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Help me maintain a positive attitude in medical school.
February 10, 2012 10:34 AM   Subscribe

Help graduate (medical) school not grind me down. Recommend me stress / harm reduction techniques for maintaining positivity and a general sense of optimism?

Hi –
I've always been a very chill, relaxed person who didn't let too much get me down. All through undergrad, I would just surf and go to classes/work, and managed to eke out my pre-med classes okay. Here comes to the crux of my problem – I've now been in medical school for half a year, and I've found that my personality has taken on a new bitter, cynical and easily irritated tone.

I don't know if it's the stress, or the high-school 'esque' closed quarters of medical school, where I'm in contact with the same 150 people day-in and day-out, with two week test schedules, but I've come to realize that my personality has shifted in a very disturbing manner.

I previously didn't care and didn't badmouth people's traits, but now I feel that people annoy me more and more, to the point that I just spent a good 15 minutes venting to a close friend about a colleague's superiority complex. I don't think this is healthy, and I'm concerned that this sort of back-biting will further transform my personality into something I don't like.

I feel like I entered medical school with great hopes of being a great healer and helping people, and it's like the grind of massive tests every two weeks has been wearing me down, and the stress and constant proximity to other personalities has made me an angrier / more easily irritated person.

To conclude : I'm seeking techniques that will help me etch out and maintain a positive attitude in the midst of massive stress and negativity. And advice from other medical students/graduate students/people who are in high-stress situations would also be welcomed!

Thanks in advance, fellow Metafilterians.
posted by kurosawa's pal to Human Relations (10 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Can you carve some time to work out every day? That's always helped me. I'd be willing to bet that your school had counselors who can give you these techniques, particularly since they likely deal with many stressed-out med students.
posted by sugarbomb at 10:41 AM on February 10, 2012


I'm in the same situation. This is pretty much par for the course these days, though. Plenty of studies have shown that you're a rarity indeed if you DON'T burn out by the end of the second year. So, first of all know that you are not alone amongst medical students. There are times I barely recognize myself when comparing myself now to myself before school. And I know why I've changed... being judged so harshly over and over and over again is grueling and after a while, you don't want to feel like the only person who's having a hard time. So naturally we give each other hard times.

Anyway, you're asking for ways to keep yourself in check. Here's what I've found to be helpful:

1) Involve yourself in things not related to medical school. For me, I try to reconnect with my former DJ buddies, even if only for an hour every now and then. It's important to stay connected to people who aren't as stressed as you. Their light-heartedness will certainly be transferred to you, if only for a few hours per week.

2) Find a hobby and incorporate it into your schedule. My girlfriend actually taught me how to knit... which I feel a little strange admitting since I'm a guy. Turns out, though, that it really helps me memorize flashcards and is really calming.

3) Do community service. Find an organization to help out with in the community, even if it's not medically related. Helping others will help yourself. Seeing the gratitude for your work is a great way to stay motivated.

4) Don't deal with it with alcohol, cigarettes, pot, etc. Besides being bad for your health (as you know), it throws you off emotionally. I know a lot of my classmates drink their stress away, unfortunately. Which is bad for them on a lot of levels, not to mention the fact that it screws them more than it helps them.

5) Eat healthy things as much as possible. You feel better, and don't get sick as often. Therefore, less stress there.

Good luck!!
posted by gijoedo at 11:34 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Something that I've noticed really helps me is making a commitment to do something with other people on a regular basis. D&D on Thursdays or a yoga class on Tuesdays or whatever... but something where there are people outside of you holding you accountable (or finances holding you accountable -- you paid for this class in advance, so you should go, for example). For me, it's too easy to rationalize away exercising today because I have stuff to do... and then before I know it, I haven't been to the gym in three weeks.
posted by naturalog at 12:03 PM on February 10, 2012


Can you carve some time to work out every day? That's always helped me. I'd be willing to bet that your school had counselors who can give you these techniques, particularly since they likely deal with many stressed-out med students.

I do work-out consistently, so even with that I feel overwhelmed. Usually big lifts for me, squats, deads, etc. 3x a week, and cardio in between those days. But you're right – I missed out on a workout last week due to sickness, and I definitely felt a huge difference in attitude and energy.


There are times I barely recognize myself when comparing myself now to myself before school. And I know why I've changed... being judged so harshly over and over and over again is grueling and after a while, you don't want to feel like the only person who's having a hard time. So naturally we give each other hard times.


This really hits home. Thanks, I think that's the crux of the matter. A lot of stress and constant (subconscious) competition.


4) Don't deal with it with alcohol, cigarettes, pot, etc. Besides being bad for your health (as you know), it throws you off emotionally.


Especially with a two week test schedule, it's hard not to binge the day after a big test. Thanks, I'll keep these in mind.
posted by kurosawa's pal at 1:57 PM on February 10, 2012


When I was in school to be a therapist they made us participate in our own personal therapy to help cope with all the personal shit that gets dredged up when you work in the helping professions. I think that therapy is especially important for people who want to work in mental health, but I would recommend it to anyone in any health services profession. The pressure is high, the patients will drive you crazy and the institutional issues around training and professional development are ridiculous (36 hour shifts for trainees? THAT is crazy). If you think you really don't have the time or resources to do weekly therapy, the one thing I would recommend is mindfulness meditation. There are lots of good books, CDs, podcasts, etc. on mindfullness meditation, plus a bevy of scientific literature that shows how awesome it is. I wish I could give you citations and recommendations, but I'm on my phone and don't really have that info handy. The one name I do remember is Daniel Seigel. He wrote a book called The Mindful Brain that really knocks it out of the park.
posted by Mrs.Spiffy at 2:59 PM on February 10, 2012


Been there, seen it, done it. My advice: GET OUT OF SCHOOL. Meaning: stop hanging out with your classmates. Go explore town, make friends outside of school. Don't run around wearing your ID badge, or scrubs, or god forbid your white coat.


You've made it this far, and you've heard all the same crap everyone in med school has heard: you've graduated at the top of your class in high school and undergrad, and everyone you're in school with now are brilliant, and the top of the top of the top of the class. Wicked smart, super accomplished, extremely motivated.

Losers. The lot of them. Who went through high school thinking about med school and volunteering, or undergrad and studying the sciences. Who, if not having maintained a laser focus on getting into med school, at least kept a very tight orbit about it. Who, finally, after having made it in, and now living on their own and feeling like they've "done it," now let the girdle of hard work go, and go bananas. Only no, they can't quite let go of being the best at what they do. Which isn't necessarily congruent with being a good person or physician.

In other words: now you can stop trying to be a great student and start, finally, to really start being a good person.

So stop binging. Start carving a life outside of medicine for yourself, wherever you're at. Make friends and lovers outside of school. You don't have to exclude your classmates, but you'll form deeper bonds and connections with a small number of them who enjoy doing non-medical things outside of school with you.

Seriously, get out, man. Go for walks, get some coffee. Don't study at the library. Don't hang out and play foosball with your fellow students in the lounge. You're absolutely right in thinking that you're gonna be seeing the same goddamn people every single goddamn day for the next 1.5 years, and you're gonna be seeing most of them in the clinical years that follow. It's like working a job at a corporation where the pay is shit, and your day starts and ends with being punched in the metaphorical junk.


There's so much more to medicine than medicine, man, and so much more to life than work.
posted by herrdoktor at 4:15 PM on February 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


Datapoint: Mindfulness based stress reduction training is a compulsory subject for Med students at Monash University in Melbourne Australia. They found burnout rates after graduation were unacceptably high and wanted to equip students better for the demands of their professional environments. See what research you can find by Dr Craig Hassad.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 4:50 PM on February 10, 2012


What you're feeling is very common in medical school! So try to be kind to yourself about that. Even the people in your class who seem to have it together and who seem to be doing things so effortlessly are struggling too.

Medical school is very taxing intellectually and emotionally, and you almost have to be as disciplined about taking care of yourself as you are about studying. Besides being really strict about getting enough sleep and exercise and eating well, carve out a small chunk of dedicated free time (even if it is only once a week) and try to keep up with some of your hobbies, whatever they may be.

At this stage in training, you are busy cramming an enormous amount of raw information into your head; in a few years you'll be working with patients regularly as well, and that's extremely emotionally draining. Some people find it helpful to journal about what they're going through, or to have a few people they process and unwind with regularly. I think that it just gets harder if you don't have a good way to drain out some of that stress.

Most people go into medicine for the same good reasons you did, but it's a decade-long marathon to get there, so think of it like pacing yourself properly. You're doing well thus far; good luck and keep going!
posted by vetala at 6:28 PM on February 10, 2012


Take a 2 hour walk through nature once a week. Make this your time. Do not allow any stress from anywhere else to intrude. Let this be a walking meditation, where you enjoy the feeling of the air on your skin, and the general feeling of walking through a park.

Ideally, this will remind you that grad school is where you, and that will change in time. This is a great time to reflect on who you are and what you want.

Block of the time in the calendar. Be honest to it. Give yourself this one period in your week where you take the time to be at one with yourself.
posted by nickrussell at 4:34 AM on February 12, 2012


Datapoint: Mindfulness based stress reduction training is a compulsory subject for Med students at Monash University in Melbourne Australia. They found burnout rates after graduation were unacceptably high and wanted to equip students better for the demands of their professional environments. See what research you can find by Dr Craig Hassad.

Thank you. I started looking into meditation and mindfulness last year, but I looked at the links about Dr. Hassad and purchased a few books off Amazon to guide me.

At this stage in training, you are busy cramming an enormous amount of raw information into your head; in a few years you'll be working with patients regularly as well, and that's extremely emotionally draining. Some people find it helpful to journal about what they're going through, or to have a few people they process and unwind with regularly.


I like the journaling suggestion, and think I'll be doing that more. I do that somewhat with my Tumblr, but I feel as if I need to do it more often, and perhaps under a more anonymous blog to make it easier to broach sensitive subjects.

Thanks everybody.
posted by kurosawa's pal at 8:49 AM on February 13, 2012


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