The Ultimate Guide to Wellness in Your Health Professional Program
Published on Oct 14, 2020. Updated on Oct 15, 2020.
You’ve been dreaming of and working towards your career in the health professions for years—and yet your journey has just begun! Osmosis is here to guide you through the stormy first months of navigating this new path.
Congratulations, you’ve been accepted into a health professional program! Are you ready? The first months of school are important, life-changing, and one of the most challenging events you’ll face in life. Thankfully, Osmosis has gathered all the resources you’ll need to survive—and thrive—in your new life.
Becoming a student in the health professions comes with hurdles before you even begin, whether it’s making it through pre-med, the MCATs, or even simply the challenges of keeping your grades up while maintaining those resume-building extracurriculars. There’s a good reason that the time leading up to school is so grueling: it helps prepare you to shift into the big league.
The theme of our guide is connection. Building connections with your work, your peers, and yourself will provide a path through some of the most difficult times you’ll face ahead. Let’s take a look at some of the common challenges students face during the first years of school, and some proven ways to overcome those obstacles.
Challenges for first-year students
What’s this “firehose” thing all about?
If you haven’t heard this analogy yet, get ready! The first year of your health profession program will often feel like you’re trying to sip water from a firehose. The deluge of information aimed full force right at you might literally bowl you over at times.
First-year med students are expected to learn over 10,000 new medical terms. They must adapt to the very real pressures of taking responsibility for patients’ successful outcomes. The amount of new information and emotional weight you’re starting to carry can be overwhelming and challenge even the most robust mental health.
Each of the medical profession programs presents its own unique challenges. Whether you’re studying to become a nurse, pharmacist, first-responder or physician, the workload and newness of school life - combined with rigorous exams looming ahead as a hurdle to overcome before you can start your professional life - will feel overwhelming.
It’s important for first-year students to acknowledge these challenges honestly and to carefully monitor their wellbeing. You’re not going to be able to help anyone as a healthcare professional if you don’t make it through school yourself! With the information in this guide, you’ll be able to identify ways to fit healthy habits into your new school lifestyle.
And these tips aren’t just for school! They are lifelong habits that can carry you through tough professional and personal times. These are habits to keep for the long haul.
Can the firehose help extinguish burnout?
Actually, it seems like just the opposite is true!
One challenge that no one likes to think about is the very real possibility of burnout. Students pursuing a medical professional degree are often bright, passionate, and hardworking—all enviable traits that spur them to accomplish great things and clinch those coveted spots in healthcare programs. However, these traits can also encourage unhealthy behaviors that cause students to push themselves to the point of exhaustion.
Healthcare profession school burnout is a real thing. From the grueling study sessions and testing phases of early years to the superhuman energy required for clinics and residencies, medical professional students face daunting statistics. Studies have shown that, by the time students reach the residency phase, 60% show signs of burnout and 50% exhibit signs of clinical depression.
It doesn’t have to be this way! While the culture of health professional programs is slowly starting to respond to these findings, there are ways that students can learn to recognize signs of burnout and depression and mitigate the effects of school pressures.
How to avoid burnout
The best way to prevent burnout having a harmful effect on you is to avoid it altogether! While you’re going to have tough times during your program, developing resiliency and practicing a few helpful habits can help you prevent a rough patch turning into full-blown burnout.
First, create as balanced a schedule as possible. While class time and studying will take up a bulk of your time, block out time for exercise, sleep, and—yes—even something fun. It might seem counterintuitive to take time away from your work, but studies show that regularly engaging in something entertaining, whether it’s a hobby or just connecting with a friend, has rejuvenating mental and emotional benefits.
Next, learn some meditation and breathing practices. These mindfulness techniques will help ground you even during your most stressful moments. The health benefits of meditation have been well established, and successful medical students often report that they practice some form of meditation and mindfulness during their education.
Finally, understand your support network. While this may include family and friends, people in your life might not always understand the particular stressors you face as a student entering a very demanding field. Most schools do offer systems to maintain student wellness, so familiarize yourself with the programs that your university has, and make ample use of them!
Recognizing the signs of burnout
One of the most important ways to prevent burnout from impacting you and your studies is to keep an eye out for the effects it has on your mental and physical wellbeing.
Burnout can cause extreme exhaustion, a fatigue that goes deeper than just being tired from late nights studying and maintaining a busy schedule.
In addition to the physical toll, burnout will cause mental and emotional fatigue as well. Feelings of worthlessness and an inability to connect emotionally with other people and your work are telltale signs that burnout is having an effect on you.
What to do when you experience burnout symptoms
Often, the primary obstacle to treating burnout is ourselves. We don’t want to admit to failure or struggle, so we let our symptoms sink in further and do more damage.
If you recognize the signs of burnout cropping up in your life, don’t struggle with it alone. Contact your university’s support programs for help. Let yourself take a moment to address what you’re feeling without giving in to guilt or stress at taking time away from studies. Sometimes it can be as simple as taking a walk outside, giving yourself 15 minutes of mindfulness practice, or talking on the phone with a friend.
If symptoms continue, you need to get support. Letting burnout run its course will cause much more damage to your education and health than simply taking the time and space to get yourself back on track.
Is COVID over yet?
The pandemic is a new reality for everyone, not just those of you starting your health profession school careers. However, there are particular challenges that the novel coronavirus poses for medical profession students that others do not have to think about.
It is the job of medical professionals to help study and provide solutions for viruses like COVID-19. But how is the pandemic affecting the very people who are joining the healthcare professional ranks? From changes to testing to residents’ ability to attend hospital rounds, the pandemic has a profound effect on the future of medical education studies.
When news of the coronavirus first emerged, medical, nursing, pharmacy and first-responder students around the world were not sure how much it would affect their education. Many thought that they would be able to continue to study in much the same way as before, especially since students often spend a lot of time working individually.
As the pandemic grew, it became clear that everyone would be affected, including many aspects of school. Testing and in-person classes have been canceled, delayed, or moved online. Schools are still coming to terms with how to conduct residencies and clinics. Health profession conferences, an important place for students to network and learn, have been canceled around the world.
At a time when medical professionals are needed most, thousands of students have had to delay their entry into the field. The challenges of succeeding and thriving in school and your early career have been compounded by the pandemic.
Resources for maintaining your wellbeing
We’ve been in the business of helping health profession students succeed since 2012. In recent years, we realized that simply focusing on study habits and tips is not enough to provide the support we really want to create for students, so we started writing and discussing a more holistic view of student well-being.
This guide will gather the important articles and topics we’ve written about in one handy place. The topics discussed will include:
Eating right on a student’s budget
Mental and emotional health
How mindfulness techniques can help you study and live better
Stress and emotional turmoil are hitting everyone during the pandemic, but first responders - and those training to join their ranks - feel it more than most. Even during normal times, health care professionals report higher impacts from stress than most other professions. How can students, just starting out on the path of becoming healthcare workers, keep stress from having a negative impact on their studies? How can we support the first-responders, physicians, and nurses that care for others?
Overwhelming stress can derail even the most dedicated student, and often the impacts of stress go unnoticed or unacknowledged for too long. Symptoms of stress include tightness in your chest, racing thoughts, and an increase in your heart rate. Gone unacknowledged, these symptoms can distract you from your studies and cause long-term health problems.
One proven way to undo the negative health and wellbeing effects of stress is to practice mindfulness in your everyday life. This may sound a bit “new-agey” for a group of people dedicated to the scientific processes of medical study, but bear with us! For years, studies have shown that simple, small investments in mindfulness techniques bear profound health benefits for practitioners.
By taking a few moments a day, or quick meditation breaks during study sessions, you can prevent some of the negative impacts of stress and boost your concentration. Pick one of these easy and helpful habits and get started today!
You’ve heard of gray matter before - it’s that stuff rattling around in your head as you try to study. But the brain has another important component, called “white matter,” which is responsible for facilitating communication between different parts of your brain.
That communication is an integral part of learning new things and ideas. The more channels of communication provided by white matter, the more flexible and open to learning your mind will be.
Meditation as a regular practice has been proven to help build healthy white matter in your brain. This is one reason to make meditation part of your daily life.
In addition to helping you focus, practicing meditation regularly bolsters your ability to regulate your body’s response to intense emotions including anxiety and stress.
One of the most powerful mindfulness techniques is also the simplest, and that is attention to your breath. This automatic process that most of us take for granted can help you conquer stress and perform better on tests.
Another quick and easy way to recharge your batteries during difficult times is to step outside for a few minutes. Even if you can’t go for a long hike in nature, just being outdoors helps connect you to the world around you, giving you a moment of peace and perspective. Take a breath of fresh air, watch the birds fly overhead, and feel the wind through your hair. Even just five or ten minutes outside will help reduce stress and revive your spirits, focus, and drive.
Reflective writing and journaling
While you’ll be doing plenty of writing as a student, the writing process is also a tool for self-reflection and connection. Reflective writing or journaling involves putting your thoughts, feelings, and reactions down on paper. Not only does this kind of writing provide a way to organize your thoughts after a chaotic day, it will also create a record of your experiences and a deeper understanding of material you’re working on.
Read one Osmosis Medical Education Fellow’s story about how reflective journaling built a connection between her, her work as a doctor, and her humanity. Taking time to write in her patient encounter journal after every clinical experience helped her on mental and emotional levels, and it can help you, too.
How to maintain a healthy diet on a tight money and time budget
Many students try to find extra time and money by cutting out time spent on cooking healthy meals. It’s easy to grab something quick and cheap in order to get back to studying. However, this practice generally serves to undermine physical health and mental wellness in the long run.
Healthy eating is a habit that you should set from the beginning of your school career. Once in place, you’ll find that it’s easier and faster to nourish your body and stay hydrated than to recuperate from poor health and low energy brought about by terrible diet choices. Save time and energy with these tips!
The importance of exercise - and how to fit it in your schedule
I know what many of you are thinking - between studying, classes, sleeping and studying some more, how can I fit one more obligation into my schedule?
It’s not only possible to carve out time for exercise, doing so can have many positive impacts on your life in general. In addition to the physical benefits, exercise can help you feel better emotionally and encourage mental focus as well. Exercise helps mitigate the effects of stress on your brain, which means you will have more effective study sessions after that workout.
We know it’s hard to start the routine, especially when COVID has shuttered many gyms. Try these quick, at-home workouts to get started in a way that is safe and friendly to your busy schedule:
How do health profession students stay motivated?
Chances are, you already describe yourself as pretty motivated. You can picture yourself entering your chosen healthcare profession, and that vision spurs you to study and work hard.
The first year of your program will challenge even the most dedicated student. There are some proven ways - both in general, and specific to medical professions - to maintain your motivation through difficult times.
Look at the big picture
2020 has been a...let’s say, “interesting” year. You may have marked some rough patches over the year, in addition to the horrors wrought by the global pandemic. Sometimes it’s hard to identify the reasons that we all keep going.
Maintaining perspective is a great way to get through those days. The challenges we’re facing have been overcome before, and we will do the same. Keep the larger picture of life worldwide in mind as a way not to get too sucked down by your current trouble.
The practice of setting a goal and breaking it down into smaller, achievable parts is a great way to keep up your motivation. This practice helps you see clear steps to success and check them off one by one. Goal-setting creates a path through even the most chaotic situations.
Your overall health is one key to staying motivated. Success in school will be more difficult if you’re rundown mentally, physically and emotionally. Don’t push these factors aside in order to get 15 more minutes of study time. Prioritize your health as a way to maintain your focus and motivation.
How can you maintain your financial health when facing huge loans?
The wellness of healthcare profession students has become a major focus for schools around the world. Cases of burnout, depression, and suicide have spurred institutions to take a hard look at their accepted practices, and many have even started to make significant changes.
In the midst of so much focus on physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing, financial health has been slightly overlooked. Not by most students, who feel the weight of their student loans keenly.
Osmosis has created resources to help you plan for your financial path ahead. From paying for school to living on a student’s budget, there are ways to ensure your financial health along with your physical and educational wellbeing.
How - and why - to develop resilience
Resiliency has become a popular talking point over the past few years, especially with regards to young children. Researchers have begun to study this characteristic of emotional fortitude and how it can inform many different aspects of society - including students entering healthcare professions that place demands on your mental, emotional, and physical health.
Resiliency refers to the ways a person responds to adversity and strives to overcome obstacles. It is an internal quality that is defined by a number of different qualities, especially having compassion, emotional and intellectual curiosity, responding to setbacks or failure in a healthy way, and the ability to connect with others and seek out help during difficult times.
It is clear that resilience is a key part of success in school. Your health profession education and career will be marked with difficulties, strenuous schedules, and even failure.
There are proven strategies for developing resilience. It takes time and practice, and once you’ve mastered one it’s time to start on the next - so be prepared for a lifelong process here. A few ways that we’ve discussed already in this article are practicing mindfulness and cultivating self-care. Part of these strategies include resiliency-specific goals like learning from your mistake and practicing forgiveness - of others and yourself.
Best Practices for Studying
Osmosis offers an unparalleled library of study resources and guides focused on the success of medical professional students. Here are some of our top tips and greatest hits - but make sure to check out the rest of the site as well!
Active learning is an excellent study technique that involves writing down questions as you study, and then answering them fully - twice - at the end of your study session. This study tip helps you during marathon study sessions as well as preparing for tests the night before. Read more about active learning from this Osmosis Medical Education Fellow.
Facing your first year
Entering a health profession program is a daunting prospect, but you’ve got this! Osmosis is here to guide you through the ups and downs that your first year has in store for you. Check out this helpful Clinician’s Corner on how to tackle your first semester of medical school.
One barrier to success that even the most prepared student encounters is test anxiety. This anxiety can strike in the form of feelings of inadequacy and an inability to organize your racing thoughts. Most students facing the high-stakes board exams will experience this kind of anxiety at one point or another, and many medical students report these feelings when approaching tests for their classes. If you have felt test anxiety before, you’re not alone! Test anxiety can be conquered using mindfulness and breathing techniques. Read more about how to overcome this anxiety.
How to Prepare for those BIG tests
Preparing for test anxiety is all well and good, but you still need to pack a lot of information into that brain of yours! While maintaining your mindfulness techniques is important, Osmosis has plenty of tips for test prep as well.
First, find the study method that works best for you. Remember that we all learn differently and at different paces. Try out different techniques until you find the one that fits your learning style.
Next, connect with your peers. A good study buddy can provide motivation as well as an audience that you can practice your knowledge on. Teaching material to another person is one of the best ways to master it yourself.
Finally, set good habits from the start. Lay a foundation of dedication and precision, and you’ll set yourself up for long-term success.
If you’re looking for help preparing for specific exams, we’ve got you covered:
More study tips from Osmosis
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