“Don’t forget to take care of your mental health” is a phrase we are often told in today’s day and age. The once-taboo topic, mental health has now come out of its shadows and into the spotlight, but the question is HOW do you take care of mental health and how does something so simple seem so complex? I think it is safe to say that people in the medical profession are a group of people whose mental health is quick to be put on the back burner because there are just way too many “more important” things that call for our immediate attention. “Shelf exam the day after tomorrow, I have to finish a presentation today. My USMLE step 1 is in 5 weeks.” There is always something or another that needs to be done before we can take some “me time.” And of course, how can we forget the feeling of impending doom mixed with guilt, if we, god forbid, take 5 hours out on a sunday evening during our dedicated to go out and just reset for the week. I too, was one of many who struggled with this but here are a couple of ideas that helped me get out of my ever present dilemma.
1. Mind over matter
It’s okay to choose yourself. I think we hear the phrase ‘mind over matter’ but ironically don’t give mind to the quote. The brain is a VERY powerful tool we have been given, we just need to learn how to navigate our thoughts. What we put into our brain, our body produces. Try and talk to yourself out loud that it is OK to take a break- the same way you would to a friend. Go take yourself to the salon and get that long overdue haircut. Tell yourself you need to take a drive and stop by your favorite smoothie shop for their creamy green smoothie and no–you can not simply make it at home.
2. Negative Space
What really helped me work through my lows in school was creating a Google document or taking outa piece of paper and just writing down ALL of my negative thoughts that I had built up in my brain. I didn’t think about grammar or if I was making any sense: if it came to mind, it was on that paper. Kind of like one big word vomit of what was inside my head. And after I was done, I would either crumple up the paper and put it away in a drawer that I don’t usually open or I would exit the google doc and never open it again. And this became my “negative space”.” Something so small was able to help in such big ways I would have never guessed. It gave me the sensation that I was able to physically remove the negativity that was crowding inside my brain and put it away.
3. Find your happy outlet and make it work
Romanticize the little things in life and find happiness in them. Whether it’s being able to start your day in the morning by making that delicious iced latte or getting to your desk so you can light your favorite rose scented candle. Find the little things that make you want to be productive and run with them. Eventually your brain will mix the joyous feeling those things give you and associate them with productivity. And of course, what better joy than crossing things off of your to-do list?
4. Investing in your work space
Don’t be afraid to invest in the area you spend most of your time and energy in. Nowadays you can find the coolest gadgets. There’s even a mini water dispenser to use on your desk to help encourage not only your productivity, but keep you hydrated throughout the day as well.
5. Do not wear pajamas when you are studying at home
You don’t want your body to associate sleepiness with studying. The best thing I did was set aside “study clothes” and I wouldn’t wear those to bed- so when I put them on, my brain knew “Okay, it’s time to get work done”
6. Post-It notes with positive words of encouragement and an example
It’s so easy to feel discouraged as a med student, especially during a time as strenuous as your dedicated study time. What helped me overcome the discouraging feelings and thoughts is I would write little notes to myself around the room that said why I think I will be able to succeed with whatever I am struggling with. As someone who finds it difficult to listen to empty words of encouragement, I would give an example from something in my life that I had succeeded in as “proof:” “See? You accomplished this task, you can definitely do this if you put your mind to it.”
It is sad that the people who are at the front lines of helping others are the same people whose own mental well being is placed on a back burner. We need to tell ourselves that it is OK to also take care of ourselves first and to normalize taking breaks without feeling guilty. The number of students suffering from this is unimaginable- and if you ask me, a true epidemic in the student population.