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Staying Positive and Dealing with Medical School Stress

Keep up with Aimen’s journey as a first-year medical student by following her on Instagram @lil_waimen, where she’s always staying positive :)


Hi, friends! Guess what? I’ve officially started medical school! As a whole, there’s been a lot of newness; new school, new people, new curriculum, new lifestyle. It’s true what they say: medical school is completely different from undergrad. Since most of you have already started, you’ll know exactly what I mean. By the end of this week, I know a lot of my classmates have been through some episode of medical school stress and anxiety. (Not your typical syllabus week, huh?)

I attribute a lot of this to the way in which medical school is presented to students. The journey to get admitted is itself littered with obstacle after obstacle. Between grades, extracurricular activities, and, of course, the (dreaded) MCAT, most pre-meds are under a constant barrage of stress. My way to cope with it was to remain positive and to literally tell myself (and anyone who would listen) “no stress.”

Medical school, however, is an entirely new level. My school describes the level of information as “trying to drink from a fire hose using a straw.” (I feel like that isn’t possible, right?) However, in order to survive medical school, that straw eventually needs to expand to the size of the hose. I guess that adjustment is what causes students the most stress. That and the fear of failing if you’re not able to handle all the water from that fire hose. (I bet you can tell that I’ve been told this metaphor a million times over…which is why I won’t let it go.)

The idea of failure definitely seemed to be the medical school stress trigger for my classmates. The mere notion of “remediation” left students feeling inadequate, inferior, and insecure. In one way I understand this reaction, but I don’t think it’s healthy to get stressed out prematurely, especially because things haven’t gotten busy yet. Wellness is a huge component of my medical school (and I’m sure all of yours as well). You’re always told to make time for the things you love; to not bog yourself down in a hole where all you can think of are board exams and textbooks. But how can you balance medical school stress, especially early on in the game?  Here’s my take on all of this and what I have done to avoid feeling like failure is inevitable.


REACH OUT

I’ve heard a lot of stories about how many medical students don’t even know the names of all of their classmates by M2. (Imagine, an entire year and you may still sit next to a stranger in class!) This can be a detriment because you’re cutting yourself off from those who understand you the most (after all, you’re all going through the same journey). Some students drop out because they believe they are the only ones struggling; that they’re alone. Others feel inadequate or as if they are not good enough for medical school. These thoughts can put you in a pretty negative emotional state, and that’s not at all conducive to handling the fast-paced study routine in medical school. One of the best ways to overcome this is to reach out to your fellow classmates so you can realize that you’re all in this together (that High School Musical reference was half intentional).

The dean of my medical school said the word “community” 16 times during our White Coat ceremony (we actually counted). Your school and my school may be different, but at the end of the day, we’re all going to be the future physicians of America. We’re going to be a team, a community, so it’s time we start acting like it! Next time you go to class, reach out to someone new and ask that person how their day is going. Establish a connection, extend a helping hand, get a jump-start and show the empathy and compassion you’re saving for your future patients to those around you. Feeling that companionship and acceptance will melt away a lot of your stress; after all, two heads are better than one!


PLAN, PLAN, PLAN

You need to join the planner club STAT. That’s the only way to compartmentalize that fire hose into manageable chunks. Establishing a routine, meal prepping, and studying a little every day will ease your stress because you’ll be accomplishing goals every single day. Always remember: absolutely NO cramming allowed.

Planning will also allow you to partake in activities that you enjoy. Have a soccer game coming up on Friday? Just study an extra 30 minutes every day until then so you won’t fall behind in soccer or school. Or (if you’re like me) maybe one of your favorite things to do is sleep. If you set up a consistent sleep-wake cycle, then sleep will be yours and so will productivity (minus any medical school stress).

Now, as medical students, I’m sure you still have a tendency to overcommit (some premed habits never die). I know I still have that problem…I signed up for more than half of the student organizations at my school. The good thing is, studying will always come first (you can miss meetings but you can’t miss getting honors in anatomy class). Having an idea of what and how much you need to review every day (and actually doing it) will give you an idea of what meetings and activities you can attend.


DON’T START OVER, CONTINUE

I was talking to one of the M2’s during orientation week and she said something that filled me with relief: “If it worked for you in undergrad, then you don’t have to change it.” In medical school, you’re not starting over with a blank slate. You have an idea of how to handle large workloads and balance multiple projects. Thus, there’s no need to shake everything up and try study techniques that are completely foreign to you. I know there are a lot of cool programs out there but my philosophy has always been that the simpler the better. That way there’s no learning curve to master; you already know what you’re doing and can avoid unnecessary medical school stress. Stay where you’re comfortable before venturing out; it’ll be easy to get into the swing of things when you start with some familiarity.


REMEMBER: YOU’RE GREAT

Now that you’re in medical school, you’re on a level playing field. You need to remind yourself that you are not less than any of your classmates. Regardless of your undergraduate experiences, you deserve to be a medical student. Just imagine all of the students who your school chose you over; you MUST be someone special!

For me, self-doubt has been something I have struggled with throughout my life. Now that I’m in medical school, I’ve decided that enough is enough. With time, you learn that a lot of the reverence that surrounds a successful person is simply concocted in the minds of the observers. In other words, not everyone really knows exactly what they’re doing; lifelong learning is something everyone must do.

The next time you’re feeling the stress and doubting yourself, look in the mirror and remind yourself of how hard you have worked to get to where you are. Enjoy the memories of your accomplishments and compliment yourself!  Staying positive will inevitably lead to your success.

GOOD LUCK and NO STRESS!

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