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Self-Care in Medical Education

  • by Lauren Claus
  • Apr 12, 2022
Self-care is an individualized process of promoting one’s internal wellness. It  involves discovering one’s personal self-care activities, reducing stressors, maintaining realistic expectations and pursuing gratitude. We share four ways to implement self-care into busy experiences as a medical student or clinician.

Many promote the same brand of self-care, which includes applying a face mask, eating ice cream, and watching hours of television while lying on your bed. We tend to forget that self-care is an internal process and the activities that authentically foster self-care vary widely. Discover your personal form of self-care, so you can approach your medical education and career with confidence and clarity.You will be amazed by what the power of self-care can enable you to accomplish. 

Define Self-Care for Yourself

If you haven’t considered what self-care is for you, think about times when you felt stress-free, happy and fully immersed in the moment. Where were you? What were you doing, and who were you with?

Pursuing similar experiences is likely to foster positive emotions and can become an effective form of self-care. You may need to think creatively; if you are most happy while on week-long camping trips, think of how to replicate that experience in smaller doses.

Try:

  • • Taking a ten minute walk
  • • Reconnecting with the friends who organize the camping trips
  • • Studying in a park instead of a library

Self-care does not need to be a solitary endeavor. Some people find that they can recharge their mental wellness by reconnecting with others. Also, helping someone else – by giving a lonely family member a phone call, sending a nice text to a stressed friend, or buying little something at the store for a roommate – often helps you feel at peace with yourself and forget about your own to-do list for a moment. You can return to your own responsibilities with renewed energy and perspective.

Reduce Unnecessary Stressors

Self-care is not just about inserting positive experiences into your day. It also involves reducing negative influences to allow you to maintain the wellness you gain from positive experiences.

  • • If unanswered emails bother you during or after a weekend camping trip, answer them before you leave.
  • • If the clutter in your apartment distracts you during a planned evening study session, do your laundry and tidy up your kitchen before you go ice-skating with a friend for the afternoon.

You’ll also enjoy any activity more if you know you did all the chores already! Sending a message that’s been sitting there for a while, creating a study plan for the eventual Step 1 exam that is hanging over your head, or finishing up a pesky assignment may all be ways to pursue self-care by soothing lingering or extraneous anxieties. Check out my recent blog post on reducing test taking anxiety here.

Maintain Realistic Expectations

You can’t remove all worries, challenges or missteps from your life. Some worry is inevitable, and a small amount of it can actually be a motivating force that encourages you to work on a project or study for an exam. The goal of self-care is to help you gain a comfortable perspective about your daily successes and failures.

Discover your personal form of self-care, so you can approach your medical education and career with confidence and clarity.You will be amazed by what the power of self-care can enable you to accomplish. 

Whenever you think you have not succeeded at something, remind yourself that it is okay to not be perfect. Self-care involves accepting yourself, even if you don’t want to repeat a behavior and instead want to improve. Celebrate every victory, as little or as large as it is.Take a few moments  just to sit and remember that you are in the middle of a wonderful but very challenging field of medicine. No one has a career in medicine without experiencing failure some time. Learn from your mistakes, and grow as a professional.

Pursue Gratitude

You don’t necessarily need to sit and write out a list of items that you are grateful for (although that cliched exercise can be quite helpful). Anytime you use something throughout the day (coffee grounds, soap, a car), briefly remind yourself to be grateful by picturing your life without that magical smell of coffee in the morning or by remembering how happy and excited you were when you first bought that new car. Commercial approaches to wellness are so pervasive because their central premise is correct: nice things help people temporarily feel better. At the same time, there is no need to buy new things all the time to improve your mood; just make sure to enjoy the things you have every day, and don’t take them for granted. You can get  an even more potent form of gratitude by reflecting on and valuing the intangibles in your life that are dear to you, such as your relationships with others.

No one has a career in medicine without experiencing failure some time. Learn from your mistakes, and grow as a professional.

Adapt to Busy Times to Overcome Them

Here are some tips I use to stay positive and productive during busy times:

Consistently set aside some time for self-care

Although medical education and professional responsibilities tend to occupy much of your day, most activities that improve wellness require only five or ten minutes. When you’re pressed for time, try meditating, taking a quick walk, listening to a favorite song or briefly texting with a friend.

Focus on the self-care activities that have long-lasting wellness benefits

Although many experiences feel good in the moment, activities that release endorphins (such as exercise) or significantly affect your daily functioning (such as sleeping) have more powerful benefits. Make them a priority when you have limited time and energy to devote to self-care.

Make necessary tasks more pleasant

You may not be able to allocate large chunks of time for self-care during your dedicated period of Step 1 studying or during a busy rotation in medical school. Instead, try to insert elements of self-care into required tasks.

Treat yourself to a favorite dessert when you’re studying on a Friday night or set aside a few moments to practice deep breathing exercises while waiting for rounds to start on the Internal Medicine service.

Define small choices as self-care instead of believing that your entire daily routine is completely out of your control. This way you will stay centered even when your daily life does not seem amenable to personal wellness. 

Write a list of problems and an action plan

By solving problems instead of letting them simmer, you can prevent anxieties and worries before they start to interfere with your self-care routine and mental peace.

Self-care is not selfish.

Actually, self-care is necessary in your medical education and career in order to become the most centered and competent version of yourself. By following the above tips and suggestions, and adapting them to suit your individual needs, you can be an outstanding medical student and clinician.