We know you are in the midst of bar exam crunch time and it’s often difficult to see beyond studying the law and practicing answers. But today we have a guest post from Elena DuCharme, an attorney and performance coach who specializes in helping bar-takers achieve the right mindset to conquer the exam. She’s here today to give you some tips to develop a confident mindset in the midst of a very anxiety-inducing period. Welcome, Elena!
As a result of my own law school and bar exam experience, years of law practice, and the last 12 years as a coach for law students and lawyers, I’ve come to some conclusions. And here’s the most important one: our experiences in life are mostly the result of our state of mind.
This consistently bears out in my work with bar exam clients – the ones who fail almost always fall into one of two camps:
1. people who are plenty smart but simply need a little more time with some of the material or methods; and
2. people who have a mindset problem before and/or during the bar exam. They may be stressed, anxious, overwhelmed and self-doubting. Or they may have an invisible subconscious block to success.
In this post I’d like to talk about the most common mindset issue for bar takers: excessive stress and anxiety.
The Problem with Unsupervised Anxiety and Worry
We all get anxious and entertain worry and self-doubt to some degree. Actually, it would be pretty weird if you didn’t feel at least some anxiety about the bar exam. It’s just part of how the human nervous system is wired.
But you can’t study or perform at your best if you’re too anxious. High anxiety can make you feel miserable, entice you to procrastinate, and take your analytical, reasoning brain offline — literally.
Research shows that anxiety and worry rob your brain of the critical “working memory” you need to do your best under pressure. When you’re overanxious, you just don’t have the cognitive horsepower and speed you need to compute, reason and problem solve quickly. You may not see information, answers or solutions that are right in front of you. And quick decision-making – which is critical when you practice and take the bar exam — becomes almost impossible, because you simply can’t access information and work with it like you normally do.
It’s like trying to run a marathon – in quicksand.
So how do you keep yourself out of the quicksand? You can start by understanding something about stress and applying it to your own mindset.
Not Too Little, Not Too Much
Ultimately, stress is neither good nor bad; it’s a matter of degree. Your optimal stress level is unique to you, and lies somewhere between being bored (or sleeping) and being freaked out (see, quicksand).
Here’s a cool little graph that demonstrates what I’m talking about: the Anxiety Bell Curve, developed by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson back in 1908. It shows that our “sweet spot” of performance actually requires a certain degree of mental “arousal” or stress.
As the Yerkes-Dodson Law illustrates, you don’t want to be completely anxiety-free when you’re approaching the bar exam. You actually want and need some of that stress and healthy nervousness that charges you up to meet the challenge — it keeps you on your toes, highly motivated, and studying more than you thought you would or could. This is healthy and useful.
Find Your Sweet Spot
You can do yourself a big favor right now if — in addition to continuing to learn the law and strategies for taking the bar exam — you pay attention to your mindset and to how you feel in your body as you’re studying. How much nervousness seems to work in your favor? Practice noticing your optimal stress level; the sweet spot where you feel highly engaged and effective.
If you’re a little over the mark in the stress department, not to worry. There are a number of things you can do to ratchet anxiety back down to an optimal level, including exercising regularly to move the excess energy and stress hormones, meditating, and deep breathing. (You can find out more about these approaches in the Bar Exam Toolbox blogposts and site.)
You can also learn to expand your sweet spot into a “sweet range” by practicing under pressure — for example, within exam time constraints. When done with the right attitude (not taking results too seriously at first), this is one of the best ways to train your brain to perform optimally in a wider range of stress levels.
The moral of the story: Once you know the law, passing the bar is all about your state of mind. Take extra good care of yours.
In a future post, I’ll offer some additional tips and techniques for taking care of your mindset and easing anxiety and worry. For now, be nice to yourself and keep breathing – it’s the ultimate physiological stress-reliever. And it’s free!
Elena DuCharme is an attorney and performance coach who specializes in helping bar-takers overcome anxiety and overwhelm and develop a confident, high-performance mindset through the use of cutting-edge neuroscience-based techniques. You can find out more and sign up to receive her Bar Exam Success Mindset Tips on her website.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- Taking care of yourself is a critical part of bar exam preparation
- Can meditation help you prepare for the bar exam?
- Bar Study Tips: Getting mentally ready for the bar exam
- Strategic Tips for Unwinding Stress