Medical school, in my own opinion, is one of the more stressful experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
All the time that goes in to staying on top of studies, the commitment and responsibility involved in getting through classes and exams, adds up.
And this is coming from someone who had a life before becoming a medical student after 30.
Anyway, you probably want to find out why med school is stressful right?
So here are my 3 main reasons:
And if that sounds simplistic, that’s because it is.
So, I’ll dive more into the juicy details below.
Why Medical School Is Stressful: Before We Begin
First, you have to take what I’m about to write with a pinch of salt.
My perspective on med school is based on my role as an international student.
Something that puts me at a greater distance from my family who are more than 3000 km away.
So maybe med school is less stressful the closer you are to supportive friends and family.
But that’s just a theory.
I’m sure there are an equal amount of stressors in other medical students’ lives also!
Why Is Med School So Stressful: 3 Major Reasons
Here’s why I think med school’s so stressful…
Studying medicine, given the length of most programs and the fees of individual schools is expensive. Most U.S. based students have to take out huge loans to cover the cost of their study.
The average graduate debt, according to Credible.com, is around $230,000.
Students outside of the U.S. (like myself and other international students) face a similar situation.
Living costs and private school fees aren’t cheap. Thinking about them puts a serious toll on your mental health.
Medical degrees are longer than your average University degree. They take anything from four to six years to complete.
Knowing you’ll be out of the job market for that time (and be spending money rather than earning it) is something that can seriously hurt.
Especially when you see non-medical peers go out into the world, start families, buy houses etc, while you’re still stuck in school training and trying to pass exams.
Then there’s the issue of free time in med school. That’s not exactly easy to come by either.
I already mentioned the physical distance that comes with being a med student far from home. Another typical stressor is the emotional distance that comes with being a student.
Especially one embroiled in an intensive full-time study schedule.
Personal relationships, those with friends and family etc that are the most likely to keep us sane, become challenging to maintain.
The bubble of med school – and all the time and days spent with colleagues, patients and other doctors – is hard to break out from.
Personally, I always find the transition back into full time study the hardest aspect of med school life.
Summers (not all med students get them) bring a nice break and the chance to spend time with family and friends. As well as (temporary) respite from many of the stressors outlined above.
The pit in my stomach before the start of each semester? Not exactly palpable. But anxiety is running high!
Causes of Stress In Medical Students: What Makes Matters Worse?
After identifying the biggest stressors of med school, let’s talk about how med students can make matters even worse.
Here’s my opinion on how these problems get aggravated:
Poor Habits And Organisation
Things become worse with poor habits and organisation.
The volume of material to learn combined with the number of exams you need to pass is huge.
Without effective study strategies and the ability to be consistent with your schedule, youll run the risk of either burning out or failing.
Not Understanding That Quality Hours = Results
There’s nothing inherently difficult about mastering the concepts of medicine.
The whole thing is about the hours you put in more than anything.
But you’ll need quality hours for the best results.
- Understanding what’s worth your attention and why, as well as knowing what subjects, classes or lectures to prioritise
- Asking students in the years ahead of you for their own perspective on how best to plan
That last point will you the most relevant information about particular examiners or professors too.
So that you know what their expectations are of you ahead of time.
How To Deal With Stress in Medical School
There are many approaches to handling stress in medical school. What’s effective for one person might not work for the another.
Personally speaking, exercise is the big one for me.
As well as having some kind of creative or intellectual outlet outside of medicine (like a website or other work-related projects).
Here are six other good ideas:
- Sports: badminton, football, tennis, triathlon; these are just some of the sports several of my friends and colleagues participate in on a weekly basis to help blow off steam. Finding clubs to participate in brings a social element to sport too. As well as a chance to meet people outside of school so you don’t have to keep having the same repetitive conversations!
- Games: Board games, role playing games and video games. All are useful past-times that can help students relax and escape into another world for a while. Video games can be tricky to manage though due to their addictive nature (just ask my PUBG Mobile crew).
- Reading/podcasts: General reading (my housemate enjoys a lot of fantasy fiction) is another way to kick back. I also love to listen to non-medical related podcasts (Joe Rogan, Jocko Podcast etc.) on my way walking to and from hospital as a way to chill before the real work starts.
- Mindfulness: Yoga and meditation are big ones here. I’ve dabbled with the first one but have a lot of experience with the latter. When the overwhelm and anxiety really ramps up, 10-15 minutes sitting silently, watching my breath, always helps calm the internal chatter.
- Clubs: sometimes you just have to go out and hit the beers/cocktails.
- Social meet-ups: take advantage of any University-run social events or meets to get out and introduce yourself to new people. Nothing going on? Start something small yourself.
Obviously the key with each is to strike a balance.
Too much of anything can tip the scales unfavourably.
You don’t want to spend more time in school, defer a year or resit exams. Not if you can help it!
What About Mental Health In Medical Students?
Your mental health is important to keep an eye on med school.
According to the American Medical Student Association (AMSA), one third of medical students suffer some form of depression at some time during their studies.
Studying away from home or in a foreign country, like myself and many of my colleagues, could raise that statistic.
How To Prevent Burnout In Medical School
The best way we can prevent burnout is to look out for one another on our journey to becoming doctors.
That means checking in with colleagues, regularly asking if there’s anything you can help with and generally just being there to listen when someone feels like talking.
One thing I’d personally like to see more of is a general acceptance from those around me that being stressed or not feeling good in med school is OK.
The more I talk about my own feelings of loneliness, isolation etc, the easier things generally get.
I hope others can maybe reach out to me more if and when they’re feeling this way.
How Can I Be Happy in Medical School?
I’m not sure there’s any reliable solution, just as there is in life, to be 100% happy. The emotion itself is too complex to fully be captured.
There are a few things that could help with happiness though:
- Helping others as much as possible
- Remaining focused only on the things in your control
- Learning to take set-backs in your stride
Of course none of these can reliably lead to happiness each and every time.
What works best for me though is to try and take each day as it comes.
And trying not to think, all the time, about all the work and all the years left in front of me.
Other things that can help make the journey more positive include having good friends and teachers around.
And recognizing that stress largely comes down to how we decide to look at things.
So while there’s giving into the feeling and hating every moment, there’s also the choice to welcome the stress, stop fearing it and learning to love the process instead.
Sometimes short-term thinking, rather than dreaming of the end result, is the best way to make it through med school as happy as possible.
That’s what the logical side of me says anyway.
How Stressful Is Med School: Final Thoughts
How stressful we find med school is dependent on our own outlook.
While there are many things that can actively cause stress, there are many ways of dealing with it too.
Perhaps the most important thing is to remember that we’re all in this together, moving toward the same goal.
Hopefully the stress will all be worth it in the end.
If you enjoyed this post, you may find the following articles useful:
- Is It Normal To Have Doubts About Medical School?
- 4 Best Self-Help Books For Medical Students (Break Out From Imposter Syndrome)
- 6 Major Questions To Ask Before Quitting Med School
Image Credit: Tim Gouw at Pexels.
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.