Medical school can do a number on your psyche if you let it. Anxiety and depression are rampant among students, which is really terrible if the goal is to produce effective doctors. Even with the amazing steps that my school, SLU, has taken to improve student mental health, it isn’t always easy to keep stress at bay. It’s an educational system that places a lot of emphasis on one test score (USMLE Step 1) and how much you can do in addition to your school work. The match process is daunting.
Then there is the career we’re preparing to begin. Physicians have the highest suicide rate of any professional career — burn out and mental health is a serious problem. If you are interested in reading how physicians feel about practicing medicine right now, check out this Wall Street Journal article. It’s not pretty.
So all that being said, how do you stay positive during medical school? How do you stay happy in any stressful and frustrating situation for that matter, because we all know medical school isn’t the only difficult thing in the world. It takes a purposeful attempt to reframe your thoughts and keep your focus on the good. Here are my strategies:
Gratitude and awe
Most people in medical school are here because we find the body fascinating. There have been multiple instances where I have turned to my classmates and said, “How does anyone not find this absolutely amazing?!” We are so lucky to get trained to heal when there are so many that weren’t given spots. We are going to have knowledge that is limited to so few, and that we can use in so many wonderful ways. We chose this, and even when it’s hard, we have to remember that medicine is the coolest freaking thing in the world.
Consider the alternative
I have a unique perspective here since I’ve experienced an alternative. I recognize that many traditional medical students have never had another job or been in another field, so it can be hard for them to understand that every job has frustrations and stressors. No job is perfect, and medical students aren’t the only ones that struggle.
So if you are going to be stressed regardless, would you really want to be doing something else? (Remember, it’s about finding a better stress! ) Do you truly see yourself being fulfilled and intellectually satisfied in an alternative career? If so – explore that, because maybe medicine isn’t right for you! But I think the majority of my classmates would say emphatically no. There isn’t anything else we’d rather be doing. We want to be doctors, and so we have to do what it takes to become one.
Enjoy your life NOW
Certainly being in medical school requires sacrifice. We have to spend a ton of time studying in order to succeed and the debt we incur is substantial. But if we hole ourselves up in a book for four years we will be miserable. It’s important to do things that bring you joy — making dinner with friends, going to see movies, having a girls’ night There are ways to do these things without spending a lot of time or money!
Life is precious and can be taken from us at anytime. If I were to die on my last day of medical school 3.5 years from now, I certainly wouldn’t want to look back at my life and think I spent the last four years unhappy. I’m going to do the hard work that is required of me, but find ways to have a blast while doing it.
Make self-care a priority
I know (trust me, I know) that taking care of yourself slips by the wayside when you have a test to pass or a deadline to meet. Spending a half hour at the gym can rid you with guilt and cooking a nutritious meal seems way harder than grabbing take out. Meditating? That’s time you could have been studying. Sleeping? But I have more to memorize!
But you have to prioritize these things. I make myself go to yoga the night before a test because it gives my brain a break and provides much needed relaxation. I meal prep as much as possible. I meditate weekly with a friend (and am going to try to do it more) and know that I can’t focus without enough sleep – no matter how much caffeine you give me. I have learned first hand the importance of self care due to my eating disorder and anxiety, but if you haven’t …just trust me (and a boat load of research) on this one. GET SOME EXERCISE, EAT A VEGETABLE AND GO TO SLEEP. Make it non-negotiable.
Surround yourself with the right people
There will always be people in your class (or in your life) that stress you out. In medical school there are people that go into freak-out mode about tests, are super competitive, and make you feel like a failure for not doing more. Those people are not going to be a positive influence on you!
Find people that lift you up, provide laughter and stress relief, and support you so that you can do your best. You’ve got to have a crew that’s willing to watch out for each other and can provide some perspective when someone is feeling down. I am so impressed by the people in my class at SLU and how collaborative, encouraging, and complimentary we are of each other. It’d be a much more difficult process without them.
- What are your tips for staying positive during stressful times? Anything unique I should try?