How to Prevent Burnout & Reach Your Medical School Goals

Sophie Moran - Nov 04, 2021

Medical students are constantly balancing many important and consequential goals. Students want and need to get good grades in class, ace exams, leave a good impression on their evaluators, conduct scientific research, provide quality care to patients, and the list goes on. Each goal is extremely worthwhile and impactful in its own right. But achieving them all takes work. Lots and lots of work. And with so much to learn and do, it’s no surprise that burnout is a hot topic amongst students and physicians alike. 

Thankfully, there are practical steps you can take to avoid burnout and still achieve your medical school goals. 

Let’s take a look at burnout and what you can do to prevent it. 

  1. How to spot if you’re burned out
  2. How to study without burning out
  3. What to do if you are reaching burnout 

How to spot if you’re burned out 

These days the term “burnout” is common in professions and workplaces the world over. Some of the factors that can lead to burnout include high pressure, a lack of control, immense and chaotic workloads, and work-life imbalance. With the heavy workload, long hours, and high expectations that medical students face, it’s no wonder that 50% of students report signs of burnout during medical school.

Burnout can be defined as “a reaction to chronic stress that results in a sense of detachment, emotional exhaustion, and a decreased sense of accomplishment/productivity.” 

If you suspect you are experiencing burnout, look out for the following symptoms: 

  1. Emotional exhaustion
  2. Depersonalization or emotional detachment 
  3. Low sense of personal accomplishment

You can learn more about the symptoms of clinician burnout in this AMBOSS article

Thankfully, there is good news! There are many tips and tricks that you can apply to your daily life that will help prevent burnout and keep you happy and healthy during medical school 一 while still reaching all your goals. 

How to study without burning out

The four main areas to combat burnout that we’ll dive into are daily habits, mindset & mindfulness, support systems, and study strategies. While you are no doubt familiar with the benefits of these areas individually, when approached holistically, they form a powerful tool that will make you feel both resilient and fulfilled. 

Daily habits

  1. Sleep 

The urge to stay up late studying or even pull an all-nighter before an exam is very real. While it may feel like using these hours to study will benefit your grades, it will likely have the opposite effect. According to the Chronobiology and Sleep Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, in the last two decades, scientists have discovered that sleeping well improves students’ ability to “learn, memorize, retain, recall, and use their knowledge to solve problems creatively.”

A study conducted by scientists at MIT in 2019 discovered that there is a direct correlation between the amount of sleep a student gets and their grades. The study found that it’s not only the amount of sleep that students get that affects their performance but also what time they go to bed and the quality of their sleep. Students who consistently went to bed earlier performed better on their exams. 

Getting enough sleep and being well-rested is essential for preventing burnout. So, the next time you’re tempted to pull an all-nighter, just remember that you’re actually better off going to bed!

  1. Take breaks 

Taking breaks from learning and studying is vital to your well-being. No matter who you are, trying to function at 100% capacity all of the time will deplete your energy and cause burnout to take hold. So, make sure to take breaks. Scheduling them into your daily plan is a good way to make sure you actually take them. 

During your breaks, try to do something just for yourself. Whether that’s going for a walk (and no, that doesn’t mean walking while listening to Divine Intervention or Dirty Medicine!), sitting down with a book and a cup of tea, watching an episode of your favorite show, or whatever it is that makes you feel good. Do what you enjoy! 

Consider taking one whole day off per week. You’ll feel better for taking a break which will, in turn, help you study better and retain more information.

  1. Exercise 

A 2015 study by Peer J found that cardiovascular and resistance exercise increases “greater positive well-being and personal accomplishment, and concomitantly less psychological distress, perceived stress, and emotional exhaustion.” So, while it may feel like every minute is best spent studying, skipping exercise can ultimately contribute to burnout. 

Incorporating regular exercise into your routine will have a positive effect on your efforts outside of exercise, i.e., studying. This way you can keep going, achieve your goals, and feel good while doing it.

  1. Diet 

Maintaining a healthy diet is another lifestyle factor that will contribute to your overall well-being which can help prevent burnout. Let’s take a look at some healthy eating strategies so you can stay on top of your game: 

  • If you have time over the weekend, plan your meals for the week ahead. This way you’ll have a bank of healthy food in the fridge and won’t have to think about cooking or turn to fast food during the week. 
  • Eat on a consistent schedule. Whether you are the type to eat one or three meals a day, establish a rhythm that your body can count on.
  • Arm yourself with healthy snacks. Empty those white coats of chips and chocolate bars and instead fill them with apple slices, dried fruit, nuts, or other healthy alternatives. 
  • Drink lots of water throughout the day to avoid feeling tired and becoming dehydrated.
  • Adopt features of the Mediterranean diet. Staples of this diet that doctors often recommend to their own patients include lots of vegetables, legumes (e.g., soy), nuts, beans, and a low intake of dairy and meat compared to other Western cuisines. 

Mindset & mindfulness 

It can be a challenge to alter some of our long-held beliefs and approaches to life. However, reframing some of the perceived negatives in our lives as positives can drastically improve our outlook and empower us to get more satisfaction out of life. As driving satisfaction from our endeavors is protective against burnout, adopting the right mindset is a key element to enjoying ourselves. Simple techniques such as reminding yourself of your achievements and value to others 一 like being in medical school itself 一  can help place your internal dialogue in a healthy context. 

There are many different schools of thought and philosophy out there that can help you develop a healthy and positive mindset. It’s all about finding the one that works best for you. One such school of philosophy that has surged in popularity recently is Stoicism. In William B. Irvine’s book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, he applies ancient Stoic techniques to modern life. He teaches readers “how to minimize worry… focus our efforts on what we can control”, and how to reflect on our internal states so that we can better identify our stressors and, ultimately, eliminate them. 

Practicing mindfulness is another great way to combat burnout. Studies have shown that a “mindfulness-based stress reduction program helped quell anxiety symptoms in people with generalized anxiety disorder.” Adopting mindfulness practice into your daily routine can help you focus on the present and make you more resilient during stressful periods.

Some apps that offer guided mindfulness meditations are: 

You can also find many guided meditation videos for free on YouTube. 

Support systems

Having a support system and people that you can turn to will go a long way to helping you stay positive and avoid burnout. One of the best support systems you can find in medical school is through making friends with your classmates. The challenges of medical school feel a little lighter when you have people by your side that know exactly what you’re going through. Some handy tips for staying connected to your classmates include setting up a Whatsapp or Facebook group, organizing dinner together, and celebrating med school milestones together. 

Ensure that you maintain your relationships outside of medical school. While your family members or friends from high school might not understand the rigors that you face, these are the people that will keep you connected to the non-medical world. And, as we already mentioned, taking a break and stepping away from the medical world every now and then is another key way to prevent burnout. 

Study strategies 

There are a lot of different study strategies and resources available for you to choose from. It’s important to remember that what works best for one med student may not work for you. Finding the strategy that suits you best is the key to efficient studying and preventing burnout. Feel free to explore new resources and ways of implementing them in a routine that works for you. Whether it’s reviewing Anki flashcards religiously, doing numerous passes of AMBOSS and UWorld, or watching all the Sketchy and Boards & Beyond videos you can, finding a study strategy that resonates with you is vital. It will mean better learning, fewer hours spent studying, and a greater sense of overall achievement. 

Maintaining a consistent daily study routine will also benefit you. Try to plan your days in advance and stick to the schedule: your mind will find peace and a sense of progress in the predictability of the routine. Studying from the same desk in your home or library is a good way to help you focus.

What to do if you are reaching burnout 

If you feel like you are approaching burnout, don’t panic. There are immediate, practical steps you can take that will lead you back to a more sustainable way of doing things. Firstly, talk to your classmates. While you may feel like you’re alone in feeling overwhelmed and burned out, the chances are others are struggling just as much. Letting it off your chest will help a lot. You may also find comfort from talking to your family and non-medical school friends. 

Reach out to your school’s administration. The burden to eliminate burnout is not on you alone. In fact, burnout in medical school is now widely regarded as a systemic issue. It’s your school’s responsibility to ensure their students are not overwhelmed and that there is a support system in place. So, if you are struggling, be sure to let your program know.

Along with exploring the options above, you can also turn to a mental health professional for a more focused and intensive diagnostic/treatment regimen. Always remember that, no matter what, you don’t have to deal with these pressures on your own.  

When the above tips are adopted holistically, they can contribute to making you more resilient and empower you to get the most out of your medical school experience. Remember that taking care of yourself shouldn’t be another chore that you need to complete. There is nothing more important than your health and well-being. Taking steps to be healthy and derive enjoyment from your medical school experience will not only prevent burnout but will also help you become the doctor that you want to be. 

 

Check out the AMBOSS article on fatigue management and clinician burnout for more info.

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