Medical student? Yes, but human too!

It’s a well-known fact that medics are a competitive bunch. We have our own sports teams, come exam time we all brag about how much work we’re doing, and when results are out, we all want to know each other’s decile ranking. Medical school seems to be a competition where not only do you have to study the hardest, but you also have to volunteer for 6+ charities and publish 3 papers and speak at a conference and play 4 sports and have an active social life and mentor orphans and… you get the point.

We start our journey through medical school by trying to beat everyone else. It’s not enough just to have three A levels or a good degree any more- you have to be brilliant. It’s little wonder then that we get so stressed out throughout the year. Whether it’s cramming before formatives, trying to balance socials with 9am lectures or early ward rounds or fitting in one last night shift before a weekend away, we tend to push ourselves to the absolute limit and justify it with, ‘Well, they never said medicine was easy.’

It leads to crippling self-doubt when you see all your peers on facebook out till all hours, while you’re crouched in front of the only remaining computer in the library. It’s impossible to feel like you’re doing enough when everyone runs out of lectures to reserve their spot and open their books. In anatomy labs when everyone in your group seems to know words you’ve never even heard of, and are actually able to make them into a coherent sentence while you’re wondering what planet you’re on and if you can get off.

During term time, we’ve all seen those who traipse into lectures 10 minutes after everyone else looking like they’ve been dragged through a hedge, only to watch them fall asleep with their head on their desk and wish we could sleep just as well. It feels like we’re constantly being asked to sign this off, read this book, find this article, write this paper.

Then once you’ve left the lecture theatre or the hospital or the lab, you still have to go home and make dinner and maybe revise and maybe play some sports and do you have an essay due? Or do you have to organise a meeting of your society? Do you have words to learn for student theatre or do you need to call your parents or is it date night?

Multiple studies have found that medical students have poorer mental health on average than age matched controls. Medical school is isolating- we work longer hours than most other students, we have a lot more responsibility early on, and right from the get go we’re told that mental illness can potentially become a fitness to practice issue that could jeopardise our careers.

So hello, I’m here to tell you to take a break. Ignore what everyone else is saying they’ve done. We are all ‘good enough.’ We got into medical school for a reason. Yes, we do need to work hard, and yes, we do also play hard- but that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to have a morning in bed with a cup of tea and the latest episode of Orange is the New Black. There is a massive stigma attached to being viewed as ‘not coping’- but spending a day just reminding yourself that you’re a human first and a medical student second is necessary. Before exams, it’s not uncommon to hear of a friend staying in the library from dawn till dusk, head buried in a book- and this just isn’t sustainable.

Your friend might tell you that they’ve covered six chapters of the anatomy textbook and know all about the ears. That’s fab, but you’ve rested up and you’re ready to kick ass in clinic tomorrow. Mr top of the year might say he can interpret any ECG going- that’s also useful, but you’ve spent some time talking to your friends so your patient can see you’re a person, and not an intelligent robot. You never know what’s going on with other people- yes, they might have spent one whole day revising and then bragged about it endlessly, but they may also have spent the day before in a gin-induced stupor, stuffing their face with Doritos and moaning at their mum about how much work they’ve got left to do.

Here’s some top tips to remind yourself that you’re a human being, that you’re awesome regardless of anyone else, and that being a medical student is not the only part of your personality:

  • Have friends and activities outside of medicine, and do not give these up over stressful periods. You need the perspective- not revising one part of haematology seems silly when you’ve got three 8 year olds running with scissors (the author is a brownie leader.)
  • Get out of medicine. Read books about teenage angst, watch musicals, watch terrible rom-coms (I recommend Austenland as the worst one ever,)- just get your head away from thinking about how much you have to do and what’s gone on that day.
  • Take days off if you’re feeling pants. Trying to work through it will only stress you out further because feeling pants doesn’t lend itself to learning. Take a break and come back to it when your brain is in a happy place again.
  • Never listen to what so-and-so who got top decile did. He/she is probably lying, and is actually spending half the time they claim to be spending revising, in bed, sleeping off a hangover. There’s always going to be some people that can machine their way through life- and if you’re not one of them, that’s cool too.
  • Treat yo’self. Craving chocolate? Just do it, you’ve worked hard. Looking longingly at the pool because you haven’t swam in ages? Dive on in.
  • Get out of London. Go home, cuddle your mum, remember that outside of the hospital, there are loads of people who care about you, and not how good a student you are, or how many projects you’ve done.  Walk the dog, argue with your siblings- however you do it, take time for you.

  • Find things that make you happy, schedule them in, and do not miss them. Do not be afraid to be a Grinch and refuse to cancel dinner with yourself. Who cares if you haven’t finished your flashcards? There’s a glass of wine with your name on it.
  • Sleeeeeeeep. Make your bedroom soothing and invest some time in good sleep hygiene, whether that’s settling down with a good book before bed, having a hot drink or a warm shower. Allow yourself some early nights and late mornings.
  • Exercise! Even if it’s something light like yoga or hardcore intense like a triathlon, exercising is a great way to get your mind off what you’re learning and let life sink in. Personally I recommend walking to the shop for more chocolate as a good time. (I’m lazy.)
  • Celebrate those achievements. Made it out of bed today? Excellent work. Managed to eat three proper meals and shower, and make it into the hospital? You are my idol. There’s no point sweating the small stuff when actually, you’re doing brilliantly.
  • Write, talk, blog, shout, yodel- get out your emotions in one way or another. I have been known to sing my revision in a really angry voice because really, I just hate neuro, but singing it makes it better.

 

The whole idea of this article is to make you realise that medical school is not everything. You are still a really great human being- medics are intelligent, kind, hardworking people and you are one of them. You also get to enjoy university- you do not have to constantly worry about this lecture or that doctor or that topic. Take time to see your friends, eat good food, sleep for hours and get excited about things. Give yourself something to look forward to that isn’t finishing finals.

You only get to do medical school once- enjoy it.

Who’s going to be awesome? You are!

 

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