What is stress?

We often think of stress as a result of an event that happens to us but it is not the event that is stressful, but the way we interpret and react to an event that is stressful. Something that might be quite stressful to one person may be completely non-stressful for another. For example, writing, which you will do a lot of in law school, is very stressful for some people; others experience it as relaxing.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Stress?
There are several signs and symptoms that you may notice when you are experiencing stress. These fall into four broad categories: Feelings, Thoughts, Behavior, and Physiological. When you are under stress, you may experience one or more of the following (note: this is not an exhaustive list):

Feelings
Anxiety
Fear
Irritability
Moodiness

Behavior
Crying for no apparent reason
Starting smoking or smoking more than usual
Using drugs and/or alcohol more
Acting impulsively
Having accidents
Overeating or not being able to eat at all

Thoughts
Inability to concentrate
Forgetfulness
Obsessing about failure (e.g. exams)
Worrying about the future
Being preoccupied

Physiological
Heart racing
Hands sweating
Dry mouth
Hands shaking
Exhaustion
Problems sleeping
Upset stomach
Back and/or neck pain
Overeating or not being able to eat at all
Getting lots of colds, or other illnesses

Many people say they work best under pressure - stress doesn't really get to them. And, it is true that stress is a part of day to day living, and not necessarily harmful. In fact, as you may have experienced, mild stress can act as a motivator and energizer. But, if your stress level is too high, it can take its toll on your body and your social relationships. Law school, like other graduate programs, can be stressful - and the first year especially so.

Causes of Stress
Paradoxically, not just negative events cause stress; positive events can also be stressful. Major life changes are the major source of stress for most people and they use up a lot of our coping resources. Some examples of stressful major life changes for students are:

  • Moving from a familiar place
  • Beginning a new phase in one's life, such as law school
  • Marriage, separation, divorce
  • Pregnancy, miscarriage, delivering a baby
  • Experiencing the death of someone close to you

In addition, external events can add to your stress, such as:

  • Deadlines
  • Financial worries
  • Competition
  • No quiet place to study or work
  • Losses or disappointments

How to Reduce Stress
Here are some ways to minimize your stress and to manage it, rather than it managing you:

  1. Try and figure out what is stressful to you and how you usually react to stress
  2. Get regular exercise
  3. Eat a balanced diet - eating only junk food will catch up with you sooner or later
  4. Find someone you trust to talk with about your problems and concerns
  5. Buy/get a planner and use it to maximize the time available to you
  6. Plan ahead to avoid last minute problems (e.g. plan to print out a paper the night before it's due; those who come to school a half hour before the paper is due and plan to print it out then usually find that the printers have gone on strike!)
  7. Set realistic goals and priorities
  8. Use relaxation techniques to decrease stress. If you don't know how to systematically relax yourself, we have resources to teach you.
  9. Take frequent breaks from studying, even if they're only for 10 minutes at a time. Get up, walk around, have a drink of water, give yourself permission not to study every minute.
  10. Remember you had a life before you came to law school. You liked to do things like go to movies, hear music, play softball, visit museums. You may not be able to do something like that every day, but you should make time to do some of what you used to love.
  11. Remember, too, that you have been successful in other things you have done in your life. You'll be fine here too - even though it may not feel that way on a given day.
  12. We have many resources to assist you. There is no reason to suffer alone — ask if you need help.