On Friday November 28th, 2014, a group of students at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law sat down for a presentation and Q&A with Doron Gold, former practicing lawyer and psychotherapist with the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Member Assistance Program*.

Student questions included:

  1. How can I create a supportive community for myself and my friends?
  2. What do I say when friends or classmates are focusing on unhealthy thoughts; being judgmental; catastrophizing or panicking about exams or jobs?
  3. How can I create a healthy environment for myself?
  4. When should I speak to a professional (student services professional, therapist) or encourage a friend to speak to a professional?
  5. I’m already tired and stressed. How can I turn things around and start to feel better when I have no energy or motivation?

Read on for Doron’s responses!

QAImage by opensource.com | CC BY-SA 2.0

To read about Doron’s presentation on isolation and unhealthy perfectionism in the law, check out Part I.

Q: How can I create a supportive community for myself and my friends?

A: Create a circle of trust and allow yourself to show vulnerability around friends that you trust.

Try to create a safe space for vulnerability by maintaining a non-judgmental, open attitude. Ups and downs are natural part of life; allow for this in yourself and your friends and try to support one another to practice self-care and take it in stride.

[JB: It goes without saying that disclosures made in this manner must be kept confidential and treated with respect.

  • If your friend seems very overwhelmed or distressed, or you haven’t heard from them in an unusually long while, you may want to reach out and ask, with compassion and using open questions that invite comment, if everything is okay.
  • Don’t worry about giving advice, just express non-judgment and be an attentive listener.
  • Know your boundaries but respect your friends’ boundaries as well – – you can suggest referrals if your friend is experiencing a great deal of distress, but it is better if they ask about this information.
  • If you need to take a step back for your own mental health, do so respectfully and with kindness – – now might be a good time to gently suggest bringing other friends in and/or seeking professional help.]

fear-441402_640Photo by geralt | CC0 Public Domain

Q: What do I say when friends or classmates are focusing on unhealthy thoughts; being judgmental; catastrophizing about exams or jobs?

A: You can’t control what other people believe, and consequently, what they say. You can only control your own thoughts and actions.

[JB: students who participated suggested:

  • Speaking up and expressing your countering views, to bring balance to the discussion.
    • For example: “I don’t think that doing poorly on one exam will ruin your chances for professional success forever. Many students who aren’t the best students in law school go on to become very successful and competent lawyers”.
  • Ask the friend or colleague, respectfully, to refrain from discussing the particular situation around you.
    • For example: “Can we please agree to not discuss exams while we’re taking a coffee break? I find it stressful not to have a break from it.”
  • Removing yourself from the situation, or spending less time around people who contribute to an unhealthy environment.]

Q: How can I create a healthy environment for myself?

A: It is important to practice “deliberate, active self-care”.

Instead of seeing the time taken to eat healthy meals, exercise, or connect with loved ones as wasted study time, see it as an investment into peak performance. A top athlete wouldn’t train for a big competition by eating junk and sleeping poorly.

Deliberately departing from the top athlete analogy, consider “good enough” instead of perfect. What would be a “good enough” performance for you? How you feel about events is as important as the events themselves, and can help you ease pressure that may be largely internally generated.

Consider context. Ten years from now, any exam or paper will be a distant, likely unimportant memory. Try and take a step back to see the big picture: law school is a means to an end, not the end itself. What is the “end”? Ultimately, to live a meaningful and fulfilling life – – and law school is just one part of this journey. Think about the other aspects of your life (friends, family, community service) – these are important too.

[JB: As we mentioned in Part I, there are online self-paced CBT resources that you can work through to help you develop healthier beliefs and practices, such as the comprehensive modules available at the Centre for Clinical Intervention.]

sleepybaysunrisePhoto by JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA-3.0

Q: When should I speak to a professional (student services professional, therapist) or encourage a friend to speak to a professional?

A: It never hurts to speak to a professional if you are experiencing distress – they can often help you improve the way you deal with life’s stressors. However, if you begin to feel that your distress or your life is getting out of control, you may want to seriously consider speaking to a professional.

Early intervention is ideal but it is never too late, nor is the situation ever too far gone to seek help!

Anxiety, depression, procrastination and other mental illnesses can become especially problematic during times of stress. Be mindful of your mental health during especially stressful times. Although some stress is natural and even healthy, you should consider seeking help if the stress becomes overwhelming.

[JB: early intervention is also important if you feel you may need to seek academic accommodations. These accommodations often require documentation to be presented. You can speak to a professional:

  • through your university – either in student services (i.e. Dean of Students) or health services (often therapists/counsellors),
  • via the free e-counselling or in-person therapy provided by the MAP [requires registration], or
  • via private therapy [scroll to bottom], which may be covered by some health plans.]

Q: I’m already tired and stressed. How can I turn things around and start to feel better when I have no energy or motivation?

A: Make incremental changes – don’t be perfectionistic about improvement!

Pick one small habit or practice that you think will improve your well-being. Really commit to doing this one thing over a determined period of time and do it deliberately. It can be eating one extra serving of fruit or veg, exercising for fifteen minutes (or even showing up at the gym), taking a walk, cutting back on one coffee per day; whatever you think would be helpful to you.

Even the tiniest changes can eventually have a huge impact – – negative momentum has a tendency to perpetuate and making a small, positive change can turn this around into positive momentum. A person who is feeling unwell often feels disempowered and believes that change is not really possible. Successfully making one change, regardless of how small, can build a belief in the possibility of change and build capacity for further changes.

To read about Doron’s counselling experiences with isolation and unhealthy perfectionism in the law, check out Part I.

*Doron Gold works with Homewood Human Solutions, which administers the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Member Assistance Program. MAP provides free, confidential mental health and wellness services to law students, lawyers, judges, paralegals and immediate family.