Medical Student Health

These tips on the little things can ease the big stressors

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

The medical school workload can bleed into every part of a student’s life, and that can have adverse effects. Creating life balance and identifying mechanisms to cope with stress is integral for those hoping to thrive in and out of the medical school environment. Here are a few tips we’ve picked up in speaking to physician trainees over the years.

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In addressing the ways in which they maintain their mental health during medical school, one anonymous medical student told Joshua Nathan, MD, that keeping a journal can be an effective coping mechanism, saying: “I’m a rising MS4 and I’m part of a bioethics program where we were tasked to, for every single clinical rotation we’d taken, write three journal entries. I have found that there’s something about a blank piece of paper and being required to write about my experiences that is very cathartic. It has helped me understand the harsh feelings I’ve had about surgery or really happy feelings I’ve had about psych or pediatrics. It’s sort of an all-encompassing thing that it’s okay to feel this huge range of emotions and that’s allowing me to grow and deal with the good and the bad and the feelings in the middle.”

Stress has been linked to over-eating, and while busy medical students often want to eat healthy, their schedules and budgets can impede that. Shannon Brockman, a registered nutritionist, endorses the idea of preparing meals ahead of time. One day of meal planning can shave hours from your week and help you waste less.

“If you keep a planner or calendar to-do list, block off time during the week specifically for meal planning, grocery shopping and cooking,” Brockman said. With busy schedules and long work hours, it may be tempting for medical students to delay meal planning— but try to avoid that.

“The challenge with nutrition in medical school is that most people know what to do; it’s just doing it that’s the problem,” Brockman said. If you’re ready to jumpstart your healthy eating, but don’t know where to begin, visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics  and the American Heart Association for more tips about eating healthy on a budget.

Like medical students, residents want work-life balance, but finding time to preserve your own wellness while successfully caring for your patients requires self-awareness and boundaries—two things many medical trainees struggle to establish amid pressures in training. One resident physician created a play as a wellness solution that helps residents tackle tough conversations about balancing family, personal identity and practice.  Whether it’s performance or another form of self-expression, creative outlets and hobbies have proven to be therapeutic coping mechanism for stress.

While the issue of debt is more commonly listed as a source of distress among residents, it also applies to students.  “If you’re $200,000 in debt, that can be an obvious source of stress,” said Lotte Dyrbye, MD, professor of medicine at Mayo Medical School. She has studied burnout in medical education since 2004. 

As a student, you can access resources to learn how to properly manage loans and budget now, rather than expecting they will figure out financial planning in residency or practice. Schools and programs also can continue to develop scholarship opportunities. For example, the AMA Foundation’s Physicians of Tomorrow Award offers $10,000 scholarships to students approaching their final year of medical school.