August 30, 2021

Hot Takes on Self-care from Actual Medical Students (an Interview)

Maria Sajan and Munazza Khan

By: Maria Sajan and Munazza Khan 

How can you take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself?

We believe pouring from an empty cup has been a problem in healthcare for far too long. Achieving proper self-care is a challenging yet crucial goal for pre-meds and physicians, especially since medical students have 15-30% higher depression rates than the overall US population.

On August 2nd, 2021, we posted an article regarding the state of self-care in pre-med and med students. Today, we thought it would be a good idea to bring some real-world experiences straight to you. With the idea of adding practicality to the theories presented to you in the recent article, we interviewed three medical students (from pre-clinical and clinical years) and asked them everything you’d want to know about their self-care journey in medical school.

With the start of a new busy semester, it’s the perfect time for you to add self-care onto your to-do list, incorporate it into your daily routine, and make it a habit.

Hot Takes on Self-care from Actual Medical Students (an Interview) 

Interview Question #1: How do you feel about the culture of self-sacrifice in medicine? How do you navigate around it? Do you think it is avoidable? 

“This was definitely unavoidable 5-6 years ago. This culture is slowly but surely changing in medical schools with the new generation of physicians and the incorporation of self-care in the curriculum. But at the end of the day, most people that get into medical school have internalized the hard work and self-sacrifices it took to get in, and now it's just second nature to them. This issue needs to be recognized and rectified first. I speak for myself when I say that this is a massive challenge. With the start of my third year, I will have to go to work full-time only to come back home and study. Most days are going to be just that, a full busy day! So one of my challenges will be realizing when to say no, being okay with not studying a certain day, or taking some hours off and not feeling like a failure, but realizing this is actually just me refueling!” - an M3 student

“The workload in medical school is undeniably huge, and oftentimes, people never truly admit how much work it takes. You might hear a simplified narrative from a medical student - “oh I did this, and this happened, and I got into medical school” - but the truth is there is a lot of strategic planning, hard work, and sacrifices that go on behind the scenes. However, at the end of the day, you can make it work and walk out with your sanity intact by finding peers who have the same goals as you and still find time to have fun with them.” - an M2 student

Biggest Takeaways for You as a Pre-Med:

  • One of your biggest challenges may be saying no, but you need to do it!
  • Being honest with yourself and your support system is crucial.
  • Find like-minded people who prioritize the same things as you.

Interview Question #2: What are the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in maintaining self-care and how do you combat them? 

“You’re always going to sacrifice a lot to get where you want to and hit the criteria to get in. So the obstacle here is the “I can take care of myself later” attitude or the “My work isn’t going to get done tomorrow and if I don’t do it today, I’m going to fall behind” attitude. I think it’s a big mental game. In everything you do, I’d say the biggest obstacle is your own mental self telling your body not to do the things that you want to do to take care of yourself.” - an M2 student

“One thing that I always thought during undergrad is that I have to be doing something every single minute of the day, that I have to be signing up for more things if I have an hour off in my day. That’s an obstacle and toxic mindset that I had to overcome. I scheduled things morning till night and signed up for every single thing, and you definitely don’t need to do that. Sign up for a few things you’re genuinely passionate about and invest your time and energy into those activities. It’s really important to give yourself the time to rest and give yourself an hour a day to do the things you genuinely enjoy doing.” - an M2 student

“The biggest obstacle in undergrad is definitely feeling like you have so much work to do that you don’t really have time to schedule in self-care. You’re in constant fear of falling behind because it’s such a competitive program. It stems from the outside perspective of watching other people doing something productive 24/7. Comparing your progress to the people around you will not let you indulge in taking care of your own self, and it doesn't go away once you get into medicine because people are still sprinting. You need to realize that this fear of falling behind will continue to remain an obstacle, but that you have different needs and wants than others and you will not be able to pour from an empty cup.” - an M3 student

Biggest Takeaways for You as a Pre-Med:

  • Prioritize depth over breadth; pick a few activities you can commit to.  
  • Your needs will look different than those around you.

Interview Question #3: How have your self-care practices changed over the different stages of your career pathway, through undergrad, application cycle, and medical school?

“At the beginning of undergrad, you don’t really know how much planning it actually takes to be able to nourish yourself well, exercise, and do the little things that you like. You have to incorporate it into a schedule to make it happen. Writing down the smallest details really helps, and for me, the first couple weeks of my second year are going to be very brutal, but I am going in with the mindset that “this is when I’m going to be exercising, this is how I’m going to take walks, this is how we’re going to meal prep and make sure I’m eating healthy” instead of just focusing on the school aspect of it. Being intentional about your activities and how you plan things is really important. In first year, my mentality was “I have a midterm in October, so I’m going to study for that, and that's it for the day!” - an M2 student

Biggest Takeaways for You as a Pre-Med:

  • Include non-academic activities in your schedule.
  • Actively plan and schedule small pockets of time for self-care.

Interview Question #4: What tips do you have for undergraduate students in terms of maintaining self-care?

“I think hindsight is always 20/20. I think you should find one or two things you really enjoy doing, whether that be painting, reading, or being active, and I would stick to that. Make sure you practice that throughout university so you don’t let go of the things that define you and make you different, things that you find joy in.

One major practical tip is just remember to eat. Nutrition is something you neglect in undergrad, so eat well and sleep well. I feel like eating and sleeping are those two basic things that are important for your wellbeing, and that students tend to neglect so much. Don’t make self-care something you’ll do when you’re free, but schedule it in. Maybe not right before a midterm or when you have an essay due, but if it’s a week before and it’s a two-hour outing with your friends, just do it!

Don’t let your career goals and academics be the only things that define you. When you go in with that perspective, self-care is not going to work out. Indulging in self-care is doing things that make you feel good, and most people feel like excelling in academics is what makes them feel good. So, changing that perspective about what defines you is crucial - it’s more than medicine, it’s more than getting into medical school. Having that attitude will make you realize that you’re not living in your books, in your room studying, there’s a whole world around you that’s still going on, regardless of whether or not you do anything about it.” - an M3 student

Biggest Takeaways for You as a Pre-Med:

  • Self-care should be intentional - it’s not something you just do when you’re free (when are you really free?).
  • You’re defined by more than just your grades - invest in your hobbies.

We hope these responses from medical students encourage you to incorporate some form of self-care into your day, if even in just the smallest of ways. Self-care may look different for different people, but it’s undeniably necessary for medical students and in extension, pre-medical students.

About the Authors:

Maria Sajan is entering her third year at Wilfrid Laurier University majoring in Health Sciences. As co-president of her university’s Stem Cell Club, she is dedicated to increasing the number of registrants in the OneMatch Stem Cell & Bone Marrow registry. Her interests also include writing, gardening, and biking.

Munazza Khan recently graduated from Gulf Medical University with a BS in Biomedical Sciences. As someone who was drawn to Cancer Biology early on in her second year, she is currently researching the immune response to hypoxic stress in a tumor microenvironment and how immunotherapy could be used in the future. She is also an avid cat and plant lover, but sadly, her cat is on a mission to destroy any plants in sight. Her hobbies include playing soccer and board games.

Have any questions about pre-med self-care? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll respond to you personally!

Learn to be Savvy! Get creative pre-med strategies delivered right to your inbox.
FREE Medical School Application Timeline when you subscribe.

We follow the email Golden Rule: we will never send you anything without your permission.