Overcoming Pre-Med Stress Through Mindfulness

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By: Rob Humbracht

“Today isn’t preparation for tomorrow. Today’s the main event.” -- Leo Babauta, Zen Habits

If you’re not goal-oriented, you’ll never get into medical school.  Unless you have vision and dedication to this future end, you won’t have the focus to do everything you must to become a doctor.

The problem with being so goal-oriented, though, is that you lose sight of the joy of living. If you go through life distracted - not just by your phone or social media but any time your head is thinking about something other than what’s in front of you - you’re going to be miserable at the end of the day.  You’re going to miss the simple joys around you, and you’re going to feel unfulfilled, whether you get the white coat or not.

Mindfulness - being aware of the present moment - is a crucial tool for the most successful doctors.  If you want to be a good doctor, you have to be able to listen to your patients and manage the overwhelming workload.  That means being present in the moment.  If you want to succeed on the MCAT, to be able to block out the stress while studying and focus on the problem in front of you, that takes mindfulness.  And if you want to be able to be pre-med and still have a life, you’re going to need a tool to help you prioritize what’s most important to keeping yourself sane.

Becoming more mindful - especially as a pre-med where the stakes are high and the stress intense - is a process.  You will frequently forget.  You will burn yourself out from time to time.  To expect perfection is to fail.

How do you become more mindful? The following five guidelines should help steer our ship toward the mindfulness star.  These guidelines won’t prevent stormy seas from tossing the boat around, but they will show us the ideal path that we should strive for.

1. Learn to say no.

There’s more to do with your day than can conceivably be done. To be mindful, you need to limit your commitments only to what’s absolutely necessary.  It's not about the number of hours you put in; it's the life lessons you gain and the interesting stories you can tell. If you find yourself doing something only because you think it will help get you into medical school, then quit.  It probably isn't helping, and you can fill your time with activities that will make a far greater impact.

2. Stop comparing yourself to other pre-meds.

It's understandable - they surround you in your science classes. But ask yourself: does comparing yourself make you feel better or worse?  All you can control is your own performance and whether you did better today than you did yesterday.

3.  Don't be a beast.

Don't take harder-than-normal versions of any class. Don't take more than two science classes at a time. Don't take more than the normal load of units at your school. Don't double major. You might think these things impress medical schools, but medical schools have easier ways to determine who’s smart and hardworking - your GPA and MCAT.  You don’t get bonus points for making your life more difficult, you just make it that much harder for you to get good grades and make yourself miserable in the process.

4.  Push your comfort zone.

Your author has a fear of heights, but I have a choice. I can choose to avoid that fear, allowing it to control my enjoyment of certain activities, or I can expose myself to my fear in order to overcome it.  I choose to go rock climbing several times a year, primarily so that I can look down, fifty feet up the wall, feel my stomach churn, and get used to it.  

Doing uncomfortable things on a regular basis is the only way to grow.  As the celebrated Buddhist scholar Keanu Reeves once said, “Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory lasts forever.”

5. Take care of yourself.

Most pre-meds take a "who needs sleep?" attitude. But if you're going to perform at a high level, you need to take care of the basics: sleep, nutrition, and exercise. If you refuse to change your car's oil: eventually it's going to break down.  The same goes for your body. It’s much harder to be mindful if you don’t maintain your body.

Even if you consistently perform these five guidelines, the path to medicine won’t be easy. You'll still have to sacrifice. Long nights, lots of studying, the works. None of that changes when you're being true to yourself. The difference, though, is that you will find joy in the moments that make up this journey.