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.
“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.
“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.