The Journey of Medical Student Burnout

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In medical school, a staggering number of students encounter burnout—characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a dwindling sense of personal accomplishment.

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Elise Kao, University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville

As someone who has navigated this intense voyage, I have come to understand that both the descent into burnout and the climb towards resilience are deeply personal and multifaceted experiences.

For me, burnout began early in my training during my first year of medical school. It stemmed from what felt like the endless, difficult exams and the ocean of information we forced our brains to absorb. The emotional exhaustion I felt was tangible and brittle, like a piece of plain thin toast.

I combatted this early burnout through many methods. I had the privilege of having wonderful classmates and an incredible group of friends to share the medical school journey. Community engagement helped reinvigorate my love for my local community while joining my class running group and participating in hot yoga provided me with healthy stress outlets. Cultivating these passions were not only distractions, but solidified my sense of purpose and eased the emotional exhaustion.

Medical school is sometimes described like running a marathon. It can feel like mentally running non-stop for four years. If you try to look up to see the finish line, the sheer distance can be overwhelming.

During my second year of medical school, I began building more resilience through therapy and reframing my mindset. By reframing medical school as a series of meaningful steps rather than an interminable marathon, I was able to realign the knowledge I was acquiring with the real-world impact it would have on my future patients. This internal reframing helped decrease the insidious depersonalization that was taking root.

The pinnacle of burnout for many medical students, me included, was the preparation for Step 1. It was during this time that my sense of personal achievement threatened to fade. I often wondered, when did my dream of becoming a physician become a burden? At that time, I realized I needed to use the skills I acquired and incorporate the activities that helped me previously to maintain my resilience and sustain me.  I would repeat a mantra that I had learned from my yoga instructor: “You can do hard things.” With this phrase firmly embedded in my mind, I moved into my third year where I finally began doing what I truly love - establishing relationships with patients and joining them in their medical journeys. My friends, family, mentors, and counselor were all huge support systems; however, at the end of every day, I was the one to make the choice to persevere and continue moving forward.

Burnout is a collective mountain that we climb as part of the medical community. Whatever stage of the journey you may be at, if you are experiencing burnout, you are not alone. Support is available and building resilience is possible. There are various services and resources to help. Counseling, mentoring, medical, and peer services can help you rediscover your motivation, reconnect with the moment, and build emotional strength. It is within your power to forge ahead in the face of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and diminishing personal achievement.  We need to embrace our medical journey – one that is rich with passion, resilience, and perseverance.

As I continue my medical education journey, I remind myself of the following:

  • It’s important to cultivate my passions through community engagement, friendships, family, exercise, and hobbies.
  • I can reframe my perspectives and build resilience by revisiting why I chose this field and thinking about all those I will be helping.
  • It’s okay to take a step back, breathe, and turn to counseling and support groups.
  • Don’t forget perseverance; I can do hard things.

For immediate assistance, national helplines like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) and crisis text lines (text "HELLO" to 741741) are available.

Elise Kao is a medical student attending the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville. Elise previously worked as a registered dietitian and enjoys exploring the crossroads between mental and physical health. In her free time, she practices hot yoga, propagates plants, and drinks lots of coffee!

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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.