The law student experience of anxiety

Working lawyers often bring home worries from the office, worries which can degrade their health and wellbeing. A recent study conducted by Nottingham Law School student Steven Clarke with the support of LawCare found solicitors in both private sector law firms and in-house reporting high pressure from work. A recent Law Society Junior Lawyers Division Studies survey found high levels of stress in junior lawyers. In the USA and Australia researchers have found that wellbeing problems in lawyers start in Law School.

In the UK, our experiences as personal tutors and student support workers show that many law students find it extremely difficult to structure their study, paid work, daily routines of sleep and eating, and social activities, all of which contributes to high levels of anxiety.

Students often experience different areas of their lives running into each other, rather than as separate domains they could plan and organise – everything chaotically merges into one. We call this the “brown plasticine” effect – each strand of life loses its distinct identity and merges into an undifferentiated time, just as plasticine if mixed together loses its different bright colours to become a brown blob. This brown plasticine effect is fuelled by uncertainty and loss of control over routines and activities.

Many employers have shifted from regular work patterns to calling in part-time employees to meet fluctuating work demands, a feature of the “gig-economy” or new status as part of the precariat. Social life is seldom planned in advance, but organised via mobile phone. Students often report trying to make-up time in study by spending very long periods in the Library -12-hour study marathons or longer are not unusual. Sleep patterns are disrupted by irregularity of work, study, and social life, eating habits become irregular and the quality of food consumed drops.

Blue light technologies, built into computers, some tablets and phones, can aggravate the disruption of sleeping patterns, and undermine the body’s natural rhythms. Continuous connection to the internet and social media can lead to compulsive phone checking and a fear of missing out.

Without differentiation of time, self-agency and planning feel futile. You cannot plan how to solve all problems at once.

Useful strategies for combating these deleterious effects are very individual. For some keeping a log or simply writing down the activities over a typical day can be the start of an effective shift from reaction to planned action.

Turning off the mobile phone for a week, or after 9pm at night, can generate time and energy. For others practice in replacing disruptive and enervating thoughts is needed, what is known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Most people benefit from breaking down the overall tasks they face into sub-tasks that can be picked off one by one, and from finding ways to successfully impose structure on their days and weeks. For some people structure is about where they spend time, for others it is about what they spend their time doing.

One crucial aspect of overcoming anxiety originating in a lack of structure is gaining a sense of perspective on one’s position. This may involve realising it is not unique, indeed the term “emerging adults” has been coined to identify the difficulties associated with people enrolled in modern mass Higher Education. Perspective may depend upon finding a social space in which expressing negative feelings resulting from stress and being under pressure is acceptable. Finally, it may be generated through a review of what you as a student hope to achieve from your studies and life more generally.

Lecturers and student support workers find talking to students about how they are doing and how to plan time can help them gain a more objective perspective. Marking differentiations by space or time, and imposing routine and restrictions on yourself, can all help you regain a sense of efficacy enabling you to structure your life and so take responsibility and control.

Andrew Elliott is a student support assistant, Graham Ferris is a reader in law, and Julie Higginbottom is a pastoral adviser at Nottingham Law School.