Finally, law students can take a breath. I am literally telling you to breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. When we consciously breathe, we connect to this present moment. This is mindfulness, and lawyers are no longer immune to the movement. I am not asking you to leave law school and join Don Draper at a meditation retreat center in California. I am inviting you to manage your stress and cope with test anxiety using mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques. The University of Miami and The University of California, Berkeley, are examples of law schools who incorporate mindfulness classes into the curriculum.
As a brain doctor and mindfulness teacher, I routinely am invited to share my stress management program with Fortune 500 companies, professional associations, and healthcare groups. In the last one month, I was invited by concerned faculty at two different Florida law schools. The bar examination was less than one month away, and stress levels were interfering with performance and preparation.
Over 40,000 students graduated from law schools across the United States in 2014, according to data collected by the American Bar Association. In the United States, prior to working full time as an attorney, students are required to pass the bar examination.
James Smith is an attorney and adjunct professor at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University College of Law. Professor Smith shares external stressors facing his students, “the most common concern has been finding enough time to study given the realities of today’s economy. Many students now have to work while preparing for the bar exam and thus feel like they don’t have enough time to prepare.”
Ideally, my first workshop with law students is typically four to six months prior to the bar exam to discuss the role of nutrition, sleep, and alcohol intake in memory and cognition.
Professor Smith advocates mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques to his law students, “effective stress management is crucial for attorneys because the practice and study of law are very taxing emotionally. The techniques of mindfulness can help attorneys take care of themselves and as a result their clients will benefit. A calm lawyer is a good lawyer.”
In the weeks leading up to the examination, the mindset is a key factor in keeping calm, resilient and focused. Here are three mindful steps I teach to help you survive and thrive during your examination preparation.
1. Recognize Fear
The root cause of negative thoughts shuffling on a repeat cycle in the mind is fear. Law students at both institutions echoed the same fears, “What if I can’t finish all of the questions in the section?”
“I lose focus when I realize someone else has finished the test faster than I did.”
“I can’t stop worrying that if I fail, I won’t be able to find a job and pay off my student loans.”
“How will I remember facts that I studied weeks prior to the exam?”
“Only 45-50 percent of students pass the bar examination in Florida; chances are I won’t be one of them.”
Sound familiar? You are not alone in your fears. The first step in conquering stress is being present, and this includes being present with your fears. When the negative thoughts of failure, doom, and gloom fill your mind, it only distracts you from studying your course material. I empower you to recognize the fear. If more than one thought is clouding your mind, write them all down.
2. Take A Breath Break
Once you have recognized the fear, it is time to practice a breathing technique to replace that fear with a sense of calm. Find a comfortable seated position either on the floor or in a chair. Close your eyes. Inhale through the nose to the count of three. Hold your breath for one second, and then exhale through the mouth for four seconds. Repeat this entire cycle for one to three minutes. When you have completed your breath break, bring your awareness to the current moment and the task you have to complete. If the fearful thoughts are still distracting you from studying, repeat the breathing exercise.
3. Visualize a successful outcome
Guided visualization is a contemplation exercise that I have taught to corporate executives, athletes, and professional speakers. Guided visualization is the process in which you imagine the details of a particular event and the desired outcome you would like to achieve. Every evening prior to bedtime, find a quiet space in your bedroom or another quiet corner of your home.
Turn off digital devices and sit in a comfortable position. Start with the image of yourself waking up on the day of the exam, and think about the routine of getting ready that morning. Continue the visualization by imagining yourself driving to the test center, checking in to the exam and sitting in the exam room. Now see yourself taking the actual exam by easily answering questions on the computer or in an examination booklet.
If fearful thoughts come to your mind, it is normal. This is your chance to visualize how you would overcome an obstacle. Start by taking a deep breath and saying to yourself, “I got this.” Now imagine yourself walking out of the examination center having successfully completed the examination. Fast forward your thoughts to the day you are receiving your results. See yourself reading the words, “congratulations you have successfully passed the bar examination.” How does that feel? Stay with this feeling of relief and joy as you fall asleep. This mindfulness-based meditation exercise typically takes about 5-10 minutes.
For the law students reading this article prior to sitting for the bar exam, here is my intention for you. I hold an intention that you believe in your ability to succeed on the bar examination. Know that everything you have done up to this point has prepared you for this moment. You have all the answers within you. You were meant to be on this path. Take a moment to breathe and tell yourself, “I got this.”
Romila “Dr. Romie” Mushtaq, MD, ABIHM is a traditionally trained neurologist with additional board certification in Integrative Medicine. She helps audiences and individual clients heal from stress-based illnesses and career burnout with her program Mindset Matters which is based in neuroscience, positive psychology, and mindfulness.