Using Hormesis to Build Up Stress Tolerance

According to Todd Becker over at the Getting Stronger blog, hormesis is “a biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial effect (improved health, stress tolerance, growth or longevity) results from exposure to low doses of an agent that is otherwise toxic or lethal when given at higher doses.”

An obvious example of this is alcohol, which is generally beneficial for health in small amounts but quickly becomes detrimental to health as the dose is increased.

I recently discovered the concept of hormesis and believe that it can be applied to many areas of life, including bar exam preparation.

Hormesis and Stress Tolerance

When studying for the bar exam, one must be able to endure the mental and physical stress it creates.  You need to work both to reduce stress and to learn how to tolerate the stress that you do encounter.

Short bursts of stress can be good for the body and the mind.  That is what exercise is:  you push your body beyond its resting activity level for a short period of time, then rest and let it recover.  If you do this often enough, you gain muscle mass and/or cardiovascular capacity.

With stress, you want to put your body and mind under the type of stress that you do or will face, but then remove the stress and allow your body and mind to recover.

When you take the bar exam, you will need to be mentally focused for several blocks of time over two or three days while taking the test.  If you lack the ability to “de-stress” between these focused periods, your body and mind could become rundown and begin to lose functional ability.

Thus, you need to practice enduring exam stress and recovering from it.

The importance of this has been shown among professional tennis players.  The players who were able to be highly-focused during play but who could move out of that focus and allow some heart rate recovery between points typically had greater success.

Applying Hormesis to the Bar Exam

As an example, let’s suppose that you are studying for the California bar exam.  The writing days of the exam are divided as follows:  write three essays during a three-hour period in the morning, take approximately a one-hour lunch break, then return and write a performance test for three hours.

If you want to apply hormesis to the essay portion of the writing day, you would oscillate stress/focus and recovery periods as follows:  focus and write and essay for 55-58 minutes, then recover and de-stress for 2-5 minutes and then repeat two more times.

You can apply this same periodization to the performance test and even the MBE, incorporating 2-5 minute de-stress and recovery periods every hour.

Hormesis Training

But, you may not be able to put a program like this into action immediately.  You will likely need to practice.

I suggest that you incorporate hormesis training into your practice testing.  As I have written about elsewhere, I suggest that you do mini-tests and full-blown practice tests.  You start with mini-tests, then work your way up to a full-blown practice test a few weeks before the actual bar exam.

When doing your mini-testing, try to be as focused as possible during the testing practice.  Then, when you have completed the practice and before you check your answers, take a minute or two to breathe slowly and think about something other than the bar exam.

This will be helpful for two reasons:  (1) you are practicing your de-stress/recovery ability and (2) your mind will be more clear when you review your practice answer so you will be able to learn better during your review.

Hormesis and Studying Schedules

The concept of hormesis suggests, too, that it is important to take as much time off from studying as possible.  At a minimum, it seems important to limit your daily studies to a set schedule (e.g., 8am to 5pm) and take off at least one day per week.

Without some period of recovery and de-stress from bar exam study, the dose of bar exam stress may eventually become toxic.  Then, studying will become counter-productive and frustrating.

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