Why are some students able to handle setbacks and struggles in law school, particularly first year, while others seem almost paralyzed and stuck in a pattern of underperformance? The answer likely stems from their resilience—that is, the ability to “bounce back”. Resiliency is a set of skills that allow people to not just get through hard times, but to thrive and learn from them.
The pressures on new law students to do well are numerous, and in a tough job market, can seem tremendous. Whether it is a need to know they really “belong” in law school, to perform to personal or family expectations, or overriding concerns about the ability to get a job and repay students loans, the stresses are abundant. When students receive a grade lower than expected, as many do for possibly the first time, they can become mired in self-doubt, which can lead to a cycle of underperformance.
It is clear to those of us who teach these students that the worry and doubt get in the way of performance. Science is now showing us exactly how, and making the argument that resilience or “grit” is as necessary to law school success as a high LSAT score. Thanks to modern imaging, scientists now know how our brains perform during times of stress. Watching blood flows, scientists can see how different people react to stress. And while most of us might think of stress as major catastrophes—fires, floods, and the like, our bodies react to smaller stresses like traffic, disagreeable bosses, or difficult exams, in much the same way. Even feelings like rejection or loneliness stoke this stress response in the brain. The neural pathways which are stimulated by all these stressors, big or small, become stronger and stronger the more stressed we are. Soon, this stressful mode of thinking and operating can become our norm. The good news is that science shows the brain can be trained in a way that does not use the stress neural pathways, and in time this can become the new way to handle stress.
The secret lies in the connection between the frontal cortex—the brain’s manager, and the amygdala- the brain’s emotional center. A stronger connection means the frontal cortex is better able to control the amygdala and tell it to calm down. How to build that connection? Here are some simple tips:
- Face the things you fear, don’t run from them. This relaxes the fear circuit.
- Develop a strong network of social support. One study revealed that when people were exposed to a stressor in a lab, heart rate and blood pressure did not rise as much if they were with a friend or loved one, as opposed to receiving that news alone.
- Work the body’s muscles through exercise. This also builds resiliency in the brain because exercise spurs development of new neural pathways, which can replace those depleted by stress.
- Be mindful. A 2010 Harvard study showed people spend 47% of their day thinking about things other than what they are actually doing. There are myriad materials and apps available online-from simple breathing exercises to guided meditations.
- Reach for support when needed and share your true feelings.
- Don’t beat yourself up or dwell on the past. Pushing out the negative thoughts with positive ones can lead to dramatic reductions in stress and increases in resiliency.
Students who can tamp down their stress responses will be more able to focus and perform as they hoped when joining law school.
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