How I'm Managing Medical School with OCD
Published on Feb 21, 2019. Updated on Sep 24, 2020.
Medical school is hard, but I’m sure you know this already. What they don’t tell you though, is that many medical students experience high amounts of stress – and this stress carries well into residency and beyond. As a result, mental health conditions can be exacerbated by the stress. A month into my first semester of medical school, I had a panic attack and was subsequently diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
What is OCD?
OCD is a specific type of anxiety disorder characterized by unwanted and recurrent thoughts, feelings, ideas, or sensations (obsessions), and/or behaviors that drive people to do something over and over again (compulsions) in order to reduce the anxiety caused by the obsession/s. An Osmosis video dives further into the details of OCD.
A classic example of OCD is of excessive hand washing that is done in response to fears of contamination. While this previously described scenario describes me to a degree, I am primarily affected by intrusive thoughts. I know these thoughts are irrational, but it takes effort to work through the anxiety that can be associated with them.
Even more so, my intrusive thoughts tend to be generated when I am stressed or anxious, making this a vicious cycle that is hard to avoid given my chosen career path. Being aware of mental health issues and the prevalence of burnout within the medical community motivated me to seek help immediately.
What can be learned from my experience?
It took almost two months to feel somewhat “normal” again. There were many moments of difficulty during this time frame. I often woke up feeling panicked and contemplated whether I could become a physician, let alone make it through the day. Medication and therapy were, without a doubt, instrumental for regaining a sense of normalcy in my life, but pursuing and maintaining healthy habits, like getting enough sleep and exercise were just as critical. Possibly one of the hardest lessons learned though, was that of detaching myself from school.
Whether I was at the gym, spending time with my wife or friends, or lying in bed, I was trying any way I could to study just a little bit more. These were terrible habits as I never gave myself a chance to decompress from school – medicine was always on my mind and I started resenting school and the medical profession. My mind would generate intrusive thoughts that would distract me from accomplishing tasks – it was like my mind was trying to tell me to take a break, and because I wasn’t listening, it went to extreme lengths to force me take one.
How do I deal with my OCD?
As medical students, we are competitive, and we want to succeed. The reality is though, we have to take time for ourselves to be more than medical students. By exercising consistently, disengaging from school periodically, regularly indulging in activities that I enjoyed, and getting adequate amounts of sleep, I was able to help control my obsessions and, more importantly, feel excited about studying medicine once again.
Finding a good support system – consisting of my wife, friends, and faculty at school – has also been invaluable for my healing process. The support from these individuals was extraordinary as their compassion helped me to feel less ashamed and guilty about my condition. They inspired me and helped to remind me of the positive contributions that I have made and will make, in spite of my OCD. They also demonstrated one of the fundamental qualities of a good physician – to be there for someone else, even if all you can do is listen.
As a quick recap…
I still have moments where intrusive thoughts and anxiety weigh on me, but overall, I have more good days than not. I feel better equipped to deal with the symptoms associated with my OCD. I am happy to report that I made it through my first semester, and that I even did well in my courses. More importantly, I rediscovered my joy for medicine. If there is anything that you can take away from this blog, let it be this: it’s okay to ask for help. To be able to care for others requires that you take care of yourself.
Jason Lundy is a first year medical student at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine. He is originally from Southern California. He likes to spend his free time working out, exploring the outdoors, spending time with his family, reading, and trying new foods. Jason is keeping his mind open as to what he would like to specialize in, but is leaning towards working with underserved rural populations. He believes that we should do away with the stigma surrounding mental health and, by writing this article, hopes he can influence that perception.
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