Medicine is tough work. It challenges you physically, mentally, and emotionally, sometimes leaving you exhausted, cynical, and feeling less accomplished – otherwise known as burnout. It’s easy to think that everyone else is handling it well, and it’s just you, but evidence shows that over half of attending physicians, residents, and medical students struggle with burnout, and around half had symptoms of depression.
Premedical students are more burned out than non-premedical students, and a disproportionate amount of women and Hispanic premeds feel depressed to a greater severity. Not surprisingly, this is largely due to gender and racial discrimination and barriers faced within higher education and medicine as a whole.
The point is, you are not alone, and the high percentage of people feeling burned out, anxious, or depressed suggests that it’s not an individual weakness, but rather a larger systemic issue that needs to be addressed. This means breaking down barriers in higher education so that more women and POC have mentorship opportunities and resources, as well as decreasing the stigma against mental illness. But this takes time and collective action. So what can we do for ourselves right now?
Martin Seligman, a positive psychology researcher, presents his ideas in Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. One of his lectures can be found here.
Rather than focusing on chasing happiness, his research focuses on flourishing:
- Positive emotions
This is the exact opposite of burnout – disengagement, cynicism, exhaustion, decreased sense of achievement and personal meaning.
One of the exercises that have shown to increase well-being is using your signature strengths in new ways (https://www.viacharacter.org/www/en-us/research/summaries.aspx). Signature strengths is a core characteristic of yourself that you love, and it invigorates you as you tap into it rather than draining you. For more information on the research on character strengths, click here.
- Set aside some time and take the survey here.
It’s 240 questions but well worth it.
- Once you’ve taken the test, look at the top five characteristics and see which ones really resonate with you.
- For the next week, schedule a time where you will exercise one or more of your signature strengths in a new way.
- Write about your experience, and how you felt about it during and after.
- Where can you see this strength work for your benefit in your life? How can you use it to help develop your other strengths? What steps are you willing to take to reinforce these habits?
This exercise is something that I’ve personally done and I’ve found that it’s a really effective method of self-care. It helped me get back in touch with who I am, aside from all of the academic pressures and goals I have. Journaling and self-reflection have been so useful, especially because I’m able to remember these things without having to brainstorm again.
Practice what you preach, right? So here are my top 5 strengths:
- Love of learning
- Judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness
- Self-control and self-regulation
- Appreciation of beauty and excellence
- Fairness, equity, and justice
The key is to come up with clearly defined opportunities to grow and use your strengths. Reminder: the stuff you come up with should make you excited to do it!
This past week, I’ve picked up a new audiobook to listen to before bed (Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers) and spent two hours at a free art museum that I absolutely adore and haven’t been to in a while. This week, I’m going to do something active for thirty minutes every day.
- For creativity, set aside an hour or two one day to paint.
- For fairness, equity, and justice look into a group that advocates for something you believe in and attend a meeting, or even volunteer.
- For gratitude, write a letter to someone who has impacted your life, and be specific about what they did and how it affected you. Then tell them – in person, on the phone, via snail mail or email.
- In the academic setting,
- Love of learning could mean going home and reading a journal article on recent research, or shadowing with a faculty mentor for an afternoon.
- Judgment and critical thinking could be writing up a kick-ass assessment and plan on a patient.
I’d love to hear what your strengths are and what worked for you!