Self-Care: The Foundation to Personal Success in Medical School

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Nurture the Basics! Treat Yourself! Stay Connected!

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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.

Headshot Addys Karunaratnex.jpg

Addys Karunaratne earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1990. She currently works at the University of Miami providing individual counseling and psychoeducational groups with medical and graduate students.

Dr. Hilit F. Mechaber

Dr. Hilit F. Mechaber is an Associate Professor of Medicine and Associate Dean for Student Services at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, where she creates and oversees programs and resources available for all areas of medical student support and career guidance. Her professional niche is in the area of career development and work-life integration, and she participates as a core member of the generalist education in medicine faculty.

When it comes to a successful journey through medical school, there is no one-size-fits-all method. However, there do seem to be certain coping strategies that make the journey smoother. Self-care, the commitment one makes to regularly engaging in activities to promote physical and emotional health, is at the heart of building resiliency. Much has been said in recent years about wellness and the importance of self-care.

Why is it that medical students perceive taking care of themselves as a luxury which can often be skipped, overlooked, or ignored? Perhaps it’s easier for them to make excuses or blame lack of time. Often, students cite the need for more time to study, or express feeling guilty for devoting even one minute less to academic endeavors. They also may lack role modeling from physicians, professors, and administrators, who may also appear to value work over time for self-care. Students may be learning in environments where “wellness” is discussed or even explicitly integrated within their medical school curricula, yet the actual behavior modeling may be missing from those more senior who could be setting the example. On the contrary, and often influenced by generational differences, a student’s openness about the desire for self-care may even be mocked or ridiculed.

Let’s make a commitment to changing the mindset about and culture towards self-care for medical students.

Nurture the basics!

Begin with building a foundation which includes eating well, good sleep, hygiene, and regular exercise. Skipping meals, eating mostly fast food, or living on snacks is a recipe for poor concentration and lack of energy. Instead, plan and make several meals at a time, using the meal prep method to save time.

Freeze portions of food for consumption at a later date. There is nothing more rewarding than opening up the freezer to find ready-made and healthy options at your fingertips. Similarly, a commitment to getting high-quality sleep also takes planning. Make sure to provide enough time to wind down before bedtime, including disconnecting from technology at least one hour before turning in for the night.

Other strategies include limiting caffeine, having a regular bedtime, and avoiding naps. Lastly, be creative with movement. Take a walk during a study break, join a group exercise class, or join a sports club.

Treat yourself!

Next, treat yourself to an enjoyable activity every day. You deserve it and the reward will be worth the wait. We can’t always wait for the long-anticipated trip home or the next great vacation to keep us motivated. Reading for fun, watching a favorite television show, or playing a video game are examples of activities that can provide a mental break from the stress of the daily grind.

Stay connected!

Finally, make time to connect with friends and family. Engaging socially provides a way to create distance between ourselves and the demands of medical school, providing a recharge for the challenges ahead.

Simple steps can go a long way toward improving medical student wellness. The first step is to recognize the need for self-care, and it is often the hardest one to initiate. You are studying to become a future healer. You must care for yourselves so you can take even greater care of others.

Addys Karunaratne, PhD
Clinical Psychologist
University of Miami Miller School of Medicine

Hilit F. Mechaber, MD
Associate Dean for Student Services
University of Miami Miller School of Medicine

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