and Bourdreaux, “Review and Evaluation of Mindfulness-Based iPhone Apps,” accessed at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4705029/ on 8/19/2020.