Overwhelmed? Join the Club

Alex Millman, MD


June 11, 2012


I just started medical school and am totally overwhelmed. How can I cope with this feeling?

Response from Alex Millman, MD
Resident Physician, University of California, San Francisco

When you start medical school, you take the first step in a journey towards a profession. As a form of professional training, medical school is designed to provide learners from varied backgrounds with the skills and knowledge to enter into the medical profession. This process also demands new sacrifices. While medical school may represent the culmination of starting your professional dream, the day-to-day reality can seem far removed from the aspiration.

For most students, starting medical training involves disrupting life's routine, whether that means moving to a new city, changes in finances, or redefining oneself as a student again. Everyone has to adjust to a host of concurrent novel experiences. Some find this adjustment easier than others -- or at least they appear to adjust more easily.

The most important part of handling these changes is realizing that you are not alone. Everyone needs to adjust. This may require different lengths of time depending on the individual.

The workload for medical school can be grueling and does not allow much time for reflection or other activities. Nevertheless, take time to participate in activities or hobbies that are important to you, especially if they are healthy outlets for stress.

One key to adapting to life's changes or handling stressful events is taking time to "disconnect" and do something meaningful for yourself. Keep in mind that although medical school can seem all-encompassing, it is just one part of your life.

In addition, talk to your support network of family, friends, and especially your new classmates. Your medical school friends are facing the same issues as you are and may be able to offer helpful advice on coping with the adjustment. Although you might feel that studying is endless, you should take the night or weekend off to spend time with your support network and live your life. These decompression periods are essential for your success as a medical student and will be needed for navigating future transitions in work and life.

Starting medical school may affect your mental and physical well-being. Behavioral science has examined links between stressful life events and illness. For example, the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, or Holme and Rahe Stress Scale, is based on research supporting a link between stressful life events -- such as a change in residence or change in responsibilities at work -- and illness.[1]

If you feel that medical school is overwhelming to the point where it negatively affects your daily life, or if you're experiencing depression, ask for help and seek professional guidance. Many medical schools have free and confidential assistance programs available for people facing difficulties in the transition or for other mental health issues.


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