I just finished my fourth year and it is safe to say that I didn’t have the easiest medical school experience. Along the way, I faced my fair share of obstacles, including having surgery and taking a medical leave of absence when I faced depression. You can learn a little more about my experience in an op-doc from NBC here.
If there’s anything I’ve learned, however, it is what wellness really means. To me, wellness is finding a way to tap into your best self when times are difficult, and to channel that energy into optimism that keeps you grounded and thriving. I am often asked about how I was able to continue medical school in spite of the challenges I faced. I think often about this, and what advice I would give to an incoming first year student to better equip them with the tools to develop perseverance and resilience in medical school.
Here are a few things that may help keep you afloat when times are difficult:
Remember you are not alone. Reach for the people who love you. I also recommend reaching for a counselor or therapist. If your school offers this service, take advantage of it! There is limited time after medical school, and it will likely not be free, so use this resource while you can.
Have friends outside of medicine. They will remind you that there is more to life. This was particularly helpful to me when I was unsure about taking a leave of absence. Having the perspective of those outside of medicine helped reframe my decision in the grand scheme of things, and made it easier to see that it was the best decision.
Keep your emotional reserve high. Don’t waste your energy on people or things that will deplete you. You need that emotional energy for a day when you feel like the dumbest person in the room (you’re not, by the way). This is hard, but I had to choose when to end relationships with people who were not supportive of my decisions when I was at low points in my life. Not everyone will understand, and that’s OK, but they also don’t need to be in your life.
Find a hobby. Cooking, running, swimming, writing, reading, yoga, jumping rope. I don’t care what it is! Find something you love that you can do when you are feeling down. Do that thing once a week or when you are no longer productive for the day. It will revive your spirit. See my op-doc for a whole story on how I learned to rebuild furniture!
Know your limits. If you can’t study 22 hours a day, you’re human. Know what works for you and stick to it. You don’t need to study all the time. You don’t need to be social every weekend (if you don’t want to be). Set boundaries. Find your balance.
Your only competition is yourself. Set your goals and look no further. Don’t look to your neighbors. Their circumstances are different than yours. Everyone is in a different place. This can sometimes be easier said than done, but it ultimately saved me a lot of grief. I learned to be at peace with my own performance.
Practice gratitude. Remind yourself that you once wanted to be where you are now! Say thank you to friends for nourishing your soul, to your food for sustaining you, to your home for sheltering you. It sounds silly, but recognizing the small ways that life is immeasurably kind to you makes all the difference. This is a practice I have continued all through medical school, and has made each day, particularly the hardest ones, immeasurably better.
Ask for help. There is strength in knowing when you need someone to hold you up, to offer a hand, or to give advice. This goes for studying but also for whatever life throws your way. We don’t have to be heroes all the time. Ask for what you need. At first, I felt like I had to be brave and muster through my challenges alone. I quickly realized that it was better to ask for books, resources, and guidance during my educational process. There is no one who cares about your education more than you!
Be brave. There are days when it will be hard to do something, hard to stand up for yourself, or your patient, or your classmate, hard to do what you know is right. Do it anyway. You will always remember it, and the next time you will be more sure of who you are. This was something I feel like I have only recently felt more comfortable with. I was always unsure about sharing my story given the stigma around mental health in medicine. I ultimately realized that my story is not unique, and sharing my truth was more valuable in changing the culture than keeping silent.
Remember that life doesn’t stop for medical school. This is just one chapter and it will pass. Don’t forget to seek a little joy everyday!
Mariam Gomaa is a 2018-19 Doximity Author and the author of Between the Shadow & the Soul (Backbone Press). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, TIME, NBC, BBC, xoJane, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, and more. She is an alumna of Wake Forest University School of Medicine and Northwestern University. This summer she will start her Ob/Gyn residency at Howard University Hospital.
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