Traumatic Experiences: The X Factor in the Attorney-Client Relationship

 

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Regardless of whether an attorney is aware of it, a client’s traumatic experiences will generally have a direct relationship in not only the attorney-client relationship, but also the way the client relates to the court system. According to research on the brain, experiencing a traumatic incident has a distinct physiological effect on the brain, which in turn affects behavior in the short-term and long-term. This phenomenon is colloquially referred to as the “fight, flight, or freeze” evolutionary response.

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Researchers in the field came to the same conclusion in a study analyzing the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Without digging too far deep, the frontal cortex is key because it’s the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and memory.

Anyway, while a person is experiencing a traumatic event, according to this post here, the part of the brain responsible for decision making often becomes temporarily impaired. In the place of the “higher-reasoning” steps in (or perhaps stomps in) the amygdala. What happens next is the release of stress hormones which help to record particular fragments of sensory information. Bottom line, this process eventually leads a person to experience “tonic immobility,” which produces a sensation of being frozen in place. In fact, some people even experience dissociative states.

What happens after the “tonic immobility” stage is very critical and often has long-term consequences. According to this study focused on traumatic incidents, After the traumatic experience, the brain encodes the traumatic memory and it is stored in the brain via a pathway involving high levels of activity in the amygdala. As a result, when a person recalls a traumatic event, the memory is very powerful and produces similar physical symptoms as what was experienced at the time of the event. Making matters worse, physiological effects of trauma can manifest far after the traumatic incident occurs, as the amygdala does not always discriminate between real dangers and memory from a past dangerous situation.

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As one can imagine, when a person must constantly “re-live” a traumatic incident and it causes that person to at a certain level “feel” as though the moment is actually occurring, the real-life effects on the person will be far-ranging. Clients who appear combative and argumentative may be behaving in a certain way as a natural result of engaging in the “fight” instinct. Other people may have difficulty showing up to consultations because of “tonic immobility” which if you recall leads a person to feel a sensation of being frozen in place. These effects are real and must be understood.

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It is also important to understand how traumatic experiences may impact the client’s behavior in the courtroom. For example, if the client has had traumatic incidents involving police officers, it is entirely possible, if not likely, that the client will experience some of the emotions from that incident when he or she sees the police officer in the courtroom. Although an attorney may perceive the courtroom officer as a friendly guy who is just doing his job, the client may be reliving a painful experience possibly involving physical or emotional intimidation. Understanding the far-ranging impact of trauma is a critical part of a lawyer’s job especially when the client’s behavior factors in the decisions made by a judge or jury.

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The next step to effectively representing clients who have suffered traumatic experiences is developing procedures that are trauma-informed and tailored to avoid putting a client in a position where he or she is “reliving” a painful experience. This will be discussed in the future blog posts.

 

 

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