By Ariel Lee
Having only recently transitioned from pre-med to incoming medical student, I can most definitely relate to the extreme stress of being a pre-med student. With the acceptance rates to medical schools at an all-time low and the need to pile your activities in order to stay competitive at an all-time high, it’s no wonder why pre-med students are some of the most stressed-out students on campus. If not kept in check, stress can severely handicap you physically, emotionally, and mentally—and prevent you from operating at your prime. Even the most capable multi-taskers will eventually reach burnout if they don’t develop healthy coping mechanisms for stress.
I can personally attest to this, as I have always prided myself in being immune to the stresses of an extreme workload. However, in my senior year of college, when I was: studying for the MCAT, conducting an honors thesis project, interning in a clinical research lab, taking classes, leading a bible study, and working part-time all at once; I began experiencing chronic migraines like I never had before. It was then that I realized that my body was signaling to me that I was severely stressed and desperately needed to develop coping mechanisms. Here are some of the ways I’ve learned to cope with stress—which I recommend that every pre-med begins to develop as early as possible. I’ll begin with some of the more common and obvious ways and end with some lesser-known but equally effective ways of coping with stress.
- Spend time with your community of friends.
Having a support system as a pre-med is extremely important. Life is not meant for you to go at alone, no matter how independent you think you are. I know when I was a pre-med, talking to friends (both in and outside of the pre-med track) helped me to process the stresses in my life. I was greatly comforted by friends who encouraged me to keep going when I felt like giving up, validated me on my accomplishments and successes, and gave me much-needed wisdom and advice when I was going through tough times.
- Exercise regularly.
This one is an obvious one, but exercise is extremely effective at relieving stress! Research has shown that exercise not only helps to reduce fatigue, but also improves your ability to concentrate, and enhances your overall cognitive function. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, otherwise known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitters in your brain, which help you to relax. It is important to create and stick with an exercise routine, so you don’t forget to exercise. I would always run a few miles the night before a big exam, which helped me to both sleep better and be more alert during the exam.
- Go out!
Sometimes, in order to de-stress, it’s necessary for you to get out of the environment in which you are the most stressed. For me, that meant taking the shuttle into Boston to go to a nice café or the public library to study, or even to go for a stroll in the city streets. You can either do this alone, or go out with friends (for a movie, a lunch or dinner).
- Seek out and meet with mentors.
Having a mentor to help you navigate through the stresses of being pre-med is so life-giving and valuable. I was fortunate enough to have several mentors in college: a few professors I had grown close to on campus, as well as the lead pastor at my church. When I was feeling stressed or lost, I was able to meet with them to ask for advice and receive some much-needed encouragement. It may take time and effort on your part to find a mentor but trust me, it is so worth it.
- Meditate and BREATHE.
Sometimes when you are caught up in the cycle of stress, you can forget to simply breathe. Something I wish I had started way earlier in my pre-med career is meditating. When I first heard of meditation, I dismissed it as some new-age-y cultish practice. But I later learned that it is very simply: concentrated and controlled breathing. Meditation can help you to take your mind off of your stresses, increase mindfulness, and deliver more oxygen to your brain. I recommend using apps like Calm or Oak for guided meditations, but you can also just implement deep breathing into your daily routine.
- Do something creative.
Another thing I wish I had done more of in college was: doing something creative. Even if you don’t consider yourself a creative person, you can still find value in letting your mind run free and releasing your stress through a creative outlet. Personally, I enjoy: playing the piano, writing poetry, painting, and calligraphy. Being creative really helps get my mind off of stress and helps me to focus on the beauty that life has to offer.
- Take a break from social media.
While you may think going on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat) is a way to relieve stress, studies have shown a marked direct correlation between social media use and rate of depression. Without going into the details, social media can produce feelings of social isolation, comparison and envy, fear and anxiety about world events, and more. Therefore, taking a break from social media can eliminate unnecessary triggers for stress.
- Journal your thoughts.
Finally, writing down your thoughts on paper can be very therapeutic and stress-relieving. Journaling helps you cope with stress by articulating and processing your stresses in words. I find that when I write down what I’m stressed out about, it actually helps me to compartmentalize my feelings and feel less stressed.
While this list is not exhaustive, I hope it gives you some ideas for coping with stress. The medical profession in general is a stressful field and the earlier you find healthy ways to cope with stress, the better!