By Geri Sjoquist
Geri Sjoquist, Hamline Class of 2002, practices in family law and civil litigation. One of Minnesota Lawyer’s Attorneys of the Year in 2019, Geri has worked as a legal professional for over twenty-five years, primarily at her own firm Sjoquist Law LLC.
The Concept of Interconnectedness
There has been a lot of talk about attorney wellness over the past year. New words and phrases, such as mindfulness, have become commonplace. As we begin 2020, I would like to focus on the concept of “interconnectedness.”
We have all experienced the feeling of malaise that follows from having flu-like physical symptoms, such as fever, fatigue, and nausea. So, the idea that our mental health is woven together with our physical health is not a new concept. This idea of the interconnectedness of our body’s systems was brought to my attention several years ago in a very up-front and personal sort of way.
I was working out at a Crossfit gym at the time and I was finding that after every three to four intense workouts I would experience flu-like symptoms and repeatedly need to spend a few days in bed recovering. This went on for about eight or nine weeks, with my doctor prescribing a new dose of antibiotics with every visit. One day, in addition to flu symptoms, I suffered a very intense earache. The ear, nose, and throat specialist looked in my ear, told me there was nothing wrong with my ear, and asked me if I had a history of migraines. I was shocked. How did he know? How did he know that migraines had been lurking in the shadows of my family tree for generations? Furthermore, the specialist told me it was highly likely that I had never actually had the flu.
While we prefer to pretend that our abilities do not fluctuate and we are capable of being on our “A game” at all times, the truth is that no one is capable of such levels of perfection. Even in professions where there is no room for error—like police work or piloting an airliner—there are errors. Even so, as smart as we all like to believe we are, we nevertheless expect and demand nothing less of ourselves. Add to this our hesitancy, as attorneys, to have candid and forthcoming discussions about our cognitive function because of the fear of stigma and incompetency. Why is it so difficult to imagine that our minds—like our bodies—are likely capable of “having the flu” for a couple days and then fully recovering?
This interconnectedness of mind and body was recognized by pre–modern medicine. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Indian Ayurvedic physicians enlisted the theory of the “four humors” in their healing practices. They believed that imbalances in these four visible secretions of the body caused disease and were often caused by our emotions. Then, in the seventeenth century, French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes attempted to eradicate superstitions. He planted the seeds of rationalism, laying the foundation for a more rigorous and modern scientific thought in his quest to shake and uproot all beliefs not grounded in what could be known with absolute certainty. Like Galileo, he sought to overturn what he saw as the prejudices of the day, first promulgated by Aristotle, who placed a great weight on the testimony of the senses, suggesting that all knowledge comes from the senses.
How Interconnectedness Impacts Our Health
What has been most striking to me has been the realization that we can say very little about what we know for certain regarding stress and disease. Meanwhile, internationally–recognized researcher, Esther M. Sternberg, M.D., has made groundbreaking strides in connecting our central nervous system to our immune system in her book, The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions. As professionals, attorneys rank high on the list of those most susceptible to burnout. Many refer to it as compassion fatigue. But this burnout can reveal itself not only as psychological stress, but also physiological, such as
a flattened cortisol response and inability to respond to any stress with even a slight burst of cortisol. In other words, chronic unrelenting stress can change the stress response itself. And, it can change other hormone systems in the body as well… the effects can be especially perilous for women—recurring and extended episodes of depression result in permanent changes in bone structure, increasing the risk of osteoporosis. In other words, we register stress literally in our bones.
In other words, depending on a highly individualistic and complex mix of nature and nurture, our response to our life’s events (whether they be personal or professional) have the potential to permanently change our biology. Some stress can be invigorating, while other stress might be debilitating. This relationship between memory, emotion, and stress is particularly significant in the legal context and attorney culture where mistakes can lead to harsh results. In the legal profession, often a zero–tolerance environment, people are not inclined to come forward and acknowledge their shortcomings when they risk damage to their livelihoods and reputation.
Interconnectedness—mental health and physical health woven together—should therefore not be discounted in the profession. It is important to not disregard how much our wellness determines our ability to do good work.
For those looking to improve their well-being in 2020, there are numerous resources available.
- The Minnesota Supreme Court has created a web page for lawyer well-being. It includes materials from the Court’s recent Conference, A Call to Action on Lawyer Well-Being.
- Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) provides a free, confidential Lawyers Assistance Program for Minnesota lawyers, judges, law students and their immediate family members. This program offers help to those affected by alcohol, drugs and other addictions; depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses; stress and other life-related problems; and any condition which negatively affects the quality of one’s life at work or at home. Call 651-646-5590 to talk to a counselor or visit their website for more information.
- The Minnesota State Bar Association (MSBA) has a Committee on Well-Being dedicated to helping lawyers and legal professionals thrive in both their legal careers and personal lives. For more information and to join the committee visit their web page.
 See Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion, NewScientist 31–32, 126–28 (Jeremy Webb 2013).
 Id. at 32.
 See generally René Descartes, Discourse on Method; and, Meditations on First Philosophy (1993).
 See Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion, supra note 1.
 Ester M. Sternberg, The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions 118 (2001).