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How to get better at handling stress in law school (and beyond)

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Stress during law school is kind of inevitable, so figuring out how to handle it is key not just to surviving, but thriving.

When I was in law school, I compared myself to others a lot. I always seemed to think other people had it more together – why did some seem to be so cool, confident and calm anyway?! (And why couldn’t I have some of that?)

Of course, some people can be pretty good at masking their stress – so there’s that.… but we do have different stress tolerance levels.

We can also do something about it.

Changing the stress response

People with high stress tolerance are able to deal with a fair amount of stress without freaking out. It’s not that they never feel stress, they just don’t get stressed about the stress. They know they can handle it. They also tend to be the people who excel in school, in law, and in life.

If you sometimes wonder if you can handle the stress: (1) you’re not alone (despite how it may seem); (2) your brain wants to do something to make it better, and (3) it can.

The capacity to change our stress response is rooted in neuroscience. Our brains have the ability to grow and change even as adults – it’s called neuroplasticity.

Bottom line: we can rewire how our brains respond to stress.

And the more you practice a different response, the more habitual it becomes, until a habit becomes a trait.

Stress and the brain

Beyond the effects on mental and physical health, stress affects a part of our brains that any law student (or lawyer) needs to succeed. So it’s definitely not something to ignore.

Research by neurobiologist Amy Arnsten at Yale Medical School has shown that too much stress inhibits the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is like the CEO of our brains. The PFC helps us perform many of our high-level cognitive functions. It also helps to regulate our attention, memory, behavior, and emotion.

When we recognize that we have some control over our stress, we help to improve our stress tolerance.

But the PFC is also the area of the brain most susceptible to damage from stress. And when we’re stressed, the chemicals that are released (e.g. dopamine and noradrenaline) can keep us from those higher-level PFC functions, resulting in poor decision-making, memory problems, and difficulty maintaining your attention – all of which you need to perform well in law school, and as a lawyer.

While inhibiting our PFC functions, stress also activates an area of the brain called the amygdala which is connected to our quick, fight-or-flight reactions. While this is great for jumping out of the way of oncoming traffic, it’s not exactly the kind of nuanced thinking needed for understanding the law.

With limited access to the PFC, stress can also diminish our ability to control impulses and regulate behavior. So if you find yourself eating a gallon of ice cream, drinking too much, or losing your temper easily, stress may be to blame.

As a law student, you don’t want to ignore prolonged stress. If stress remains over longer periods, research shows it actually causes nerve damage in the prefrontal cortex. (Arnsten’s study showed that this damage can begin after only a week of stress.)

It has also been linked to greater risk of heart disease, weight gain, digestive problems, sleep disorders, anxiety and depression.

(For further discussion and research on the effects of stress on the brain, and additional tips to protect yourself, read this post.)

OK, OK… have I convinced you to pay attention? Now what?

7 ways to improve your stress tolerance

Since the brain wants to take action to deal with stress, give it a plan. When we recognize that we have some control over our stress, we help to improve our stress tolerance.

Even when you can’t control whether that tough Con. Law professor will target you in class, there are always actions you can take to protect yourself from chronic or high-level stress.

1. Don’t be afraid of the stress. Getting stressed about our stress increases our stress (thanks, Sherlock ;). If we think our increased heartbeat or sweaty palms are something else to be stressed about, our bodies will have a greater stress response. But if we think a stress response is a natural or even helpful response, then the reaction will more easily dissipate. Some amount of stress can be good for you – check out this post or TED Talk for more on that. And if you believe that you can always do something about whatever comes your way – in essence, that you can handle it – then you’ll be in a better position to handle the stress when it comes.

2. Recognize your stress and name it. Ignoring your stress doesn’t improve your tolerance to it. In fact, it can do the opposite. But paying attention to it and putting it into words can improve your response – cool, right? And it’s backed by research. A study by Professor Matthew Lieberman at UCLA showed that simply naming a negative feeling helps to decrease activity in the amygdala region of the brain and activates part of our prefrontal cortex.

3. Take an action, even it’s changing your attitude. When you’re stressed, the brain wants you to do something about it. You may not be able to change the circumstances causing your stress, but you can take other action? Can you shift your attitude, your role, or your perspective? This may mean removing yourself from a situation so you don’t lose your cool. This may mean considering other ways to view the situation. So instead of freaking out about being called on in class, can you make a game out of predicting who’s next, or who of your friends will get targeted first – the winner gets a beer/badge/something fun?

4.  Focus on whats important. One cause of internal stress is not paying attention to what you want or what really matters to you. If you don’t feel good about what you’re doing, you can be stressed even in a low-pressure situation. Conversely, if you value what you’re doing, then you feel good about it and are better able to handle any difficulty that comes with that. And checking in with what matters to you helps activates your prefrontal cortex. Ask yourself: Why did I come to law school in the first place? What’s important about getting this degree? What will success mean to me?

5. Make time to recover. When you give yourself time to recover from a stress, you help to guard against a build-up of stress and improve your ability to better handle the next stressful event. If you simply jump back in full-swing after experiencing significant stress without allowing yourself time to recover, the effects on your brain can be cumulative and therefore worse the next time around. Be sure to eat well, rest, relax and find ways to enjoy yourself – watch a funny movie or listen to your favorite music.

6. Practice yoga and/or meditation. Research has shown that yoga can decrease our perception of stress as well as our stress response to pain. In addition, a group of studies showed that people who practice mind-body exercises (e.g., yoga, tai chi, meditation, Qi gong and breathing), showed fewer signs of inflammation and appeared to experience a reversal of the effects of chronic stress at the cellular level – pretty amazing, right?

7. Get support. Experts agree that one of the key factors in how well we handle stress is whether we have support when we are stressed. So if you don’t have great support, get some! And one important thing to remember here: the support should work with you and not for you – think championing and assisting, not mothering.

Consistently taking different actions like these, shifting your focus, and taking care of yourself, will build the neural pathways for improving your tolerance to stress. With time, you can permanently improve how you respond to stress. (I did.) So choose one, or choose them all, but begin! Your brain and your body will thank you.

And if you’d like to explore improving your stress tolerance with some support and research-backed neuroscience coaching, contact me for a free consultation.

Jennifer Riggs Jennifer Riggs is a neuroscience coach, speaker, and former lawyer. She uses neuroscience and coaching to help people rewire and integrate their brains for greater resilience and leadership. She is trained and certified by the Coaches Training Institute and is a member of the International Coaches Federation. She is also certified in neuroscience coaching by BeAbove Leadership. Jennifer studied law at Loyola University Chicago and Fordham University. After practicing criminal defense, she became a consultant to improve state and local indigent defense systems across the country, working for legal organizations, state and local governments, bar associations, and courts.