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Stay cool. Our feel-good adviser is in.
Q: Last semester, during a final, I suddenly felt nauseous, dizzy and short of breath. For a second, I felt like I might die! Finals are coming up again-then the bar. I'm scared. What can I do?
A: Law school exams, like the Spanish Inquisition, are designed to dispatch a significant percentage of examinees to perdition. Given this, Dr. of Law would be more concerned if you weren't anxious. On the positive front, studies have shown that a little anxiety is actually a valuable ally in spurring peak performance in everything from sports to cognition. On the other hand, if your heebie-jeebies progress too far past the butterflies stage-and it sounds like yours have-the problem can definitely impair your performance. It also could be a sign of more serious trouble.
What's Going On?
The immediate causes of the physical and mental perturbation you experienced are the same bouillabaisse of hormones and neurotransmitters responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Whenever your life is truly, or conceptually, imperiled, you experience physiological effects intended to turbocharge your body to respond. Among other things, your digestive system shuts down to direct blood to your muscles (hence the nausea you experienced); your heart beats faster, and you gulp in air to supply muscles with additional oxygen (hence your dizziness and shortness of breath); and you may experience psychological "hyperarousal" ("My heart's beating so fast it's going to explode! But first I will go insane!"). Hence, your feelings of panic and even impending death.
To prevent your symptoms from recurring, first practice the common-sense strategies advocated by moms everywhere: Leading up to your exam, eat well, exercise, get plenty of sleep and don't cram. As simple as such tactics sound, they pack a powerful one-two punch: They keep you on an even physiological keel, and they give you a sense of psychological control. Doing a moderate physical workout prior to the exam can burn off stress hormones and serve as a distraction, as well.
If symptoms return during your next test, force yourself to breathe slowly and repeat a calming thought like this one: "Relax, take it easy, and do your best." Striving for perfection is a fool's errand. (Know anyone who's perfect? No, besides Dr. of Law.) Cutting yourself some slack will itself remove pressure and, paradoxically, free you up to perform better.
The Big Guns
If such first-line defense strategies don't provide relief, you may need to seek professional help. Don't worry: Even serious anxiety disorders are often highly responsive to treatment. For test anxiety, three forms of behavior therapy have proved effective. Relaxation training teaches you how to slow your breathing and heart rate. Systematic desensitization allows you to face and control your fears. And cognitive behavior therapy teaches you to counter the negative thoughts ("I'm a pathetic idiot failure!") that would make anybody miserable. Medications such as Valium, Ativan and Xanax can help control anxiety (though they can muddle thinking). And beta blockers ("stage-fright" drugs) can treat physical symptoms.
If you find you're having anxiety attacks out of the blue (as opposed to those caused by specific frightening events like torts finals), you may be facing a more serious problem. Again, effective treatments exist. Check the Web site for the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (www.adaa.org) for more information and a list of local specialists.
Finally, if none of this works, you can always put your legal training to work and sue your school under the Americans With Disabilities Act. One former University of New Mexico student suffering test anxiety did just that. He lost, but Dr. of Law sees it this way: At least he dished out a little revenge anxiety in the process.
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About Harrison Barnes
Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.
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