“You can’t pour from an empty cup.” I don’t know about you, but I heard this phrase quite often during my first year of law school – mostly from people not in law school who were worried about my stress levels. And I can remember thinking, “they just don’t get it. This is the path I chose, and I will always be stressed out and fried.”
Well, I am here to tell you that this is a ridiculous sentiment. We (law students, candidates for the bar exam, and active attorneys) are not resigned to a life of stress, burnout, and exhaustion. No, we can actually choose to be good students/attorneys and have good mental health.
I am very lucky that within my first semester of law school, I realized I needed help. I was overwhelmed, exhausted, and every time I felt like I got the hang of school and my life outside it, school announced another “mandatory” event or classes were rearranged and added at the last second. And I was frazzled. (In their defense, my first year was chaotic as Massachusetts was slammed with maybe nine blizzards in a row and the school had to make up classes at the last minute in order to meet ABA guidelines.)
I decided to visit the school therapist for some coping strategies, and really just a third party to talk to who wasn’t invested in school (quite literally) like my parents were. This was the best thing I could have done for myself, and the first step in my four-year attempt to collect better self-care techniques in my life.
Why self-care? Self-care helps reduce cortisol – a hormone that surges when we are stressed. This hormone can wreak absolute havoc on your immune system, ability to sleep well, memory, and energy levels. Essentially, taking steps towards self-care helps you work at full capacity.
During the bar exam in particular, it is very important to incorporate self-care into your daily routine. Below, I’ll outline a few ways to reduce your stress, combat exhaustion, and help boost your mood.
1. Make Sleep Important
You cannot expect your brain to work well if you are not letting it rest. Humans need at least 7-9 hours of sleep a night, and most research lands on the higher end of this spectrum. In addition, every hour you get to bed before 10:00 pm provides better quality sleep. So, if you think you can go to bed at 1:00 am and get up at 8:00 am and it’s the same as going to bed at 10:00 pm and getting up at 5:00 am, you’re sorely mistaken. When I was studying for the bar, I went to bed every night at 9:30 pm and got up every morning at 6:00 am. And in the two weeks leading up to the bar, I started going to bed at 8:30 pm and getting up at 7:00 am because my body and brain needed even more sleep. This kind of a sleep routine helps you stay less stressed, which allows your brain to fully function at the level you need it to for the exam and studying.
2. Daily Light Exercise
I know I talk a lot about exercise in my posts but moving around during the day has so many little benefits that it’s really a travesty to not incorporate it. Light exercise (I’m talking a fifteen-minute stroll) can boost happiness, build stronger bones, lower your stress levels, help with brain health, boost your memory, and better your sleep. During bar prep, we are constantly worried – worried about the exam, worried if we’ll remember everything, worried we aren’t doing enough, worried, worried, worried. Taking fifteen minutes once a day can combat that worry and remind us that we are real people outside of this exam.
3. See People
When I took the bar the first time, I was alone. My parents lived in Florida, I was in Massachusetts and if I didn’t babysit once a week or have friends that wanted to come over, I never would have seen anyone but the grumpy librarian I battled every morning for access to a study room. The second time I took the bar, I was living at home and saw my parents at least once a day. On the weekends I made a plan to see people. I spent my day off from studying connecting with others. Getting hugs. Visiting my friends. Going to the movies. Doing the things I liked with the people I loved. Humans need connection. We are social creatures and isolating ourselves, like we may have to in order to study effectively for the bar, can be detrimental. You may not be able to do something fun every day of bar prep, and you may have to be indoors most of the time, but make a point to take a break and see people. I promise it will make a world of difference.
Remember, these things need to be done in concert with one another. You can’t expect to lower your stress if you’re working out hard five to six days a week and going to bed at 2:00 am to wake up at 6:00 am. And you can’t expect to party every night with friends and get up the next morning able to study.
Also, get comfortable being assertive with the people you live with and care about – that’s the ultimate act of self-care. Tell your roommates you need quiet by 9:00 pm. Ask your parents to make you dinner. Buy more underwear if you don’t feel like laundry needs to be on your self-care list. And, make a plan for after the bar – schedule a massage, get a manicure and pedicure, rent a condo in New Hampshire to spend the weekend with your loved ones. Have something to look forward to, take breaks as you need, and I promise you will not only survive this stressful time, you’ll learn to flourish in it.