Is It Merely Stress or Anxiety?: Anxiety in Law School

stress or anxiety

Is It Merely Stress or Anxiety?: Anxiety in Law School

Is It Merely Stress or Anxiety?: Anxiety in Law School: In the post “Law School and Your Mental Health” we discussed some risk factors for mental health issues and some basic prevention strategies. In the post “Is it Stress or Something More? Depression in Law School” we looked at depression, which is a common category of mental illness. Now, we’re going a little deeper into another very common category of mental health issues- Anxiety. So are you feeling stress or anxiety? Let’s look a little deeper.

This post is for informational purposes only, and it is not a substitute for diagnosis and treatment by a trained professional.

Is It Merely Stress or Anxiety?: Anxiety in Law School

In the United States, nearly 1 in 5 adults meet diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder each year. One in 3 will meet criteria in their lifetime. Law school is correlated with increased rates of diagnosable mental illness, so these numbers are a bit higher among law students and lawyers. The exact rate of increase is difficult to quantify for many reasons, including law students’ refusal to seek help because of stigma. However, some studies suggest that anxiety rates are 45% more prevalent in third-year law students than they were at the time of matriculation.

What is anxiety?

Generally speaking, anxiety is a family of disorders where a person either spends extended periods of time in a state of hypervigilance, has intense episodes of distress, or some combination of the two. Anxiety is a family of disorders with a constellation of symptoms that span across physical, cognitive, and emotional systems. To reach a level of severity considered disordered, the anxiety symptoms impair a person’s ability to function normally at home, at work, and/or in relationships.

There are a variety of anxiety disorders, so two people may both be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, but each person’s experience is very different. Some of the disorders within the anxiety family include phobias, panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and others. Like with depression, our early socialization and culture can cause us to avoid recognizing symptoms in one of these areas due to notions of what is socially acceptable and unacceptable. Our fear of admitting to mental illness, usually amplified beyond reason because of anxiety, can also cause us to avoid recognizing when we experience anxiety.

Since anxiety can have intense physical symptoms, it is important to consult a doctor to make sure there is not an underlying physical condition driving the physiological symptoms. These symptoms can include a racing heart, difficulty catching one’s breath, temperature regulation difficulty, and excessive sweating, among others. It is not uncommon for people experiencing their first panic attack to think they’re having a heart attack. Better to err on the side of caution than assume a heart attack is a panic attack. Once you receive an “all clear” physically, then you may be counseled on treatment plans that include mindfulness practices, medication, dietary changes, and talk therapy. For severe cases that are unresponsive to these treatments, other therapies may be recommended at a future point.

Mere stress versus potential anxiety

It is important to remember that not all stress is bad, even though as a conversational matter, we tend to focus on “bad” kinds of stress. Stress is a necessary predicate to learning and growth, but too much stress, or the wrong kind of stress, can cause harm. When we’re talking about stress and mental illnesses such as anxiety, we’re really concerned about stressors that cause individuals to fall into a pattern of maladaptive thoughts and behaviors. Anxiety, like depression, can be characterized by prolonged periods of maladaptive thoughts and behaviors. Unlike depression, in some cases, anxiety may also be a very time-limited, intense, and episodic experience.

In the post “Stress or Depression,” we defined maladaptive thoughts as “those that can cause a person to view the world mostly through a lens of cognitive distortions.” Cognitive distortions can become psychologically damaging because they are false or inaccurate interpretations of one’s perceptions. Ignoring biological contributors for a moment, when a critical mass of these distorted thoughts occupy a person’s mind, that is when a person is said to have a mental disorder or a mental illness. There are dozens of cognitive distortions that our perceptions can be filtered through. Rather than list them all, some distortions that are common for people with anxiety include catastrophizing, selective abstraction, overgeneralization, dichotomous thinking, labeling, personalization, and using “should” statements.

Catastrophizing

Expecting disaster, and either emphasizing or deemphasizing pieces of information to confirm that disaster is the only reasonable thing to expect. A corollary to this is explaining away good events as luck while completely discounting actions taken to set up the situation for a good outcome. For example, a student may spend every week preparing for class, updating outlines, taking practice problems, and getting professor feedback, and still walk into the final exam expecting to fail. Then, when the student does well, s/he will explain that performance as mere luck that s/he studied the precise thing the professor tested. [There are a bunch of conversations about imposter syndrome in sectors of the profession and the academy, we’ll talk about imposter syndrome in more depth in a future post.]

Selective abstraction

Selectively identifying pieces of a situation to confirm one’s viewpoint to the point of ignoring countervailing pieces from the same situation. For example, a student who performed poorly on an exam may attribute the result as confirming a lack of talent, or proof the professor dislikes them. And while, very occasionally, those are valid explanations, by not acknowledging that absenteeism and not doing homework contributed to the outcome, the student is engaging in selective abstraction.

Overgeneralization

Taking a single event or piece of evidence and generalizing it to all examples of such events. A common example I see of this distortion is when a student bombs his or her first “on call” in class. The student will say “I’m bad at public speaking” or “I’m not supposed to be here.” The first characterization is a classic example of overgeneralization of using a single data point to draw a conclusion.

Dichotomous thinking

Classifying things as “either/or” either you’re perfect or you’re not, either you’re good or you’re not, either you’re smart or you’re stupid. This is also sometimes known as black and white thinking. Something is good or bad but never in between the two extremes. If dichotomous thinking were universally useful, the law would be significantly easier and we wouldn’t need nearly as many lawyers and judges.

Labeling

This is a cousin of overgeneralization. A couple of qualities are combined to create a label of universal conduct rather than context-specific descriptors. For example, a student may hit reply-all on an email distributed to the entire student body and then again in a class and be labeled as “careless” when the student is merely learning a new smartphone.

Personalization

This distortion could also be characterized as “center of the universe” where everything others do or say is in response to us. Everything becomes a competition where a person is trying to figure out relative status. Who’s smarter? Who is better looking? And so on. This can also lead to people assuming responsibility for things that are clearly outside of their control. An example I’ve seen more than once is when a student comes and apologizes for the behavior of another student because the first student is afraid the other student is making them look bad.

“Should” statements

These are rigidly internalized rules of conduct that trigger anger when other people break them and shame when the rule-holder breaks the rule. Some people phrase their rules with musts or ought to. An example that is pretty typical among students is a student becoming enraged on a group project because another member of the group didn’t meet a deadline. After all, the delinquent student “should” have met the deadline. While professionalism requires us to meet deadlines, good communication skills also render many (but not all) deadlines negotiable.

Tipping Point Guidelines Between Stress & Anxiety

A little bit of situational anxiety, particularly when attempting something for the first time, is nothing to be terribly concerned about. It is normal to feel some nerves before your first law school class, on-call/cold call, exam, oral argument, and so on. New experiences necessarily include an extra helping of stressors, so we may spend some extra energy anticipating them and psyching ourselves out. Moreover, some behaviors that can be characteristic of anxiety are adaptive traits that foster success in law school and the practice of law. Examples of behaviors that may indicate anxiety include triple- & quadruple- checking work, obsessively planning/tracking, perfectionism, rehearsing arguments in one’s head, etc. In other words, the basic day-to-day experience of many law students and attorneys. Thus, it is a little more difficult to delineate clear tipping points between stress and anxiety for law students than it was with depression.

We’ll start with the basics of what is disordered versus an adaptive response attributable to new stimuli/stressors. Are your symptoms interfering with your ability to live, to laugh, and to love?

1. Interfering with living

If you notice significant changes in how you go about your normal activities of daily living, then it might be time to consult a professional. Activities of daily living include basic hygiene and all that it entails (bathing, brushing teeth, and getting laundry done regularly) as well as staying on top of bill payment, feeding oneself and dependents, etc.

Are you able to accomplish all these things on your personally appropriate schedule? Also, are you able to commute without incident and remember where you parked reliably? Are you remembering to eat at appropriate intervals and take time out of your week to ensure you have food stores to do so? Do you communicate semi-regularly with loved ones and other members of your support network? If you answered “no” to several of these questions, then it might be a good idea to consult with a professional. [Side note: some anxiety manifestations overlap with ADHD symptoms, so if you have a prior diagnosis of ADHD, you may want to consult a professional prophylactically. After all,  you’re putting your prior coping strategies to a more stringent test than in earlier educational endeavors.]

2. Interfering with laughing

Humans are fundamentally social creatures. Even us misanthropes in the back require a certain amount of human interaction to maintain our health. Laughter is an expression that belongs in our daily experiences. However, excessive stress levels and anxiety can interfere with our sense of mirth. If you find yourself getting enraged, or weepy, at bloopers you used to be able to laugh off, it’s probably time to consult a professional. If your relationships start to experience strain because you no longer have the ability to laugh off or forgive other peoples’ bloopers, it may be time to consult a professional. Blooper is a highly technical term that in this case means small mistakes that will be utterly inconsequential within the next 7 days or so.

I have to make an important caveat here. For some people, law school coincides with a period of personal growth where their fundamental perception of what is funny and what isn’t changes. Some people grow to recognize that certain things are funny only if you accept certain presuppositions that come from systemic cultural issues like racism, sexism, ableism, and so on. It’s important to not confuse personal growth that recalibrates your sense of humor with symptoms of anxiety that interfere with one’s ability to find anything humorous.

3. Interfering with loving

Granting that relationships are difficult for everyone, people living with anxiety sometimes experience more difficulty in relationships due to the underlying nature of anxiety and its impact on one’s thought processes. Anxiety is a fertilizer for fear and some people get caught in a loop where they push other people away because they’re afraid that they’re not good enough, or the person is going to leave eventually anyway, or that trust in foolish, or, or or… Depending on where you are in your life’s journey, if you haven’t successfully managed to achieve intimacy (I’m talking emotional vulnerability here, not sex) with a person outside your family of origin, it might be time to go talk to someone to see if that is due to anxiety.

But what about me?

So is it stress or anxiety? If any of the above resonated with you, but you weren’t able to say, “I’m pretty sure I have anxiety” that’s probably good news. But if you’re still concerned that you may have anxiety, I’m going to say something you’ve seen before — go consult a professional. While the parameters I sketched out above will capture many forms of anxiety, it is not a comprehensive list. The good news about anxiety is that many forms of it are treatable, especially if you catch it in a nascent stage before your brain gets too firmly habituated to some of the cognitive distortions that come with anxiety.

Chelsea Baldwin has been working in law school academic success and bar preparation since 2009. After earning her law degree and Oklahoma law license, she completed a Master’s degree with a certificate in Professional Counseling to better serve her students and clients. Her passion project is to increase mental health literacy among law students and lawyers so they can prevent avoidable mental health issues.

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