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A Beginner's Guide to Staying Sane in Medical School

Rachana Raghupathy
M.D. Candidate, Class of 2022
Northeast Ohio Medical University
ACP Council of Student Members
ACP Committees: Physician Well-being and Professional Fulfillment and Legislative Advocacy

Adjusting to a new environment is always difficult, but adjusting to life as a medical student is a whole other beast. We are forced to adapt to a completely new setting, react to completely new challenges, and do it all beginning on day one. The nature of medical school is demanding and many times overwhelming—I remember during my first week of MS1, my professor likened the experience to “drinking water from a fire hose.” Then throw in the wrench that is COVID-19 to make a hard transition even harder.

Taken together, it becomes nearly impossible to keep personal wellness in mind. Still, the key to staying happy, keeping motivated, and performing well in medical school is periodically taking a step away from school to focus on yourself. Below, you can find a list of ideas on how to prioritize yourself and your well-being. We’ll call this “The Beginner’s Guide to Staying Sane in Medical School.”

Prioritize the things that are important to you: This can be anything, including religion, spirituality, family, friends, hobbies, or activities. It’s easy to lose sight of your end goals as school responsibilities pick up, but it’s essential to maintain those things that keep you grounded.

Exercise: We’ve all learned about the physiologic benefits of exercise, but it can also serve as a healthy study break. Although going to the gym these days may not be as feasible as it was a year ago, consider alternatives that are COVID-19–proof. This could include going for a run or walk, riding your bike, hiking, switching on an online home workout class, or even dusting off the yoga mat in the corner and doing a few stretches. Exercise can even become a social activity. The Ohio ACP Chapter’s Wellness Committee organized a virtual 5k for its members, through which participants could log a 5k run and compete against one another.

Socialize with others (while abiding by social distancing rules): Arguably one of the biggest difficulties during medical school and COVID-19 is feeling connected with others, especially given social distancing requirements and stay-at-home orders. However, there are ways to work around this. FaceTime, Zoom, and video chat may not be equivalent to face-to-face interaction, but they can still offer a feeling of community. For those who enjoy reading, ACP has begun a virtual book club where we select a book and discuss excerpts on a weekly basis. It’s not only a great way to check books off your reading list but also a fantastic way to connect with others with similar interests.

Spend time outside, or seek a change of scenery: It’s incredibly easy to get holed up studying in your room or the library for hours on end, but remember to take breaks, change up your study spot, or both. If the weather is particularly nice, consider studying outside and getting some fresh air while reviewing those pathology notes.

Get involved: Many student organizations within medical schools hold activities for students regularly and are a wonderful way to meet new people and learn more about topics and specialties. In addition, several national professional organizations (including ACP!) have student sections or offer ways for students to get involved. Here is a link on how students can get involved in ACP specifically.

Volunteer: Many organizations offer virtual volunteer opportunities, such as helping senior citizens, tutoring or mentoring school-age children, and getting involved in telehealth visits. Further, many local ACP chapters engage in annual volunteer projects. If you’re interested in helping out, reach out to your chapter leaders to see what you can do to get involved!

Revisit old hobbies (or pick up a new one!): As busy as medical school can be, make sure you keep up with activities (other than studying) that you love. Use your hobbies as study breaks to reenergize yourself before diving into that extra UWorld block.

Cook a nice meal for yourself: Make something you feel proud of! Bonus points if it’s healthy, and double bonus points if it’s Instagram-worthy.

Cultivate mindfulness: “Mindfulness” is such a broad term that can be applied in almost any situation. When we talk about mindfulness, we ultimately mean being present. Find ways to be present in what is happening. When you’re studying, really focus on studying—no distractions. When you’re taking a break, really enjoy the break and try not to let your mind wander to everything else you have to do within the next 8 hours. When you’re eating that delicious meal you made for yourself (see above), take the time to appreciate the food in front of you. For those interested in more structured forms of mindfulness, resources like Headspace or Calm (both also available as apps) provide guided meditation courses and are especially great for beginners to the practice.

Ask for help: The stress and emotions of medical school can be a lot to deal with by yourself. Whether it be your family, your friends, a mentor, or someone else you trust, be sure to reach out and ask for help when you need it.

One of the most important lessons I learned during medical school was to trust myself, whether it be while taking an exam, coming up with a personalized study strategy, or learning to take time for myself. Medical school moves fast and is so easy to get swept up into, but that is exactly the reason to listen to your mind and/or body when it tells you it needs something. If you’re not feeling like yourself, take it as a sign to step back, reevaluate, and prioritize yourself so you can get back on track. Taking care of yourself throughout the process is an important first step toward success in medical school.