Ending the Cycle of Overachieving

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All my life I have been an “overachiever.” In my small hometown, I was the biggest fish in a small pond. However, when I got to medical school, I realized how many other big fish there are as your pond gets bigger.

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Carson Collins, University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville, Class of 2025

Driven by my ego and underlying desire for the approval of others, I began working as hard as I possibly could. Competing to get perfect grades, to be involved in “enough” prestigious activities, to have the most research. I pushed myself to my limits trying to be the winner of some fake contest that I created. I stopped sleeping, I could not exercise, my diet was poor, because self-care seemed like a “waste of time.” I had frequent emotional outbursts; I was struggling to maintain relationships with my friends and family. I did not like who I had become, and I worried that no one else would either.

As a strong proponent of lifestyle medicine, the first thing I did was try to increase my physical activity. I purchased a second-hand treadmill and began walking for 30-minutes to an hour each day while doing reviewing flashcards. I felt this was a good balance and didn’t take too much time away from studying. I continued this through my STEP 1 dedicated study period and truly believe it is one of the things that kept me sane.

I also started therapy and began to discuss all the worries and thoughts that were consuming me, and gradually, they no longer felt as daunting. I realized that my constant catastrophizing was a waste of my energy, and that life would be okay even if I was not number one in the class or matched my dream specialty at the most prestigious program. I realized that all of that was not what was most important to me in life.

The third step I took was reaching out to my doctor. While the exercising and therapy helped me physically, and did decrease my anxiety, I was still significantly depressed due to what I felt was the mundanity of my life. Prior to my medication, I felt I was living life on “hard mode.” I thought to myself, “I am in medical school, I should be able to control my mental health.” But I could not, and I realized that is okay. After starting medication, my world became brighter, the intrusive thoughts quieted, and the days didn’t seem so bleak. Sure, my routine didn’t change very much, but I had the energy and foresight to power through to better days.

I found my true remedy for both my physical and mental health during my clinical rotations in third year. I started going to yoga classes and I soon realized how much I needed them. Yoga provided me with one free hour each day where I could disconnect from my mind and listen to my body. Taking this time each day made me realize that there was more time I could give myself and still be successful. I made more time for the things and the people who are important to me. I began finding light in the darkness.

When I entered medical school, I heard how important balance is. But for me, and many others, finding balance is easier said than done. I wish I could go back to my first- and second-year self and tell her to live a little. While I was successful, I think about what guilt-free fun I could have had, and what I could have achieved if I had given my mind and body the breaks they so desperately needed. If you are a medical student struggling with feeling anxious, depressed, alone, or “just over it”, I encourage you to reach out to the same resources that you would give to a patient that was in your place. Reach out to school support staff, therapists, physicians, hot lines, and loved ones. Find things that bring you joy daily. Success is not worth risking your life or your mental health, and if you continue to ignore your own needs for the sake of your performance, you just might not be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Carson Collins is a third-year medical student at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville. She graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2021 with a Bachelor of Science in Public Health. 

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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.