Stress, Nerves & Two-Penny Paula

We know that stress and nerves can addle the brain and disrupt performance. Remember when Rick Perry froze up during the 2012 Republican debate and couldn’t remember which federal agency to cut? That was largely stress.  When we’re stressed our brain sends a signal to our adrenal glands which release buckets of adrenaline and glucocorticoids and divert blood to the muscles and legs. That was great 50,000 years ago when we needed those resources to outrun the Woolly Mammoth.  But the rush of hormones can disrupt our thinking and rattle our nerves.

All first-time trial witnesses get nervous. Sometimes they get really nervous and it disrupts their composure and damages their credibility.  A common instruction is: “Stop being nervous. You have nothing to worry about.” This doesn’t help. One might just as well tell someone to stop feeling a tooth ache.  Then there is the instruction given by the King in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Give your evidence and don’t be nervous or I’ll have you executed on the spot.”  Perhaps that’s a bit draconian.

How can you help a nervous client?  You could tell the story about the actor Richard Burton. He was giving a lecture to theater students in Chicago. When asked if he ever got nervous after forty years of acting, he smiled and said, “Oh yes, almost every time. I’m even a little nervous right now.” The student asked him how he managed his nerves. He stepped away from the podium and said, “Look at my feet.” He was wearing sandals and his toes were wiggling. “All actors get nervous. We manage our nerves differently. I channel them through my feet.” This story can help witnesses understand that a case of nerves is not unique to them.  It’s a common ailment and a shared concern.  That can be reassuring for some.

Then there is the story of “Two-Penny Paula.”  She was a financial manager at a small utility company and was responsible for reviewing all expenditures. She was a sweet lady and a tough bean counter. Nothing got by her – not even a two-penny discrepancy. When she thought an employee’s expense was unjustified she pursued the employee as if she was an FBI agent hot on the trail of a bank robber. Despite this tough image she was shy and nervous. One person who knew her said she would fold on the stand like a cheap suit.

Some of her nervousness was due to shyness but most of it stemmed from her belief that she was responsible for allowing a $2 million “rogue” project slip through her review system. It was not her fault but she felt terribly that she might have been able to stop it.  We talked about it at length and I employed every guilt-reduction trick I knew but nothing seemed to work (possibly because I’m Protestant).  I was sick with worry at how she would testify.

On the morning of her testimony she called me and sounded surprisingly calm and cheery. Her testimony went reasonably well and she didn’t fold on cross exam like a cheap suit.  “Paula,” I asked, “what happened to all the guilt and nerves?”  She smiled: “I took an extra dose of my ‘happy meds’ this morning!”

Sometimes there’s a simple solution. Of course, I would never recommend this to a witness (if it’s before a deposition), but sometimes folks will take matters into their own hands. As an aside, actors and musicians are known to take beta blockers for performance anxiety. My wife gives our yellow lab “Rescue Remedy” for the July 4th fireworks.  The things people do behind our backs!