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How To: Deal With Stress In Medical School | Medical Student Advice

Stress is a natural part of life but “being stressed” is a choice. When you take on a difficult career like medicine, stress is bound to arise. Your ability to deal with it and thrive in spite of it will determine a large part of you success in school and in life. Here we go over how to deal with stress and use it to your advantage. 

1) Take Advantage Of “Eustress”

Believe it or not, stress can actually be a good thing. Eustress is the motivational stress that gets us going and pushes us towards our goals. It’s that feeling of “I’m not where I want to be and this next step is what I need to do to get there”. You need to use this to your advantage and do whatever the next step is. Action and progress get rid of worry. Eustress can quickly turn into negative stress when things like procrastination and distraction get in the way and make your “to-do list” so long, that you don’t do anything. View stress as a good thing, as something that is pushing you towards your goals. But then make sure to take the action necessary to get you there before it turns into anxiety and worry. 

2) Have A Schedule

Constantly being worried about what you need to do next or just being reactive to events in your life can lead to a lot of stress. It also leads to decision fatigue as you are constantly making choices on what to do next. What you should be doing is every Sunday night, making a weekly schedule in a calendar of your choice. Input everything from lectures, social events, gym time, hobbies etc. Then every morning, look at the plan for the day and execute. At night, review the day and see if you got everything done and if you need to adjust the schedule for the following day. You don’t have to be OCD about it or execute it down to the minute. But doing this will allow you to have a general idea of what each day will look like and the path you are following towards your goals. Things will come up and you will have to adjust but having this general framework will greatly reduce stress. 

3) Focus On The Controllable

Medical school, and life is full of uncertainty. Questions can begin to arise like, what kind of doctor do I want to be? Where will I match? Will I match? When will I meet my significant other? Do I want kids? Where will I end up? And a whole host of other “adulting” questions. When a lot of questions pile up and they don’t seem to have answers, this is a huge source of stress. At these times it is important to remember that we are specks of dust on a floating ball in space. There are few things that we control but the ones we do, we need to go all in on. The point is, once you have your goals in mind for each area of your life (career, health, relationships), you are responsible for the effort, not the result. You cannot control if residency program directors will like you 3 years from now, but you can control your effort in class and on rotations when that time comes. You can’t control your bone structure or genetics, but you can control eating healthy and exercising. When stress arises, don’t run from it but rather ask “why I am I feeling stressed?”. Then, do something. Anything at all. The smallest possible thing you can control that will help to reduce stress and move you towards the desired result, do it. There is no point worrying and being stressed about things you have no control over. You are just making yourself miserable for no reason and it doesn’t give you any more control. Do what you can, trust the process for the rest. 

4) Find Some Balance

“Balance” is an interesting term and has different meanings for different people. Some people love to work, others require leisure. Some need their 8 hours of sleep, others are good on 6. But it is very important to find YOUR right idea of balance. If you make medicine the end all, be all of your life, you will always be stressed and on a one-way path to burnout. There is always more you could be learning, reading, practicing. You have to learn when to draw the line and partake in some “me time”. What you do with this “me time” is up to you but make sure it takes your mind off school and leaves you rejuvenated. I love cycling and manage to go quite a bit. No one is going to give you extra credit for being extra-miserable in med school so it is good to take breaks and enjoy the journey. Take time to yourself, enjoy what you enjoy and then go back to work with a clear and energized mind. You need to make time for yourself because as you progress through medicine, the most free time you will ever have was yesterday. 

5) Keep The End In Mind 

We set goals because they mean something to us, and we believe that our lives will be better in some way once we achieve these goals. Some of these goals take much longer than others to achieve. If you constantly look up to check and see “am I there yet” or look at how far you are, you will constantly be discouraged and stressed wondering what more you can do. But certain goals, such as becoming a doctor, just involve an element of time. A surgery residency is 5 years and you can’t rush it in 3 by working more. Often it is about doing less, and trying to enjoy the process. When you feel stressed and discouraged, it is important to re-visit that end result you are chasing and your initial reasons for pursuing it. This should rejuvenate you and get you going again. Everyone likes to be the doctor that fixes the problem and helps the patient but nobody likes to study for years on end. So keep that end goal in mind and how good it will feel to achieve it. This will give you a reason to work and dissipate stress. 


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