Staying ‘sane’ during exams

“Suffering is part of the human condition. This may seem painfully trite to say, but in the legal community, we too often view having human vulnerabilities as a failing. . . . My experience confirms for me that lawyers, despite protests to the contrary, are, in fact, human and that those who are able to accept their humanness live much more balanced lives. Whatever life throws at you, allowing yourself to feel and process the feelings that accompany those hardships helps you cope with and ultimately get past them. Resisting human frailties, on the other hand, leads to self-loathing and anxiety.” — Doron Gold, Law Times, “Speaker’s Corner: Why do lawyers insist upon torturing themselves?”

Recently, I deactivated my Facebook account in order to be free of distractions during another gruelling round of law school exam preparation “suffering.” In order to remain focused during my self-imposed isolation, I always find it useful to briefly reflect on quotes that broadly connect the legal profession with issues surrounding mental health.

Having studied many health-care-related courses during my undergraduate degree, and even considering medical school before eventually choosing law school, I know the importance of developing appropriate coping strategies to deal with exam-related anxiety. However, I also like to indulge a few vices to keep my spirits high. While other law students may enjoy a sweet treat while studying, I prefer to order pizza and consume quite a bit of coffee.

Now, is this the most appropriate coping strategy? No, certainly not. As a result of my gluttonous diet, I tend to gain 10 to 20 pounds each term, which I then attempt to lose through increased exercise during the winter and summer vacations. While I haven’t yet lost all of the weight I’ve gained since commencing my legal education, I’m nevertheless proud of the few As and B+s on my transcript that I can partially attribute to successfully implementing these coping mechanisms.

Ultimately, I understand I have certain human frailties and vulnerabilities like many of my peers. I also know if I continue to resist my gluttonous vices, it will lead to much worse feelings of self-loathing and anxiety than I will feel when I buy a larger pair of jeans.

Thus, I choose to accept my humanness and allow myself to get heavier in an attempt to live a balanced life during the most stressful times in law school. Though I know it would be better if my coping mechanisms involved using the treadmill instead of ordering extra garlic dipping sauce, I’m content with this strategy for now.

However, I do get worried when I see some fellow law students engaging in more self-destructive behaviour as a result of exam-related anxiety. I know some of my peers turn to alcohol or drugs. More generally, when I study in Osgoode Hall Law School’s library I sometimes see students beat themselves up when they become frustrated or have difficulty learning new legal concepts.

Rarely do my peers smile at this time of year, and an aura of doomed gloom is palpable around Osgoode’s halls. However, I always try to smile and lift the mood of my friends when I see them around school.

After all, I believe everyone is less “sane” during exams due to increased anxiety and stress levels, regardless of whether or not they have concurring diagnosed conditions.

I came to accept this line of thinking after studying the spectrum approach to mental health. Several types of spectrums have been identified, including the generalized anxiety spectrum and the obsessive-compulsive spectrum, which are thought to consist of a range of linked medical conditions caused by the same underlying mechanism. Proponents of this model argue the approach helps reduce stigma associated with different diagnoses, and instead categorizes individuals based on symptom severity as compared to the general population.

Particularly in a field such as the legal profession, where human vulnerabilities are viewed as personal failings and reputational concerns about stigma cloud even the best lawyer’s judgment, I think such a medical model needs to be first embraced in law school.

In addition to instructing students on how to defer exams and where to access counselling services, I believe it would help students to learn about psychological approaches that attempt to de-stigmatize diagnosed anxiety issues. Perhaps such information could be disseminated through workshops led by Osgoode’s new student success and wellness counsellor.

At the end of the day, any approach that reduces the stigma around mental-health issues needs to be taught to incoming law students early on, such as during orientation week of their first year. Hopefully then students would feel less worried about disclosing information about themselves at school and more willing to openly discuss their own mental-health experiences or personal battles with exam-related anxiety.

In this way perhaps a more inclusive discussion could be achieved where law students actually begin to accept that “[s]uffering is part of the human condition.”

Harjot Atwal is a second-year law student at Osgoode Hall Law School.

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