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Medical Student Perspectives: Staying Balanced as a Medical Student

Do you remember when you started medical school? I remember it well. I was sitting in an orientation session for first-year medical students at my school, listening to administrators tell us about the importance of remaining well-rounded. I felt a curious combination of excitement, motivation, and idealism. There was no doubt in my mind that I would easily heed their advice while still excelling in school.

Fast forward two weeks later, when I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material being thrown at me each day. I was stressed out, feeling like there was not enough time in the day to address all of my academic obligations such as classes, labs, small group sessions, and of course studying. My non-academic interests frequently became an afterthought. I often wondered if it was even possible to have an enjoyable, balanced life and avoid being a slave to medicine. What I ultimately discovered was that balance is possible in medical school, but it takes dedication to make it happen.

Why Balance is Important
With our busy schedules, it is easy to allow medical school to consume us. We are around it all the time, whether in class, the library, or a study group. The temptation is there for us to make it the epicenter of our existence, and as a result lose the very things that make us unique and interesting people. I have seen this happen to some of my classmates, and wonder how it will impact their lives in the future.

I have also talked with peers who intend to temporarily put their outside interests aside until they have completed their training. They reason that their other interests will still be there several years down the road. I worry that the person who once enjoyed those interests will be nowhere to be found.

Medicine changes people, and not always for the better. Medical school is a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow. It is also a time when we can lose our identities and become shells of our former selves. We do ourselves a great disservice by learning all about how to help others, yet failing to help ourselves in the process.

We must start by examining our priorities. For 99% of medical students, school must be the number one priority. It was very liberating for me once I accepted the fact that, for most of my day, my time was not my own. Gone were the days when much of my time was spent doing what I wanted to do.

Lets be honest, medical school often involves doing things we would rather not do. Most people do not enjoy sitting in class for 6-8 hours every day during the basic science years, or getting up at 4:00 a.m. during the clinical science years in order to be at the hospital. But we do it because we believe that the temporary discomfort is worth it for the long-term gain. There are patients who will need us, and we must possess the clinical and basic science knowledge to effectively treat them.

So with that said, my question for you is: what are your non-medical school priorities? What are the 4 or 5 things you must have in your life? Take time now to examine what those priorities are, and make a commitment to devote time to them on a regular basis. Perhaps friends and family are priorities to you. Maybe you love photography and are your happiest when taking photos, or enjoy a favorite television show or two every week. Or perhaps you cannot let more than a few days pass without going for a jog. Consider the several aspects of your life that you cannot live without, and write them down on a piece of paper. If you have a hard time thinking of a handful of things that are important to you, now is the perfect time to develop them! Make a commitment now to give those things an important place in your routine, even if it means putting your studies aside from time to time.

Its a Matter of Degree
Depending on where you are in your training, it might seem nearly impossible to be a balanced person. Let me assure you that with good time management skills, you can enjoy those outside interests on a fairly regular basis even though you might not get to do so as often as you would like. Hopefully, you will find that you learn to appreciate those interests and activities even more than before. Truly maximizing the moment will result in a much higher level of satisfaction at work and at play. And who knows, you might even develop new interests and hobbies in the process!

Nurture Your Support System
No matter how independent you are, chances are very good that there are times when you want someone to talk to. Perhaps you have great news to share, or maybe you are frustrated and need to vent. Regardless, it is important that you have a support system you can rely upon. Your support system can be family or close friends, but it is vital that you choose these people carefully! Whoever you choose, they should know you well enough to be aware of what you need and when you need it.

Relaxation Techniques
Stress has a way of sneaking up on us, even when we think we have everything under control. We are all aware of the dangers of stress as well as the need to minimize it. I have found it extremely beneficial to devote at least 10-15 minutes a day to focus my thoughts and clear my mind. I highly recommend that you try something like this for yourself.

The technique you choose is up to you, but it must fulfill several requirements. First, it must take place in an environment that you find calming. Second, it should allow you the ability to take slow, deep, cleansing breaths. Third, it should provide you an opportunity for reflection. In other words, you want these 10-15 minutes every day to be your escape from everything else. What you do during this time is up to you. Many people use this time for prayer, meditation, and reflection. Do not allow your mind to dwell on negative and worrisome topics, but rather concentrate on the great things that lie ahead. Studies have shown real therapeutic value in using such techniques even in those who are fighting devastating terminal illnesses! Make this time an important part of your regular routine.

The Carryover Effect
In addition to an improved quality of life, one of the benefits of being well-rounded is that it will actually enhance the time you spend on medical school. You will find that you have better concentration when you study and clearer thinking when solving complex medical problems. You will likely accomplish as much academically if not more despite spending less time studying. As busy medical students, I think we can all appreciate that!

Doctor, Heal Thyself
It is up to each of us to examine our own lives and evaluate the balance contained within. You now have all the necessary tools to continue your current accomplishments while also reaching for new goals. I wish you all the best as you strive for more balance!

Jonathan D. Stegall
Vice Chair, Council of Student Members
Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine, 2010
Email: stegallj@musc.edu

Back to August 2008 Issue of IMpact

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