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On nervousness

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The greatest honor of my professional life was arguing before the Court of Special Appeals as a student attorney last month. I mooted nonstop for the month preceding argument. But an aspect of argument that proved challenging to prepare for was a horrible affliction of nerves.

The nervousness was so unexpected because, as an older student and mother, I’ve had lots of nerve-racking experiences. I reasoned that because I’d done so many nerve-wracking things (childbirth, living near the DMZ, etc.) arguing before the court should be fine by comparison. I was completely wrong!

Before argument, I sought out advice from professionals and other students. I learned that there are essentially only two ways to mitigate courtroom nerves: practice and meditation. The following strategies are an iteration of one or the other. I found each to be particularly helpful, so I am describing them here.

Video your moots. A professor who regularly argues before the Supreme Court said he video records his moots. Watching them is painful, he said, because you sometimes don’t look as great as you think you did. But there is no better way to become intimately aware of your bad habits (for example, rocking back and forth), and your inelegant answers to questions. (Sometimes, because answers sounded great in your head, you don’t realize their oral recitation wasn’t so smooth.) The thoroughness of preparation that video recording represents also does much to calm nerves.

Guided meditation. It may sound kooky, but it worked very well for me. I had trouble sleeping the night before, and a guided meditation slowed my pounding heart. I find that counting breaths is unbelievably tedious (in fact, my bored mind just circles back to my arguments in about 2.5 seconds), so I use a guided meditation by UCLA neuroscientist Sam Harris (available on Soundcloud).   Other attorneys preferred athletic forms of meditation, such as yoga or running, which are also fantastic for quieting the anxious mind.

A social media diet. I think the reason social media makes people unhappy is not because of envy. It’s because scrolling through social media perfectly mimics, or even amplifies, anxious thinking: it fosters rapid, disconnected thoughts. Quitting social media for the few weeks leading up to my oral argument unquestionably made me calmer.

Moot yourself while you take the stairs. Nervousness feels like breathlessness, and a friend found going through the argument while doing athletic activity mimicked the nervousness of oral argument. It’s almost like when athletes practice in very high altitudes; it helps you to prepare for, and hopefully forestall, the breathless-feeling on game day.

These are just a few examples of tangible things that can be done to avoid nervousness.  There must be thousands more. In fact, the subject of nerves is great fodder for conversation during networking events, because it’s as ubiquitous as the weather, and everyone has a slightly different take on them.

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