The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress & Actionable.com

For this review, I’ve cribbed the style of ActionableBooks.com, which I think is a good resource. Many books and other things I review do not lend themselves to a “golden egg” and two “gems” format, but it’s a great format for reviewing The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress, and one I’ve been meaning to take out for a spin or two.

[in the format of ActionableBooks.com]

The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress

Summary Written by: briefliteraryabandon.wordpress.com

The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress provides a framework for managing stress to prevent the harms that typically accompany too much mismanaged stress, drawn from decades of experience of both law students and law professors. Although it is aimed at law students, who famously encounter particularly high stress loads, The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress is a 16-page bare essentials practical guide to stress management with broad applicability to anyone who anticipates carrying a high stress load.

Life is filled with sources stress; stress is just the physiological response to any demand on us. Most stress is not a cause for concern because we respond to it within a healthy cycle where we expend mental energy and emotional strength and then recover through normal rest, relaxation, and other healthy routines. But not all stresses are like this; there are times when the kind and amount of stress we face overburden our normal ability to respond. Excessive or mismanaged stress can have tremendous costs, including a suite of direct symptoms, such as fatigue, anxiety, depression, and burnout, as well as a suite of costly coping mechanisms such as overeating, overspending, over-indulging in television or video games, lying, excessive drinking, and substance abuse. The prevalence of these problems is a testament to the value of preventative measures; for example, the prevalence of diagnosis-worthy anxiety disorders alone is apparently about 20% of the adult population of the U.S.

The full title is The HIdden Sources of Law School Stress: Avoiding the Mistakes that Create Unhappy and Unprofessional Lawyers. Being unhappy and unprofessional sounds, uh, bad–and that’s a bit of an understatement right? So what’s the secret?

The Golden Egg:
“Depression and other symptoms of excessive stress are all too common, so attention is necessary to maintain your health and enjoyment of life. The key is to learn to recognize the most significant and potentially harmful demands, eliminate any that you can, and moderate your response to those goals that are unavoidable.”

In other words, to manage stress, you have to pay attention to how much stress you are placing yourself under. Not all stress is a choice, but many sources of stress are completely optional–and it’s always within your control to choose how you respond to sources of stress, so no matter how stressed you are, you can choose to take the steps necessary to manage your stress. Don’t abandon common sense or stop doing the work to proactively manage your stress, and do take a regular inventory of how stressed you are feeling, and what you are stressed about.

—–

Gem #1:
“False Values Create Constant Stress”

For law students, there is a pernicious (often seemingly universal) belief that the road to happiness is through the top 10% of the class. (Actually there is not much correlation between being in the top of the law school class, and being happy.) Of course, ninety percent of law students will not be in the top 10%, so if most law students define success by being in the top 10% of the class, then even though they may all have a chance of achieving that goal, and some who may recognize they are above-average students may have some reasons to think their chances are above-average, but they’re all going to face uncertainty about their likelihood of success, and will be likely to experience a lot of anxiety if they’ve chosen to value something they can’t really control. At a broader level, instead of choosing an external goal (like being in the top 10%) students should chose internal goals, such as finding the best balance between work and relaxation to maximize their productivity, or meeting specific standards for knowing the course material. Whatever the best balance is, finding it doesn’t depend on beating other students (who, after all, may likewise be conditioning their happiness on beating other students, in ways that are fundamentally zero-sum).

The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress strongly emphasizes this point, that by valuing outcomes that are beyond our control, we expose ourselves to constant stressful uncertainty, whereas when we value finding enjoyment in our work and doing our personal best, we eliminate the stress of uncertainty. Of course, this is an old familiar truth, reflected in the familiar Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.  

What’s critical though, going back to the Golden Egg, is that making this insight work to reduce stress only works if we pay attention to our goals and values, and make adjustments so we remain focused on things we can control.

—–

Gem #2: 
“Heavy work-load is not the problem.”

Basically everyone has engaged in strong, focused effort at some point in our lives, and usually with good, or even great results, such as entering a flow state, experiencing feelings of satisfaction, achievement, and self-worth, and of course, actually getting things done. In short, effort isn’t harmful; normal rest neutralizes the fatigue we might feel after hard work.

In fact, one of the warning signs we can are not managing our stress effectively is if we are feeling tense, anxious, discouraged, or depressed about your school work. That can result in avoiding work, or finding advance justifications for failure, instead of staying calm and persistent as we do our best. Tension, anxiety, depression, and so on can also cause us to adopt coping techniques, such as “blowing off steam” with excessive drinking or partying, or cause you to lie or cheat or otherwise harm our health or integrity, which in turn can be a new and major source of stress.

—–

That in turn makes a nice conclusion to this review, which is that because unhealthy stress has a tendency to spiral, it is valuable to develop a good system for preventing unhealthy stress from becoming a problem in the first place. The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress is not particularly original, but it’s a short and useful guide for managing stress.

The Five Love Languages

Some tips from the Five Love Languages for being a better listener, with my thoughts:

* Maintain eye contact.
Thoughts: while eye contact is extremely valuable, it can be overdone both because it can seem aggressive, even creepily so, and because it can be exhausting. In the first category, ask any woman who has ridden on a bus alone about how it feels to have someone look them in the eye, and not look away, for a sustained period of time. It is not always meant that way, but it comes across as aggression… and sometimes it is not uncontrolled. Sometimes attention is flattering… but not always. Sometimes for tough conversations eye contact feels like a threat. So while it is good to maintain eye contact with someone speaking to you after all, they are talking to you so they want your attention take care to leave the option open to them to stick up for their side of the argument without being too nasty. If you have to talk about something that is hard to talk about, give yourself breaks and leave open the option to be connected another way, like by holding hands, sitting side by side, or etc.
* Don’t multitask.
Listening with one corner of your mind, while doing something else, is half-listening. As a general rule, when listening to someone you love, listen all the way. Some of the characters in The Name of the Wind and the other books in the Kingkiller Chronicles have a phrase they use, “Listen to me three times.” That’s a good idea to hold in reserve, for when you are saying something that you want to be sure the other person will rehearse carefully so they can review it again later. It means, “This isn’t for you to respond to now. It’s for you to remember, and review carefully.” Most parents have a tone of voice that they use, when they are saying something they want their kids to store up for later. A related idea is the idea that religious kids are raised with, that they must “hide God’s truth in their hearts” or, in other words, put a phrase, and the attending thoughts and feelings, somewhere they can access them whenever needed.
* Listen for feelings. 
Too often we hear the facts, and don’t acknowledge the feelings. There’s a joke about a couple, call them Honey and Sweetie, where the couple finds themselves awake in the small hours of the morning:
Honey: “What’s wrong?”
Sweetie: “Hm. Honey, I think I’m really thirsty.”
Honey: “Okay, well I’ll get you some water.”
Sweetie: “Oh, honey, thanks, but I can get it. I just wanted you to know how I’m feeling.”
*  Refuse to interrupt.

* Ask reflective questions. 
I like the phrase “active listening.” I need to get better at not interrupting or finishing people’s thoughts for them.

* Express understanding.
Perhaps just as importantly, though, is to express when you don’t understand yet and too seek clarification. Restate the same idea tentatively, or give an example.

The Halloween Tree

A short entry for a short book: The Halloween Tree, like many of Ray Bradbury’s books, perhaps, is something you read for the writing, not the plot.

It’s good for illuminating by electric example the otherwise potentially dusty fact that language can form the contours of experience; that’s why there is a distinction between poetry and prose. Dare to imagine a group of boys so raw with excitement for Halloween that when one must stay home, because he is sick (perhaps dying), but then joins them after all (but perhaps it’s just his spirit, which is the spirit of all boys) their excitement explodes upward, upward to the moon, where their excitement carves the formerly scholarly man-in-the-moon into a jack-o-lantern, alive with deathly cackling.

That doesn’t happen, actually, in the book. But there is a kite of impossible size, made of old circus posters, whose ribbon tail is eight boys (or maybe nine) each hanging onto another’s ankles, and which crosses continents and centuries. Why not?

Lightly edited 13 Feb 2017.