Your daily life is your temple and your religion. When you enter into it take with you your all . – Khalil Gibran
Hi everyone! These days I’m finishing up my last block of second year while studying for boards. While my “dedicated” 6-week board study period won’t start until May 1st, I am still trying to get through all of the Step 1 material at least once before really diving in. Being in the midst of a crazy study schedule, it’s easy to get stressed without even realizing the toll your body and mind take.
Self care is such an integral part of success but it is often overlooked. Learning to recognize high-stress levels and managing how you deal with it is a skill you learn only with experience. It’s all about knowing what works for you. So here are some tips on stress relief, prevention, and management especially for stressed-out students like myself!
In our busy lives it is incredibly easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Our exams and goals consume our thoughts, and though they are essential on our path to academic / career success, they are part of a bigger whole. And nothing is more essential to that “whole” than the integrity of our inner peace. Mindfulness is a state of being present and calmly accepting life as it comes while remaining conscious and aware. Stress is a motivating factor if directed appropriately. As students it is important to acknowledge when we are stressed, and be able to direct that energy in a positive way. Whether that means re-organizing your study schedule or taking a day off, the main goal should be to take care of yourself holistically.
Setting up your study space to include as few distractions as possible is so important. That means putting your phone or other entertainment outlets out of reach, turned off, or in another room entirely. Minimizing distractions helps you study more efficiently and prevents you from wasting time that will amount to stress in the form of extra studying or re-reading something you didn’t focus on the first time around.
Your physical location is also a big factor. I personally don’t like to study at the library and only rarely do so. Nevertheless, regardless of where I am – library or home study space – I make sure I have natural lighting near a window. Feeling “connected” to the outside world relaxes me and reduces my anxiety while spending countless hours confined to my desk!
In terms of auditory stimulation I have found two wonderful resources. When I’m doing my “normal” intensity studying I like to listen to the sound of rain, since even classical music distracts me. I’ve used ambient mood sounds since undergrad and it really works for me.
When I’m really focusing, like when I’m going through practice questions, I like to block out all sound using ear plugs. This is to simulate the conditions of taking Step 1 (or the MCAT) where noise-canceling devices are offered.
More often than I’d like to admit I catch myself feeling what I would describe as “clouded.” And then I realize I’m not breathing properly. Breathing is something we do all day everyday, but did you know that it is one of our – if not the most – potent tools against stress? Focused breathing elicits what The American Institute of Stress calls the “Relaxation Response.” This is described as a state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress including: decreased heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate and muscle tension. My favorite is the 4-7-8 exercise, especially before bed when I’m trying to quiet my thoughts (Check it out on google!).
We all know that exercise is vital to our health and well-being. On average you should be doing active, cardiovascular exercise for 150 minutes a week for maintenance of muscle mass and cardiovascular function. Engaging in exercises that you genuinely enjoy is key to maintaining a sustainable exercise regimen. Exercise can also be a wonderful source of stress relief, management and prevention! Our bodies are beautifully intricate machines that should be taken care of in order to function optimally. With my busy schedule I have found that studying while exercising is an excellent use of my time. Not only is it efficient but it actually helps me learn and retain things longer.
I podcast my school lectures or watch Pathoma lectures on my iPad while working out on my elliptical for around 60 minutes Monday – Friday. Some days I don’t have to watch any lectures and I get to treat myself to Netflix while working out! If I had more time on my hands I would probably go to a few classes at the gym but since I don’t, this works for me and keeps me fit. It’s all about what works for you! Remember your body will only help you if you take care of it. Exercising meaningfully and regularly helps bring nutrients and oxygen to your brain and other organs, increases energy levels, and pushes you to make healthier choices everyday.
If you’re ever feeling sluggish or just not well in general, chances are you’re dehydrated. Ensuring that you’re drinking enough water is vital to maintaining proper perfusion of your tissues – especially your brain! It will help you function better and think more clearly. Most of all, it will help you feel good and increase overall performance. Cutting out all non-water beverages is a great strategy. I’m not a coffee drinker myself but many students are. I personally drink lots…and lots, of green tea. But drinks like coffee and green tea contain caffeine, which is a diuretic (causes your body to lose water). One way to curb this is to drink an equivalent amount of water for every amount of coffee / tea on top of your required water intake for the day.
Your body functions only as well as the quality of food you nourish it with. I’ve always known that nutrition is the biggest part of maintaining a healthy body but it became even clearer after my first year of med school where I spent countless hours working on my group’s cadaver. I truly realized that the human body is strong, yet fragile. And it was absolutely astonishing to visualize the processed junk we put through our bodies expecting our tissues to bear such a burden without any consequences. Be mindful of the food you are putting in your body. Try not to eat things that are refined or have been extensively processed. I try to eat a more plant-based diet, high in protein, and low in saturated fats.
I like to spend time with my husband whenever I can. Sometimes I’ll even take a day off from studying to hang out with him. He’s my best friend and spending time with him is always a stress reliever. I also get to vent about what’s bothering me or listen to him tell me about what he’s stressed about. Spending quality time with the one you love is a great way to get away from the stresses of studying and reminds you of what’s really important in life!
Above all, preventing, relieving and managing stress is about knowing your limits. If you are feeling stressed, take a step back and assess what you could be doing to improve your situation or mindset so that you can deal with the stressful factors in a more meaningful, positive way. It’s all about giving yourself the best possible chance both physically and mentally.