Balancing Act: Nurturing Self-Care Amidst the Intense Rigor of Medical School Academics

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Entering medical school marks the beginning of an exhilarating yet demanding journey toward a career in healthcare.

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Dr. Caryl Ann Tolchinsky

Amidst the rigors of academic pursuit, it's easy for medical students to overlook self-care. However, neglecting personal well-being can lead to burnout, impacting not only academic performance but also overall mental and physical health. Successfully navigating medical school requires a delicate balance between academics and self-care.

Firstly, time management stands as the cornerstone of achieving this equilibrium. Creating a structured schedule that allocates time for both study and self-care activities is vital. Setting realistic goals for each day helps in maintaining focus while ensuring there's ample time for relaxation and rejuvenation. When working with the NSU MD students, I utilize time management tools such as planners, calendars, or apps, which can assist in organizing tasks efficiently, leaving room for self-care rituals.

Prioritization is another crucial aspect. While excelling academically is paramount, it's equally important to recognize the significance of self-care in fostering resilience and preventing burnout. By prioritizing self-care alongside academic commitments, students can cultivate a balanced lifestyle conducive to both personal and professional growth. Madison Wilson, M3 at NSU MD affirms, “I’m grateful for the wellness activities offered at NSU MD. These events help me re-focus and ground myself during stressful periods in medical school and provide me with the opportunity for mental space from all my usual responsibilities.”

Integrating self-care practices into daily routines can yield profound benefits. Simple habits like regular exercise, adequate sleep, and nutritious eating are fundamental for sustaining physical and mental well-being. Engaging in hobbies or activities outside of medicine provides much-needed mental breaks, fostering creativity and reducing stress levels. Whether it's painting, playing a musical instrument, or running around a dog park, these activities nourish the soul and replenish emotional reserves. Francesca Kroll, M1 at NSU MD, appreciates that “NSU makes space for student wellness through various activities such as pet therapy and painting because it provides fulfilling stress relief and allows us to rest our minds. It also serves as a way for our class to come together and spend time prioritizing our mental health.”

Mindfulness and stress management techniques are invaluable tools for medical students. Practices such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or yoga can help alleviate stress, improve focus, and enhance overall resilience. Incorporating brief mindfulness sessions into study breaks or before bedtime can promote relaxation and mental clarity, ultimately boosting academic performance. At NSU MD, a wellness newsletter is disseminated each week with various recommendations for our medical students to focus on their well-being. It includes activities offered on campus that week, such as Friday meditation, rooftop yoga, pet-therapy or a painting class which focuses on healing and de-stressing. Luiza Palmieri Serrano, M2 at NSU MD believes that “wellness activities are incredibly beneficial for medical students. It can be challenging to carve out time for activities beyond academia and medicine. Wellness-focused events offer opportunities to engage with our peers and faculty in a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere. Among these activities, Healing Hues stands out as a personal favorite of mine. It provides a chance for individuals, regardless of their prior artistic endeavors, to explore their creativity alongside friends. That event was filled with laughter, fun, and a much-needed mental respite!”

Building a support network is also essential in navigating the challenges of medical school while prioritizing self-care. Surrounding oneself with peers, mentors, or mental health professionals who understand the demands of medical education can provide invaluable guidance and encouragement. Establishing connections with fellow students through study groups or extracurricular clubs and activities fosters a sense of camaraderie and solidarity, reminding students that they are not alone in their journey. Currently, our students are involved in a service-learning project, which allows them to work with a variety of other students both on and off campus. Rahul R, M2 at NSU MD thinks that “engaging in wellness activities promotes mental well-being by not only reducing stress but also providing an opportunity to bond with classmates and faculty. Whether it is therapy dogs or fun activities in the student lounge, these activities equip students and faculty with a balanced lifestyle and welcoming environment.”

Moreover, seeking professional help when needed is a sign of strength, not weakness. Many medical schools offer counseling services or mental health resources specifically tailored to the unique needs of medical students. Taking advantage of these resources can provide valuable coping strategies and support during challenging times.

Achieving balance between academics and self-care is imperative for the well-being and success of medical school students. By implementing effective time management strategies, prioritizing self-care, integrating healthy habits into daily routines, practicing mindfulness, and seeking support when needed, students can cultivate a holistic approach to their medical education journey. Remember, nurturing oneself is not a luxury but a necessity, ensuring future physicians enter the profession with resilience, compassion, and a commitment to both their patients and them.

Dr. Caryl Ann Tolchinsky is the Director of Student Success and Learning Excellence at Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Allopathic Medicine at Nova Southeastern University (NSU MD), working with medical school students in the areas of their academic success, educational and personal development. She provides assistance related to learning skills, study strategies, assessments, time management, and test preparation as well as oversees the Peer Assisted Learning Program. While writing her dissertation for her Ed.D, she discovered mediation and yoga, which are two practices she continues to use today for her mental and physical well-being. She is also on a Dragonboat team, loves Pilates and very long walks.

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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.