Anne Vinsel, MS, MFA


January 28, 2009

I have failed exams more than once, even when I know the material, because I get so nervous that I can't perform well. I don't want to take anxiety medication, but how do I know if I need it?

Response from Anne Vinsel, MS, MFA
Project Administrator, University of Utah School of Medicine, Salt Lake City, Utah

In medicine, people often think that they need to come up with all of the answers themselves. I can't tell you how many physicians I've known who used to treat themselves before this was declared unethical.

The good news is that you don't have to know if your level of anxiety warrants medication. Take yourself to an expert physician in the field (typically psychiatry), and be honest with him or her, then let the doctor decide if a trial of drugs is recommended. If you explain your situation fully, you will have done your job. Then, follow the doctor's advice, regardless of what you think about anxiety medication in general. You sound like you're quite stuck, and when that happens, it's time to stop doing the same thing over and over and try something else.

You may also need to get evaluated for a learning disability or some other cognitive processing problem that might be hampering your performance. Your anxiety now might be secondary to failing so often, and you might need to attack a more primary problem. But the first step is to find someone who has expertise in this area who can help you sort things out.

If medication is prescribed, keep an open mind about it. The fact that you're in a medical program suggests that you think medicine has potentially positive qualities, so why not for you? If you develop side effects, you can try another drug or get a different dosing schedule. Anxiety medications work wonderfully well for some people and not very well for others, but you won't know if they work for you unless you try them (as long as they are prescribed).

But please, don't just keep doing the same things that haven't been helpful up to this point. Seek out help and be ready to do things differently.


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