Feeling overwhelmed in medical school is completely normal. Given the vast amount of work in front of you, it’s hardly surprising. But there are a bunch of things you can do – mental tricks, self reminders, list building and more – that can help lessen that feeling.
Here we’ll take a look at the strategies I plan on incorporating, ahead of a busy fourth year, that could help you cope better. Let’s take a peek.
Understand You’re Not Alone
The first thing I want to tell you; you’re not alone. Plenty of people feel overwhelmed during medical school – despite their best efforts not to!
Because people often don’t like to talk about it, it’s hard to know what goes on behind the scenes. To some people, maybe given my status as a mature medical student, I’m sure I look an unshakeable fountain of confidence a lot of the time. But that’s really not the case.
The truth is? Even I feel intimidated and anxious many times during the year. Especially when I’m on the eve of going back at the start of every semester and wonder what’s ahead of me!
So take my public vulnerability here as solid proof. And recognise; if you are feeling the struggle, I’m fairly certain you’re not the only one. So reach out if you feel the need.
The same goes for your classmates and colleagues. Bring up your concerns and feelings to those you feel comfortable around. You’ll be surprised the number of people feeling similarly. And you can draw strength from each others honesty.
Take it Day to Day
One of the best ways to beat overwhelm, I’ve found, is to break things down step-by-step. That way the small tasks building up to the whole don’t look so insurmountable. And you know exactly what needs to be done.
This is why I advise medical students keep an on-going to-do list. I personally use a simple text file on my laptop – or a note-taking app like Evernote or Trello. This helps me keep on top of everything and ensures that I know what needs to be done next.
Simple organisational systems are really great too. As this video, using free Google tools, helps to show.
Basically find a system (colour-coded, symbols etc) that works for you. Preferably something you have access to on each of your devices. So you can look at it on the fly or while you’re in class.
Obviously you don’t want to cram these lists or planners with a whole bunch of things to do. That’ll only add to the problem (more on this next). But basic systems (like those outlined) can go a long way to wrestling back a sense of control in your otherwise hectic life.
Don’t Try to Do Everything
A big mistake I see a lot of med students making? Trying to do way too much.
It’s so easy to get burned out. Given all the hours of classes, hospital rounds and time spent preparing presentations, downtime is necessary if you’re to stay sane and in mental check. So make sure you pencil in time for that in any planner or to-do list.
This goes for health and exercise too. Regenerative activities that provide a necessary break while also strengthening your mind and resolve. Personally? I like to play football or hit Varna seafront and do some calisthenics. Sometimes even kick back with a bit of Fifa and smash my video-gaming friends.
The point is you have to find an outlet to relax. You can’t be in study-mode 24/7. It’s not sustainable in the long-run. And it doesn’t really bring you any kind of worthwhile edge.
Starting a medical school blog, just like this one, is another creative release too. Something I’ve missed in my first couple of years!
Fine-tune Your Study Strategy
Learning how to study medicine more effectively can make a huge difference in terms of how you experience overwhelm. Master the techniques and you’ll find the whole process much less stressful. Freeing up more time too.
Chances are what you’re doing right now is only compounding your worries. Slow down and understand you don’t need to do everything your course instructions say. And learn to prioritise, by thinking ahead, which courses are worth your time and why.
Some of the things you study – often the things that take the greatest amount of time – are the most low-yield aspects of medicine. Subjects that barely crop up in important medical licencing exams; and have even less to do with actually being a doctor.
Work out, by thinking ahead or asking older students, which things matter and why. Then prioritise accordingly. And put your maximum efforts into the big subjects, your anatomy, physiology, pharmacology etc, that are actually worth your time. And forget the required pre-reading.
Med school insiders make some really good additional points on this matter (and more) in this video below:
Trust the Process
I got this one from r/medicalschool on Reddit. But still really feel it’s important.
Oftentimes in med school you’ll get the impression things aren’t working. This goes for doubting the resources you’re using. Or new study techniques you’re testing.
You see others doing differently, getting results and rush to do the same. But this is counter productive. You don’t know what else they’re doing – other than what you’re observing – that might be working too.
Point being; it’s usually more complicated than what you see on the surface.
So here’s where I make the case for sticking to your plan a while. Trusting in the process. Keeping the faith long enough to see marked results or change and resisting the feeling to waver.
As one of my favourite internet personalities says; discipline equals freedom. But discipline also leads to reducing overwhelm too. As long as you hunker down and see it out.
Sometimes overwhelm comes from constant over-analysis. I know for me that can sometimes be the case.
Whenever I pick something – one single textbook, one single flashcard deck etc – and just go at it blindly for a while though? I always feel a lot better.
Time vs Talent
I’m not a big believer in innate talent driving people forward in medical school. Nor do I prescribe to the idea that intelligence is fixed.
Give me consistency and dedication over talented and unreliable every day of the week. Those that put in the time and do the work? Those that move the needle.
Anyone else is just talking a good game without actually playing one.
Putting in the time at med school is one clear way to feel less of the overwhelm. You’re in control. You know you’re doing the work. There’s nothing or nobody that can take that away from you.
Learn to put in the time by implementing some of the aforementioned tips. Manage your schedule. Break big tasks down. Have faith that the process will deliver an end result.
Rethink Your Grades
I’d argue grades, for a lot of people, are a big cause of worry in medical school. My best piece of advice when it comes down to them? Understand how little they matter.
You are not how well you score in a test. Most of the time they don’t even fairly represent if you know a subject either. Such is the factor of luck and circumstance.
Instead look at grades as one of many marks of progress. Something to aim for but never one to obsess over. And focus on other aspects of your life too; like empathy, relationships and other skills and traits that are crucial to becoming the best doctor you can be.
Think about what you’re doing to become better. Not what arbitrary score you (or your friends) have been assigned. That’s what ultimately matters in the broader journey of life.
Big Picture Thinking
Last but not least? Keep a sense of perspective. Don’t get too locked in to life inside of medicine.
Make your whole world your medical education and it’s hard to resist the feeling of a great weight pushing down on you. That’s why you’ve got to keep in regular contact with the people outside. Your friends, your family – even people you might bump into on a regular basis.
Chat about life outside of your studies and healthcare. See what other people are doing. What they’re enthusiastic about. Maybe even what they fear or are scared about too.
Doing so will refresh you and show you the normal world going on around you. Helping you remember both where you came from (and where you’re going) when your journey in med school is over.
Obviously medical school can be a challenging time and feeling overwhelmed, at times, is just a part of the overall experience.
If you’re really struggling however and feel none of this advice is working? I strongly suggest you see and speak to someone – whether a family member or a healthcare professional – as soon as possible.
Going through this journey alone isn’t anything anyone should have to experience. So please, if that’s you, take the first step.
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.