In my final year of medical school, I decided to work harder than I ever did. It was now or never - I wanted to make my final year the best I’d ever done at university. In order to achieve that goal, I threw myself into taking on teaching roles, research and publication opportunities, leadership roles and even a postgraduate certification. On top of all that, I was still juggling my final year academic commitments, exams and dealing with the uncertainty stemming from irregular clinical placements.
As to be expected, the past 9 months have been difficult, to say the least. Although I did enjoy the process, I also suffered from a lack of sleep, mini breakdowns, mood swings and fluctuating weight changes. This took a toll on my mental well-being and relationships, but I kept pushing forwards as I placed everything but myself as priority.
14 high-stake exams, a few posters and publications and months of mental agony later, I finally felt the weight of everything and broke down and cried after my final year exams. Ironically, as a medical student, I had been taught to recognise signs of mental distress, and yet, it took me months and a big mental breakdown to realise the impact of true self-neglect over time.
I kept pushing forwards while placing everything but myself as priority.
As any medical professional would tell you, medicine is a competitive course - with limited opportunities and many interested applicants, the pressure to do more, and do better, can be overwhelming. However, it is crucial that we look after ourselves while doing so, and in this article, I’ve included some of the most important lessons I’ve learned over my years as a medical student.
1. Sleep is more important than you think
One thing I’ve learnt from consistently having 5-6 hours of sleep each day was that my performance during the day suffered greatly. I constantly felt tired and had headaches, which led to me not concentrating as much during hospitals or online lessons, then having to make up for all the lost time by studying hard at night. This became a vicious cycle of lack of sleep, followed by poor concentration during the day, leading to more time wasted at night to study.
Instead, I should have allowed myself to have a good night’s rest to recharge and be able to focus doing more work throughout the day. This would have allowed me to be more productive and have more time to juggle my other responsibilities, rather than having to struggle through the days half-awake and feeling sluggish.
2. Know your limits
Personally, I’ve always struggled with taking on too many roles and saying no. This year was no exception, and in the midst of it, I became overwhelmed with the sheer amount of work I had to complete. I found it hard to turn down work I knew I could not cope with, so I took them on with little to no regard for my own well-being.
Towards my exams however, I came to a realisation that it was okay for me to say no to tasks. As simple as this was, this became a huge game-changer for me as I could actually free up my time to take care of myself and re-prioritise everything.
3. Limit screen time and place an emphasis on being healthy!
This is especially relevant in our current pandemic. Chances are, you will experience screen fatigue from the daily online lessons, so it is even more essential that you limit your screen time outside of work or studies. As I was cooped up at home most of the time, I went out for evening walks every day which really helped to lift my mood and give my eyes a break from the harsh lights of my screen.
It isn’t a stretch to say that students living independently tend to eat quite poorly, so investing some time to eat well goes a long way for nourishment and developing better lifestyle habits. I found solace in cooking and eating well, and it easily became a huge highlight in my day-to-day life. After all, if we want our patients to adopt healthier lifestyles, there’s no better way to do that than to lead by example and do the same for ourselves!
4. Write your priorities down
When the to-do lists began getting longer and longer, it would become very overwhelming for me to decide what needed to be done first. Listing everything in order of importance helped me identify which task needed to be prioritised, and which could wait a little longer. This systematic approach allowed me to pick and choose what needed to be done, and ensured that I could stay on track with my tasks.
5. Spend time with your loved ones
No matter how introverted you are, humans are meant to be social creatures.
Having spent most of my final year in lockdown, I felt isolated from society and largely kept to myself. I convinced myself that exam season meant that I should spend most of my time studying, when all I was doing was neglecting my social needs. Once I started setting aside time to talk to my friends, I realised how a simple conversation could be such a mood booster. No matter how introverted you are, humans are meant to be social creatures, so taking a small amount of time to interact with the important people in your life will help your mental well-being.
Sometimes, when you get into the habit of spending time alone, you can unintentionally add to your stress by shouldering all your worries on your own. By spending time with others and sharing the things that are concerning you or stressing you out, they can help ease that weight off your shoulders. Additionally, when others know what you are having difficulty with, they can then support you through it better than they might have done if they had no idea what was going on.
All in all, though difficult, the lessons I learnt as a final year medical student during lockdown was enough for me to realise the importance of self-care. It is easy to forget about yourself when everything is given a high degree of importance, but remember that YOU are the most important thing in your life!
With this busy lifestyle, nobody else has the time or energy to be looking out for you - as such, your body needs you to make it your top priority. Without truly understanding and taking care of your own needs, you can’t expect yourself to be at your very best.