5 stresses that med students will know to be true (and how to fight them!)

Medical students face a unique and increased risk of stress, anxiety and depression. Up to 25% of medical students meet diagnostic criteria for depression, with up to 50% chronically stressed and 30% ‘unable to cope’. Chronic stress is harmful and likely contributes to relatively high suicide rates in physicians. Despite this, dropout rate is around 2% and suicide in medical school is very rare. It is clear that resilience and the adoption of active coping strategies prevent catastrophe.

We teamed up with Sheffield Medical School ‘Welfare’ team member Grace Elliot to explore the main reasons for stress and how you can learn to cope.

1. Uncertainty

Doctors try to make sense of ambiguity. Medical students are asked to synthesise volumes of information and place them in context of solid, safe and thorough management plans. Students must work in well-established medical teams, often switching hospital specialities regularly. New systems must be learned quickly. The learning curve is steep.

Uncertainly is ubiquitous, whether it be diagnostic or regarding your role. By keeping an open mind and actively asking for clarification, you can address these issues pragmatically. It is very much okay to lack knowledge; now is the time to learn.

Being a medical student and a doctor doesn’t mean having ‘all the answers’. A good doctor knows their limits and how to access help. Even consultants get it wrong sometimes.

2. Death and illness

It is no secret that healthcare professionals face hell. It is rare to experience such exposure to death and illness at a young age. It’s unavoidable. Often a medical student’s own health is at risk from chronic stress or acutely harmful experiences.

We bear witness to those struggling on the fringes of society and counsel our patients through some of the saddest events in their lives’, says Grace.

In each case you can employ simple mechanisms to help remedy the effects. First off, talk. Debrief. Vent. Simply expressing your concerns does wonders and you will learn that you are not alone. Use of talking therapies is recommended; however it is on you to actively seek help. Remember, people can’t read your mind. Reflection can help, so putting pen to paper will help you express your feelings and show professional insight. Here is an example.

In rare cases a medical student’s own and professional life will cross. Examples could include cancer, where a patient and a family member are the same. In these cases, you are allowed to step away and prioritise yourself. Physician, heal thyself, first!


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