Top 10 Tips for Maintaining Emotional Health in Stressful Times
The views and opinions expressed in this collection are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Dr. Azzam is an Adjunct Professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and the UC Berkeley - UCSF Joint Medical Program. He also works as a simulation educator at Samuel Merritt University, and is the Faculty Engagement Coordinator at Osmosis.org. Clinically he runs psychotherapy groups for patients with chronic medical conditions.
Med school can be extremely challenging under the best of circumstances. Add the stress of an unprecedented global pandemic and it’s going to feel overwhelming to almost all medical students! While I’ve never personally experienced anything like this either, I do have 20 years of insight as an academic psychiatrist to lean on. Based on those lived experiences, here are my top 10 tips to maintaining your emotional health in these stressful times.
- Express love & caring through words not touch. Social distancing does not mean emotional distancing. In fact, since we cannot express affection through physical touch, why not ratchet up our emotional touch by sharing how we care for each other through our words? Speaking love does not spread the virus!
- Frequent check-ins with peer students. One strategy to stave off loneliness is to increase how often you check in with your friends, family, and loved ones. As medical students you are all in a cohort of fellow medical students. Include those people in your larger circle of community.
- Maximize collaboration while minimizing physical contact. Think about all the various technologies that have improved teamwork: phone → fax → email → conference calls → cell phones → video-conferencing → texting → cloud-based collaboration. Not one of the ones I’ve mentioned involves direct physical contact between the collaborators. Social media tools can be used for work collaboration too.
- Be attuned to your personal physical manifestations of stress. I know that when I’m especially stressed I feel it in my lower back. So, I’ve been taking to scheduling time to attend to my body signs of stress. Do I need to be doing more stretching exercises now? Should I be doing sit-ups to strengthen my abdominal muscles? I encourage you all to pay attention to how stress manifests in your bodies, and then take steps to mitigate those physical symptoms.
- Build and support your team & community of peers. Did you have a study group before the pandemic? Why should that stop just because you’re not all in the same room together? Did your med school class have regularly scheduled social activities? Can those occur synchronously but remotely (e.g. virtual study groups, virtual coffee clubs)? If you didn’t have those events earlier-- why not start them now?
- Remember to take advantage of your local resources. Each and every medical school has resources to help their students succeed, both academically and personally. This includes things like student health services, med-student well-being resources, etc. Even if you’ve never used those resources before in your academic path, now is a great time to learn about your local services, resources, and support services. At the very least learning about these resources can help you help your classmates who might benefit from your research.
- Acknowledge that providing health care can be stressful work. Providing high quality health care for patients is not easy work and can be quite demanding and stressful at times. Declaring these truths doesn’t make them any less true, but it does own our humanity. None of us are immune to these workplace stressors, so let’s stop pretending that we are superhuman! Take the time to appropriately share with your clinical/clerkship colleagues how the physical efforts of patient care are affecting you psychologically. It will build up your capacity/stamina if you do share, and also prevent burnout.
- Engage in self care. When you fly on airplanes and flight attendants go over the oxygen masks, they always tell you to “put on your mask before you put on those of others.” This is a great metaphor for how we need to take care of ourselves so that we can take care of others. In fact taking time for yourself is not a selfish task-- it’s quite selfless! Protected time to focus on your own needs will keep you healthy for the long run-- this is a marathon, not a sprint.
- Help-seeking behaviors are signs of healthy health professionals. I like to tell my patients that seeking help and showing emotion are signs of strength, not weakness. This can be hard to hear, especially as stereotypically male behavior in the United States is to “be tough/strong.” But if we want to be healthy health professionals, shouldn’t we be “practicing what we preach” by seeking care ourselves when we need it? That includes seeking mental health services every bit as much as seeking physical health services.
- We are social creatures because we’re mammals. By definition humans are mammals. That means we crave social contact, enjoy being in communities of other humans, and like physical touch (contrast this to reptiles for example). So, let’s not try to deny our biology. At the same time, we are also smart mammals (I won’t speculate on which mammals are the least smart). So, let’s use our human brains and our mammalian instincts in concert to do socializing in healthy ways, both for us individually and for the entire human race.
Take especially good care of yourselves and each other during the stress of medical school (and beyond).