Coincidentally there was a student discussion tonight that closely mirrored my most recent post. First through fourth years met to talk about burnout in medical school. I invited a couple of people who said, without a trace of irony, that they couldn’t come because they were overwhelmed with studying.
As a group we put together a list of causes of burnout. Some things that grind med students down are:
feelings of inadequacy
not being able to celebrate successes
comparing ourselves to peers
comparing ourselves to non-medical people (grass is greener…)
don’t see the value in what we are learning
lose touch with our loved ones
always stressed about next exam
The fun part came next as we brainstormed solutions. It was incredible to feel the amount of vulnerability as people opened up about their own ways of preventing or coping with burnout. The solutions boiled down to the main ideas of living in the present, maintaining perspective, being grateful, and building strong relationships. My contribution was the concept of taking one day a week completely off. Not just don’t study, but don’t look at a computer, shop, or run errands. One incredulous classmate asked “Well what do you do?” For the record, Sundays are for hanging out with my wife.
Another experience I had with student burnout was actually in the midst of exams last week. We had just taken back-to-back tests, and we had two more coming up in 36 hours. I went into our kitchen and saw my friend eating some soup and looking distraught. “Are you enjoying your soup?” I asked. “No, I’m worried about the genetics test because I know I’ll bomb it like I just did on biochem.” “You need to stop thinking about what you did on biochem,” I said. “Well, yeah, at least I think I did good on epi, so I can focus on that.” I could tell I shocked her when I said “You need to stop thinking about epi too.”
The shortest path to burnout is to judge your worth by day-to-day successes and failures. Even when my classmate thought she was focusing on the positive for motivation, it was really just serving to distract her from the present. And what if she had felt poorly about both of the previous tests? Would she then have no motivation or intrinsic self-worth? I haven’t had the chance to fail in med school yet, but I did in undergrad. Those experiences taught me that it is easy to be happy when you are “winning.” What was really difficult was maintaining that joy through the times of failure, and that is still something I am practicing.
I want to end this post be planting the idea that stress is not bad. Remember that all emotions start in our bodies and then are interpreted by our brains. We feel our heart start to flutter— is it love? A chemical reaction causes our palms to sweat and our breathing to quicken— is it anxiety… or excitement? Either, depending on how you look at it. And perspective is what makes stress either beneficial or detrimental. Watch this Ted Talk to appreciate the how perspective impacts the physiology of stress: