By Camesha Little, National Director – West, Bar Review Engagement, Helix Bar Review
Whether you are a 1L, 2L, 3L, or wrapping up four or more years of study, you are likely no stranger to stress. High expectations from yourself and others, high-stakes exams, the curve, and a whole host of other anxiety-inducing factors can create a perfect storm of pressure. Add the bar exam into the mix and stress levels can kick into overdrive!
So, how do you break through the wall of worry to move forward with your bar prep?
First, take a deep breath. In through your nose, fill up your lungs, and exhale with a nice “Ahhhhh.” Repeat this a few times if needed, then keep reading for more tips on managing and reframing anxiety about the bar exam.
What is stress?
In its simplest form, stress is a form of fear – it’s normal and everyone experiences it at some point. A little bit of stress can actually be useful in helping to avoid dangerous situations and in helping us solve everyday problems. It may be the push you need to complete the assignment you have procrastinated on or the motivation to get you up a little earlier to start your study session. However, common stress responses like decreased concentration and motivation, forgetfulness, and insomnia can get in the way of your studies and too much stress can diminish your ability to perform life’s basic functions. So, it’s a good idea to have some tricks up your sleeve for when your stress starts to feel overwhelming.
Time for the lawyer disclaimer: anxiety disorders are different from experiencing episodic stress in response to discrete events. If you think your stress symptoms are severe and persistent over time, please seek help from a mental health professional.
How can you manage fear about the bar exam?
Managing fear and anxiety, particularly around a high-stakes experience like the bar exam, may feel like an impossible task at times. But you can quell the stress-storm inside your brain, we promise! Here are a few strategies that will help.
To combat consuming feelings of fear and anxiety, you must first calm yourself as quickly as possible. A common technique is through intentional breathing. For some, simply taking a few deep breaths will suffice. Others swear by the box breathing technique where you breath in for a four count, hold for a four count, and exhale for a four count. Others employ five finger breathing, where you trace one hand with your index finger from the other hand, breathing in on the way up each finger and out on the way down. There are tons of different methods (just search “breathing techniques for anxiety”) – find one that works for you and use it when you’re feeling submerged in stress!
Pause: Gimme a Break!
You may or may not remember the iconic Kit Kat® slogan, but, while a sugar shock to the system may not be the best remedy for stress, they were right about one thing – taking breaks is essential for getting the most out of life and the learning process. Incorporate breaks, long and short, into your study days to help center your thoughts so you can re-enter your studies with a clearer mind.
Focus on the Moment
Anxiety is born largely out of two forms of negative thinking: fixation on events that occurred in the past and worry over possible future outcomes. Never are we more obsessed about future outcomes than when we are studying for the bar exam. It’s the whole point of our existence for three months! So, when you start to venture down into the bar passage rabbit hole, bring yourself back to the present. Experience the moment, appreciate the gains you’ve made, and trust in yourself and your preparation.
Games . . . Yes, Please!
Find ways to shift from activities you may dread – like reading or practice questions – to something you find more enjoyable – like games or competition. In addition to making bar prep feel like less of a slog, this can also help you to experience less fear about the bar exam. Consider quizzing with a partner as a fun way to review or create a personal challenge for yourself to answer more questions or to flip through more flashcards. Don’t have time to create something from scratch? Helix Bar Review has already got you covered! Check out Helix Flashcard Sets and visit the Helix Game Center in your prep course to try your hand at a Perfect Pairs, Memory Match, or Sudden Death game to have a little fun while learning along the way.
The final, and most important tip is to not fight the fear. Instead, try to convert it! Anxiety and excitement are closely related physiological experiences as shown in a study by Harvard Business School professors. The researchers established that participants performed better at a stressful activity after reframing anxiety as excitement, simply by telling themselves “I am excited” before the performance. So, give it a try and say it, “I am excited about the bar exam, I am excited about bar study, and I am excited about moving closer toward my dream of becoming an attorney!” Then go after it!
These techniques can help you manage your fear of the bar exam. But the bar exam isn’t the last stressful event you’ll experience. So, get in the practice of managing stress and build coping skills for life. Try these various techniques in different scenarios – during your law school classes, moot court competitions, job interviews, study sessions, and everyday life so that you can draw upon your favorite technique on exam day and beyond!