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So, you’ve made it. You’ve aced dozens of prerequisite credits, completed hundreds of hours of volunteering, shadowed myriad specialties, taken the MCAT, and convinced a whole admissions panel that you are worthy of one of their highly coveted seats. The only thing left to do is the actual thing to which you’ve dedicated the last several years of your life-become a physician. But, if you’re reading this, then you’re probably interested in how to succeed in medical school without turning into a burnt-out robot by the end of your first semester (it’s possible, don’t worry!) Here are my 10 tips for maintaining your mental health and well-being in med school:
1. Routine is Everything
You are about to ask your brain to do a crazy thing. Giving it a predictable schedule will go a long way towards succeeding while avoiding constant mental fatigue. If you’ve ever been around a toddler, you know how easily things can derail when a schedule is abandoned. Avoid a meltdown. Determine if you’re a morning or evening person, then set daily wake-up alarms, stop-studying alarms, and bedtime alarms [and actually stick to them!].
Building off number 1, get at least 7.5 hours of sleep every night. An extra hour of studying is NOT worth that extra hour of sleep. There will come a time in the late evening when you reach a point of diminishing returns. You need to be alert and firing on all cylinders for 10-12 hours of studying each day, so make sure you prepare your brain by giving it time to rest (and process all of that information you just worked so hard to learn!).
3. Stay Active
Move every day. It can be a brisk 20 min walk through your neighborhood, a 28 min Kayla Itsines workout in your living room, or 60 minutes of weight lifting. Just move. Most of your didactic year can be completed asynchronously, meaning lectures are recorded and can be viewed remotely shortly after they occur. A huge portion of my class never attended live lectures and instead spent their entire day at their desk at home. Your brain and your body will thank you for getting your heart rate up.
No phone in your study space. Whether that’s your bedroom, den, kitchen table, favorite coffee shop, or library cubby, leave it in another room, your car, or with your roommate. Looking at your phone, even for a ‘quick check,’ can pull you out of study mode (and potentially into a deep dark hole that will swallow your valuable time). Additionally, constantly switching between tasks can be really taxing on the brain.
5. Go Old School
Get an alarm clock. Not your phone or your Apple Watch. One of those old-fashioned things that just tells the time and tells you when to wake up. The goal here is to get your tech out of your bedroom when you’re getting into bed. No doom scrolling; you need every minute of sleep. No suppressing melatonin by staring at a screen; you need complete, rich sleep to consolidate all of that new information. I personally swear by the Phillips SmartSleep. It gently increases a glowing light and sounds from nature. Note: if you’re someone who needs to be hit with a wrecking ball to wake up, you may need to invest in something a little more terrorizing, like something that rings loudly like a school bell.
6. Share Your Space
Live with a classmate. There is something so powerful about shared experience. Suffering together makes things just a little less treacherous. Plus, you’ll appreciate the random venting sessions as you pass in the kitchen or sneak a study break together in the living room. Yes, you can get these things from classmates while at the library or after class, but it’s good to see another human during the day (instead of just the wall behind your desk).
7. Fuel Your Mind and Body
Eat like you’re preparing for a competition. Fuel your body with foods that work with you towards your goals, rather than things that are easy to grab. You will feel the difference in your ability to focus when well-fueled vs. when you’re running on coffee and carbs. Take 4 hours out of your Sunday grocery shop, and crank out all of your meals for the week. Make it fun by blasting some music and inviting your roommate to join in.
Better yet, try a meal delivery service like Trifecta, and have a wide variety of prepackaged meals including Balanced, Keto, Vegetarian, or Vegan delivered to your doorstep so you can focus on yourself and your studies.
8. Ease Up on the Joe
Easy on the caffeine. Contrary to what you may read out here on the internet, you don’t need to drink 4 cups of coffee each day to do well in med school. I fluctuated between 1 cup a day and zero. If you have your routine down and your sleep hygiene is in good order, your body should be able to function as designed and provide you with plenty of alertness and attention. Plus, you don’t want to be jittery, constantly breaking focus to go to the bathroom, staring at the ceiling when you should be asleep, and spending all of your fun money at Dunkin.
9. Get a Hobby
Find a hobby that has nothing to do with medicine. Yes, your life will revolve around school, but you’re still a person with an identity other than ‘student,’ and variety can help prevent burnout. Examples include painting, creative writing, rock climbing, etc. Whatever you choose, your outlet should act as a decompressant for stress, so make it fun.
10. Find a Community Outside of Medicine
Find a community outside of medicine. For me, this was my gym and the friends I made there. I cannot understate the importance of talking about something other than school! It’s a good reminder that the real world is still happening, and being around less stressed people is very grounding.
I hope you benefit from at least a few of these suggestions. Everyone’s experience will differ, but it’s important to remember that you will come out the other side, and your experience will be a lot more pleasant if you take time along the way to stay well and care for yourself.