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BY JESSICA TOMER
How to Deal with Law School Stress in Healthy Ways

Law students will be the first to tell you: law school is stressful. It’s competitive, expectations are high, and there’s a lot to do with only so many hours to do it.

Of course, stress can be a good thing sometimes. For example, the time crunch and pressure of finals can actually improve your performance and help you get things done.

But too much stress—especially the long-lasting kind—is not so good. It can lead to everything from headaches and weight gain to heart disease and depression. It can also hurt your memory and cognitive abilities, which is the last thing you want in law school, not to mention as a professional lawyer.

So what should you do?

First, take some comfort in knowing that what you’re feeling is normal. Everyone is trying to play it cool in law school…and everyone has moments of doubt, struggles with the material, and feels like they’re in over their head sometimes.

Second, you need to learn how to deal with your stress in healthy ways. And the sooner, the better. Luckily, there are lots of good coping mechanisms and habits you can develop now. Best of all, if you learn how to take care of yourself in law school, “you’re going to be a superstar when you get out,” said Barbara Bowe, a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker who works with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers in Massachusetts, when she spoke at a recent mental health panel at New England Law | Boston.

Below you’ll find a list of stress-busting tips and reminders you can use throughout law school and long after you graduate.

Take 10 minutes

A 10-minute break can make a world of difference, especially if you’re stuck in a rut. Here are some quick and easy things you can do to shake off the stress:

  • Go for a quick walk or jog (Even 10 minutes of moderate exercise can increase brain function and reduce stress.)
  • Write down or review your to-do list
  • Stretch
  • Adjust your posture
  • Smile—even if you have to fake it
  • Meditate (Check out apps like Headspace; Calm; Stop, Breathe & Think; and Aura.)
  • Listen to your favorite music
  • Play a game on your phone
  • Look at funny things (Memes, videos, jokes, anything that makes you laugh! This video is one of our faves.)
  • Talk to someone you care about
  • Take a shower or bath
  • Hang out with a pet
  • Just close your eyes and breathe

Don’t be afraid to get help

You don’t need to go it alone, you don’t need to pretend like everything is fine if it’s not, and you shouldn’t feel ashamed asking for help when you need it. It’s also important to remember that getting professional treatment for mental health and even substance abuse does not appear on bar fitness results. So if you’re struggling, do not wait to get help, Bowe said.  

First, your law school should have mental health resources available to you. (At New England Law, the Office of Student Services helps students work through stress and other issues.) Then there are free mental health resources like hotlines and local support groups. For example, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers in Massachusetts is a confidential and free resource for law students and lawyers. And, of course, your friends, family, faculty, and mentors want to help you too, and a short conversation can go a long way in making you feel better.

Treat it like another school assignment

You carve out time to do your class work; why not schedule time for breaks and stress-relieving activities too? Think of it as an important part of your training for the rigors of being a lawyer.

Developing healthy coping mechanisms and stress-busting habits requires work, but it’s an effort that pays off in dividends. Law students who are willing to look at themselves and do a deep dive into their mental health and coping mechanisms are better off. “It makes you such a better lawyer than if you don’t,” Bowe said.

Know yourself

It’s important to be in touch with your stress levels. Take a step back to assess how you’ve been feeling. You may be more stressed than you realize—and reacting to it poorly. Negative responses to stress include isolation, wanting to give up, procrastination, anxiety, minimization (aka “it’s not that bad, other people have it worse, etc.”), and more, Bowe said. And it all just leads to more stress. Focus on fostering healthy ways to deal with your stress instead (like following the tips in this article!).

Come up with an actual strategy

Your best bet is to come up with a real strategy for dealing with your stress and actually write it down. The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, what will you do? What proactive steps will you take to reduce your stress in the future? For example, if you know you get anxious before a test, you want to have a plan for dealing with it before test day, like having a calming morning routine or getting to the classroom early so you can settle in.

Prioritize the basics: sleep, diet, exercise

This is basic advice but it bears repeating: Getting enough sleep, eating right, and squeezing in some exercise is critical in law school. Granted, finding time to do so may feel impossible, but these are the building blocks for good overall health and worth prioritizing. Always. So bust out those time-management skills, and do your best to get a little more sleep, do a quick workout, or run to the grocery store for some wholesome goodies.

Don’t make big decisions

When you’re in a tough situation and stressed out, it’s the worst time to make an impulsive decision, Bowe said. You’re not thinking clearly. Give yourself 24 hours to think things over, talk it out with a trusted friend, write a pros-and-cons list—whatever you need to do to feel like you’re approaching the decision from a rational place.

Forgive yourself

Remember, healthy coping skills take time to develop. You may fall short of your goal to eat a salad every day or exercise twice a week. It happens. Of course, there is an element of discipline, so you don’t just want to let yourself off the hook all the time. But you also need to forgive yourself if you falter. Just try your best, and get back on the wagon.

Write in a journal

Think journaling is just for kids scribbling “Dear Diary?” Think again.

Regular journaling can be a powerful tool for processing your emotions and identifying both good and bad patterns in your behavior. It doesn’t have to take long either. The important part is sticking with it. Apps like Day One, Penzu, and The Five-Minute Journal can make journaling a breeze.

Get your house in order

If you feel like you’re constantly behind the ball, it’s probably worth taking a step back to do some high-level planning and organizing. Map out your schedule. Make some to-do lists. And try working backwards from your biggest challenges to see if there are any underlying issues holding you back.

Keep your eyes on the prize

Why did you want to go to law school in the first place? Whether it’s providing a great life for your family, accomplishing your professional goals, or enacting policy changes, let it motivate you. After all, in just a few short years, you will graduate from law school, and that new adventure will begin.

In law school—and in life—it’s important to remember that you can’t control your stressors. But you can control how you deal with them. Focus on knowing yourself and finding the ways of relieving stress that work best for you. With a little time and effort, you’ll learn to manage your stress in healthy and productive ways.

Jessica Tomer is the Web Content Manager at New England Law | Boston. You can explore how the Office of Student Services helps law students here.