Anxiety: A Common Attorney Affliction

Welcome to your new life– law school. Law school is, for lack of a better word, hard.  It is an entirely new experience. You probably still can’t comprehend the journey you are embarking on. And while it will be incredible, and you will create strong bonds and learn amazing new things and grow as a person… it will also probably feel like an uphill battle. Chances are you will be over-worked, sleep-deprived, and hesitant. It is likely you will feel inadequate; likely you will doubt yourself; and likely your will, strength, courage, and perseverance will be tested in a way you never imagined. But never forget that you belong here. You are here and you are amazing. You. Belong. Here.  

We all just need to remember five things:  

  1. You’re not the only feeling this way or doubting yourself. One study found 61% of surveyed attorneys reported experiencing anxiety.
  2. Everyone is stressed out. But just because everyone else is stressed doesn’t invalidate your experience with stress 
  3. Don’t be afraid to talk with your friends. 
  4. Ask for help when you need it.
  5. Don’t take yourself too seriously. 

anx·i·e·ty — /aNGˈzīədē/ — “A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. An epidemic in law school.” 

After an intimate student organization mixer, only three people remained. I sat with two women, Brittany and Emily, who I admired for their intellect, tenacity, and moral values. To me, these women represented everything you need to be as a lawyer. They were hardworking, steadfast in their beliefs on equality, and, for an unknown reason, thought highly of me. I felt uncomfortable receiving their praise. I thought I was a mediocre student at best, and I didn’t have any faith in myself becoming a lawyer.  

Brittany told us that in the summer, she was returning to work for the firm where she worked before law school. I thought she was so lucky. Emily, a 3L evening student who will change the world, confided in us that she did not have a job lined up for next summer.  Emily’s statement was impactful; her frank honesty sliced through the thick tension present during our job talk.  With a few words, Emily created a strong bond between us. These wonderful ladies also had feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. These hardworking, intelligent, and amazing people opened up about their insecurities. Their frankness melted away my anxiety. I was no longer mediocre for not having my summer employment in figured out in October, I felt like a normal law student. I no longer had to beat myself up for no reason. 

In law school there is a lot of secrecy, especially around grades. Some students will flaunt their accomplishment to inflate themselves, others just stay away from those topics. Ultimately, it creates an inhuman environment of competition. You begin to compare yourself to others and highlight your failings. It is tiresome and stressful. It makes you feel small and your accomplishment insignificant. I constantly felt that I was mediocre. It caused a constant wave of anxiety and stress that taxed my motivation.  

“You start to think that everyone is so smart, and everyone is so much better than you,” Brittany said. But, in reality, you are already on their level. Other people might be better in contracts or torts, but you bring something to the table. Something only you can bring. You belong here. 

Anxiety is a self-fulling process. It can manifest as procrastination, irritability, forgetfulness, restlessness, mind-fog, trouble sleeping, addiction, panic attacks or worse. And those manifestations in turn can decrease productivity, exacerbating the triggers for anxiety.  It’s a vicious circle. 

On the first day of class I noticed I didn’t extrapolate the same information others did from the reading. I felt the same a month later. Reading and preparing for class started to feel hopeless, it didn’t matter how much time I put in since I wouldn’t get it anyway. I just wasn’t smart enough. I was irritable, I procrastinated, I considered taking my life just to escape the anxiety and negative self-worth. I almost gave up because I felt I was not good enough. It took me months to realize I was my own worst enemy. I was comparing my normal self to someone else’s A-game. I didn’t know all the work they put in behind the scenes. In fact– and this is a true story– another student in my class was also so stressed and crippled by a sense of inadequacy that she repeatedly considering dropping out of law school, thinking she just couldn’t ever cut it in the law… She’s now one of the top students in the class.

When anxiety manifests as procrastination or self-loathing, a person can feel paralyzed, making it impossible to move forward. Suddenly, work is bogging them down and they are struggling.  The anxiety transforms into crying, panic attacks, or even thoughts of suicide. Quitting seems to be the answer but it’s not. Don’t quit, NEVER QUIT. Everyone goes through this. Some people went through this before law school, and some may go through this after law school. Take a moment and breathe, it gets better. The fact that everyone goes through this does not trivialize your experience. Rather, this fact may help you feel less alone.   

Do I Have Anxiety?

Symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks include:

AnxietyPanic Attacks
– Worry and apprehension 
– Restlessness 
– Sleep problems 
– Difficulty concentrating 
– Irritability 
– Sadness 
– Feeling pressure and hurried 
– Changes in heart rate 
– Tension in the head or neck 
– Headache 
– Nausea or diarrhea 
– Sweating 
– Dry mouth 
– Tightness in the throat
– Difficulty breathing 
– Trembling or shaking 
– Feeling faint 
Intense periods of fear or doom in a short period up to 10 minutes, along with at least four of the following: 
– Sudden overwhelming fear 
– Palpitations or trembling
– Sweating 
– Shortness of breath 
– Sense of choking 
– Chest pain 
– Nausea 
– Dizziness 
– A feeling of detachment from the outside world
– Fear of dying 
– Numbness or tingling
– Chills or hot flushes 
  

What Do I Do if I Have Anxiety?

If you’re presently suffering from an anxiety or panic attack, try these strategies:

AnxietyPanic Attacks
– Know the signs 
– Know your triggers 
– Eat healthy  
– Exercise 
– Use relaxation techniques like breathing and meditation
– Try a new activity 
– Be Social  
– Set goals (i.e., visualizing) 
– Ask for help 
– Acknowledge you are having a panic attack
– Use deep breathing
– Concentrate on just one of your senses at a time
– Practice mindfulness 
– Use muscle relaxation techniques 
– Picture your happy place 
– Repeat a mantra internally 
– Ask for help 
  

In the long term, once you realize you are struggling with anxiety, you must take action. The most disappointing thing you can do is ruin your dreams because of manageable issues, and anxiety is manageable.  

You take action by relieving stress, treating yourself, using relaxation techniques (such as breathing or mindfulness, or by asking for help. Asking for help is the best thing you can do. Friends, teachers, and counselors can provide you with beneficial information about their experiences and how to manage stress. Also, try writing it down. Write out your current behavior, write out what you are feeling, and write out all of your negative emotions. Putting everything one paper can help you look for trends and manage your anxiety. 

Other tactics that work include exercise, running, kickboxing (if you’re not a broke college student), or any physical activity that relieves energy and stress. For me, I personally enjoy doing riddles (something I am good at) or other games I excel at to prove that I am good enough.  

How Do I Know if I Need to Ask for Help?

During my second semester, my class was finally assigned their first legal research paper that did not contain any assistance from the professors. This was the first time we had to conduct all the outside research and apply the law. I panicked. I could even think let alone read the cases I found. I couldn’t grasp the assignment. My heart was constantly racing. I would dream about this paper and wake up with my heart pounding. Everything was suffering. My work, my enthusiasm, my mental health. But, for me, self-help techniques weren’t enough. I tried breathing, but my heart was always pounding. I tried to eat well, but my hands were always shaking. I tried reaching out to my friends, but they felt too far away. I tried talking, but my words wouldn’t come out. I tried finding my happy place, but I swear it was on fire. I even tried a relaxing bath, but nothing seemed to work. My heart was always pounding. I was always shaking. I was always failing.  

Asking for normal help wasn’t enough for me. I had to see a doctor. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety and started to a regiment of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRIs). The medication helped me deal with the immediate problem and now it helps me unpack the sources of my anxiety. I utilize the medication and therapy for my health, and I am 1000 times better than when I was diagnosed. On the medication I do experience anxiety, however it is to a lesser extent. When anxiety hits I can breath, talk it out, and more.  

You should seriously consider seeing a professional about your anxiety or panic attacks if:  

  1. You’re struggling to make it through each day. (I looked like I was OK, but I wasn’t.)
  2. You’re having physical problems. (My heart was always pounding.)
  3. You’re having thoughts of suicide. (My school has terrifying ramps; it made it very hard for me not to think about suicide.)
  4. You’re turning to alcohol or drugs. (I was drinking regularly.)
  5. You’re avoiding people and places. (I hid in the library) 

We all struggle with stress and anxiety, you should not let it rule your life or hamper your dreams. Use the techniques to help yourself. Seek help if you need it, or not. There’s nothing wrong with talking to a doctor if you are unsure of your mental health status, in fact I encourage it. The best thing you can do for yourself is put your health first. You can’t help anyone if you are not ok. 

Remember that there is help. Most schools have a mental health counselor at their disposal, and there are many lawyer assistance programs that are free and confidential because of how rife mental health concerns are in the legal community.  Further, a professional may also prescribe you medication to help you reduce anxiety and regain your bearings.  Help is out there. 

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