A few weeks ago I read an article written by a medical student who was a veteran of the Afghanistan war, and in a combat zone. She reported finding medical school far more stressful than her deployment.  Imagine that-being in the midst of a war zone, facing the uncertainties, those unimaginable dangers were far more tolerable than the grueling challenges of medical school. How tragic. As I read her words, a felt a flash of the severe anxiety that was my constant companion in medical school.

Suddenly my body was triggered, drenched in the tsunami of stress hormones that was my constant companion.  Before PTSD was an accepted disorder, I experienced flashbacks after completing my residency.  It took me a few minutes to calm my body back to its normal, peaceful state. Then I remembered my very first day of medical school.

My First Day of Medical School

I was filled with excitement and a nervous anticipation. Little did I know what I was getting myself into!  Yet, I knew even then I was on my way to meet my destiny.  We were greeted by the dean and administrators of the school. Of all the speeches and welcomes I heard on that day, the one I most clearly remember was given by Dr. Jay Arena, professor emeritus of pediatrics.  He’d recently participated in a historic trip to China with a group of distinguished Americans.  It was a landmark event that was preceded only a few months earlier by President Nixon’s trip to China.

In his speech, Dr. Arena promised us that our lives would never be the same.  At the time, I didn’t know how right he was.  He talked about his trip and the humbling experiences he’d had with barefoot doctors that provide great care to their patients.   He remarked that we as future American physicians could learn a lot from their example and should incorporate as much of our humanity as possible into our practice of medicine.

Idealism’s Rude Awakening

When I entered medical school, I was very idealistic and filled with great expectations.  I believed in the images and myths of modern medicine.  But the realities were vastly different from my expectations.  It was a rude awakening to say the least. Becoming a physician is a difficult and arduous process.  The sacrifices medical students, interns, residents and practicing physicians make are unbelievable.  On a daily basis we are stretched beyond the limitations of endurance, both physically and psychologically. And no one who hasn’t lived through this process can grasp its often devastating enormity.

I don’t have the words to adequately, or accurately describe how painfully stressful my years at Duke were, especially my first two years.  After the initial glow and excitement of matriculating into medical school, after the lofty welcoming speeches, I shifted between overwhelm of the course work (our first year crammed 2 traditional years of basic sciences into one) of entering It seems for the most part I shuffled emotionally between emotional and physical exhaustion, fear of flunking out, wanting a fair chance, and to be accepted on my terms.

Overwhelm and Disillusionment on Steroids

Medical school for most students is filled with unending, health challenging stress, contradictions, and disillusionment.  Students suffer from information overload.  The academic demands are unbelievable.  From the first lectures to the last day we were constantly overwhelmed by the load.  Classes and labs were held every day from nine until five.  To keep up with our daily assignments, the evenings and the weekends were filled with intense concentration and study.

During my first term I recall a physiology lecture on the cardiac physiology.  I remember marveling at the professor’s remarks and wondering in the midst of his discussion how the spirit interacts with the body.  I wanted to know what role it played. But at the time, in my heart I knew it would be a long while before I had an opportunity to find the answer to that question.

It was a challenge and test of the will to keep up with the volume of information we were required to assimilate on a daily basis.  In the beginning it was an exhilarating experience for me. I was fascinated with the way the body functioned.  Studying the various disciplines-including anatomy, physiology, microbiology, pathology, biochemistry, histology, and genetics-intrigued me.

Our education focused on the continuous regurgitation of incoherent facts and frequently unrelated theories took its toll on my creativity and idealism.

My Wish, Your Opportunity

I wish I had been better prepared and equipped to deal with the academic, psychological and physical maze.  I wish I’d learned far sooner that I had the capacity to better manage my stress and uncertainty.

The fear of failure, the physical, emotional, and mental demands are at times unbearable.  Exposure to toxic substances, radiation and contagious disease are all areas of concern. But I was determined to become a doctor, as were the vast majority of my classmates.  And come hell or high water, I was resolutely committed with every fiber of my being. That was been my dream since I was ten years, when the thought of becoming a pediatrician literally descended into my mind

The next seven to ten years of your life will be dominated, even overwhelmed by medicine.   Our goal at Whole MED Student’s goal is to help you make yours far more better than mine and others who have walked a thousand miles in your shoes.


7 Simple Ways to Manage Med School Stress

  1. Get adequate sleep-you need 8 hours a day to maintain a healthy body
  2. Move often-take breaks from sitting while studying
  3. Eliminate all processed foods
  4. Share your meals with classmates or other friends
  5. Breathe using your diaphrag
  6. Laugh often every day
  7. Do something creative every week