“Sleep is a Distant Memory, and There’s Nothing But Caffeine in My Veins”: Self Care for Law Students

My 1L Orientation was filled with stories of students who spent their first year munching Snickers bars for dinner and gulping Red Bulls between all-nighters. It was all heavily doused with advice we absolutely should not follow their example, of course— that we have to eat and sleep and be functional humans and all— but the message I really heard was that there is an expectation that successful law students have an absolute, utter disregard for themselves. That they throw themselves bodily into the law, learn to bed down in the library with Prosser on Torts as a pillow, and fuel themselves with the Restatement of Contracts instead of actual sustenance.

And that baseline expectation for preferencing work over self is a constant thread throughout a legal career. Indeed, a recent study found that if you know ten lawyers, three are probably depressed, two may have a drinking problem, and/or another two likely exhibit anxiety symptoms. There is an epidemic of poor physical and mental wellness in the law, and it starts with that 1L expectation that we live off of Snickers, Red Bulls, and Restatements.

So to start our legal careers on the right foot, we need to start law school on the right foot. We need to center wellness in our lives, and we need to learn to privilege ourselves over our work. We need to practice self care. These are 5 ways we might start.

1. Acknowledge that your psychological health matters, and put your well-being at a premium.

Nothing else I’m going to say here matters unless you buy in to the fundamental premise that you have to be psychologically and emotionally healthy to be successful: you have to believe self care matters. Our society has a troubling tendency to say “it’s all in your head” and brush off mental health. We would never say just “walk it off” if you broke your leg or that you’re “just having a bad day” after you’ve been in a car accident; but if you’re depressed or unhappy, we hear all the time that it’s “just a bad day” and we should “walk it off” and get over it. But that’s not a solution.

Instead, we need to practice what psychologist Guy Winch calls “emotional first aid.” We have to admit that our emotional pain matters, acknowledge that our psychological well-being affects every aspect of our lives, and then take positive action to care for ourselves. Winch’s TED Talk explains:

And if emotional health for the sake of emotional health doesn’t do it for you, remember also that 75% of your job successes are predicted by your optimism, social support, and ability to cope with stress— with your psychological well-being. Your brain is 31% more productive when positive than when it is negative, neutral, or stressed. In other words, we are more successful when we are happier. Learn more about the Happiness Advantage in this TED Talk:

2. Eat food— real food.

It may sound trite because (1) we’ve been hearing about eating our vegetables since we were in high-chairs and bibs, so “duh” we should eat food; but (2) who has the time or the money to eat actual, healthy food? And listen, that objection is me. I have a horrible tendency to go months without grocery shopping, to grab popcorn or chips instead of a meal, and to read “just one more page” instead of cook myself food. I fully acknowledge that this is an aspect of self care I really struggle with. But it’s also one in which I’m trying to get better because I know it will make me a better student if I’m not half-distracted by a growling stomach or half-hyper with too much sugar and caffeine or half-pained at a tummy ache.

Indeed, one nutritionist with a specialty in microbiology and neuroscience has suggested that the microbiota in your stomach are a “second brain” that control your behavior and your physical, emotional, and mental wellness just as much as the clump of cells in your skull. So a proper diet is essential to a longer, happier, better life. This TED Talk further explains the importance of the gut-brain relationship:

And, if you’re wondering where to start in improving your diet to be more healthy and well-balanced, check out these 10 tips for better nutrition in law school.

3. Sleep.

Law students are overworked and busy around the clock, and we pull all-nighters on a semi-regular basis. We tell ourselves it’s because there’s just so much to do that we don’t have time to sleep. “Sleep is a luxury, but my GPA is a necessity.”The problem is that that’s just not how the world works. Sleep is a necessity, and sleep actually boosts your productivity.  Everyone needs about 8 hours of sleep— as a biological imperative— to keep their brain and their body functioning most effectively. And there’s no substitute for that sleep. You can’t caffeinate away the need to sleep. A circadian neuroscientist explains in this TED Talk:

And when do you sleep, you are actually happier, more productive, and more creative and intelligent now that you’re not sleep-deprived, which means that you can accomplish your lengthy task list quicker and better, leaving you the needed time to sleep. We can be better law students doing higher-quality work more efficiently if we actually sleep. Listen to this biology professor describe the link between sleeping and productivity in this TED Talk:

4. Find, talk to, and keep Your People.

Law school takes a village. It’s an incredibly stressful atmosphere filled with lots of external and internal pressures, and that can all feel profoundly isolating. One of the reasons that my first year of law school started off so rough was because I felt like I had been thrown in the deep end all alone. On the hand I was floundering to keep up with lengthy readings and understand this CREAC business in class, and on the other hand I was going home to try to puzzle through it all by myself thinking nobody else was having as hard a go of it as I was. I bought into this idea of solitary difficulty to such an extent that I almost let it convince me I wasn’t good enough for law school, and I’d never hack it as a lawyer.

It wasn’t until I really started talking to other students about their experiences that I realized everyone feels like they’re just trying to keep their head above water their first year. We all feel like we’re impostors who aren’t good enough to be here, and we all have self-doubt that can make us anxious and depressed. And it wasn’t until I really found my core group of law school friends that I started to really feel like I belonged and I could survive this whole law thing.

And my experience isn’t anomalous: a 75-year longitudinal psychology study reveals that the number one predictor of happiness and satisfaction in our lives is meaningful relationships with friends, family, and loved ones. We need to cultivate relationships where we feel valued for who we are, not just for our ability to churn out a brief or recite the Rule Against Perpetuities. We need to find Our People. Learn more about the importance of meaningful relationship in this, you guessed it, TED Talk:

Part of that process of finding Our People is practicing “Big Talk”: moving past talking about the weather or studying constitutional law, and talking from our hearts about our lives with people who will validate us. We have to be open about those experiences that might have hurt us the most so that we can find the meaningfulness in our connections with the people around us. The founder of the Big Talk movement explains:

5. You are more than a law student. Live your multitudes.

The law has a way of becoming this all-consuming force in our lives. It seems to take up every waking minute and pervade every breath we take until we find that all our sentences start with “assuming arguendo.” But you are more than a law student, and there is more happening in your life than law school. Weren’t you an artist before you studied mergers and acquisitions? Didn’t you do stand-up before you learned about qualified immunity? Aren’t you a sister or a dad to your favorite nine year-old on the planet? Don’t you love losing yourself in Parks and Recreation or Jane Austen? What happened to that person? To that passion?

Do not let the law become your life because you are more than that. Make time for the things and the people that make you happy. Be authentically yourself, and success will find you. And, for old times sake, a TED Talk on the importance of finding and centering your identity in your life:

Law school is hard, but if we acknowledge the importance of self care in our lives, eat, sleep, find Our People, and stay true to ourselves, we can all be better law students.

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