Saturday, October 23, 2010

Coping with brain cells that cry "Uncle"

A number of my students have expressed concern about their inability to focus by late afternoon because their brain cells are, to put it simply, exhausted.  They find they cannot learn one more rule, absorb one more concept, or read one more word.

At the same time, they feel pressured by the amount of daily work and the need to focus seriously on exam review.  As a result, their stress and anxiety levels are soaring because their flagging focus is contrasted with an increased need to use every minute well.  They feel guilty for taking a break in the afternoon instead of chugging on through their work.

Let's face it, law students expect the impossible from their brains.  They want maximum performance at every moment without considering the realities of mental "heavy lifting."  And, they want that maximum performance even if they are not taking care of themselves so that their brain cells are rested and nourished.

I suggest that my law students first evaluate whether their "care and feeding" regimens are sound. 

  • Are they getting a minimum of seven hours sleep a night with a regular sleep pattern (going to bed and getting up at the same time during the school week)?  If not, their brain cells are fatigued and will not learn or retain as much.  Tasks will also take longer when brain cells are tired.
  • Are they getting three nutritious meals a day?  If not, their brain cells do not have the nourishment for the mental tasks they are being asked to undertake.  Junk food and sugar- or caffiene-rich foods do not count as nutritious brain food.
  • Are they getting some physical exercise each week?  If not, they are not expending stress that can impede focus.  They are also not allowing physical exercise to increase their restful sleep to restore brain cells.
  • Are they interrupting their concentration with electronic distractions?  Today's students often constantly disrupt their concentration with cell phone calls, texting, IMing, and e-mailing.  Even a few minutes disruption can alter study results.  Self-discipline is needed to avoid being an electronic junkie.  Inbox storage capacities and voicemail were invented for a reason - dealing with the inflow of items when it is convenient after dealing with important tasks first. 

Once we have checked out the basics, I move on to some other possible suggestions to help them get over the afternoon slump in brain power.

  • Lack of focus may be the result of low blood sugar levels in the body.  A healthy snack (raisins, an apple, nuts, a granola bar) may give the boost needed to re-focus and get through the next class or assignment.  Snacking on candy bars or drinking colas or energy drinks will temporarily give a boost, but result in a later crash.
  • It is okay to take a break at the end of a long or difficult class day.  It is not uncommon to have a brain slump in the late afternoon.  This may be the perfect time to take a break for one or two hours to rejuvenate oneself before further study.  However, students need to make sound decisions about their breaks.
  • A workout break may be ideal because the student's exercise will defuse stress and promote better sleep later in the evening.  Even a brisk walk outside for 15-20 minutes may have a positive effect.
  • Running errands may be a useful break so that necessary tasks can be completed while getting a change from studying.
  • Combining an hour dinner with an hour of workout or errands may be a smart move.  Getting ones nutrition along with an entirely different task set can be reinvigorating.
  • Sitting down at the computer to answer e-mails, surf the Web, or check out Facebook may not be the ideal break.  These tasks tend to morph into expanded breaks - one hour becomes two hours.  Also, sitting in front of a computer screen can be innervating rather than rejuvenating.  If ones next study task is sitting in front of a computer screen working on an outline, the break period may actually increase the monotony of the follow-on study task.
  • Watching TV or playing computer games may have the same downsides as a computer break. 
  • A power nap of twenty minutes might be useful.  However, a two-hour nap is likely to disrupt that evening's sleep schedule and make one more groggy.  (If a student needs long naps every day, then it usually means that a regular sleep schedule is lacking.  If one gets seven or more hours per night during the same time period each night, the need for naps should disappear within two weeks.)

Students need to realize that the in-depth and critical thinking required when studying law willbe mentally exhausting at times.  An appropriate period of down time before going back to the next demanding task is not unreasonable.  Forcing oneself to continue studying when brain cells cannot absorb any more is counter-productive, frustrating, and stressful.  

Many students can improve focus with greater self-awareness and common sense solutions.  For students with severe, long-standing focus problems that do not respond to moderate changes in routine, there may other factors such as illness, anxiety disorders, learning disabilities, or ADHD interfering.  Obviously, these types of problems would need to be diagnosed and treated by appropraitely trained professionals.  (Amy Jarmon)   

   

 

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