A medical student’s reflection on burnout


From the moment we begin medical school, we strive to achieve the best we can. That ranges from getting good grades to filling our CV with community work and research experience. With the increasing competitiveness of residency programs, this can be aggravating. The striving, although needed, keeps sucking our energy, our souls, and sometimes our health without us noticing. It eventually drains us so much that we can no longer function well.

It was just another day at medical school when I felt that I just couldn’t do this anymore. Although I attended lectures, I couldn’t focus well and retained very little. At home, it took me so much time to finish the lectures. That devastated me. Day after day, the situation didn’t change, and my tasks were accumulating. I looked at the list of tasks I had to do: assignments, workshops, club and committee meetings, research projects, etc. I felt so helpless and unmotivated. I even found a text from my childhood friend saying, “Miss you.” I realized that seeing my dearest friends was not on my to-do-list. I felt terrible when I realized that even though I couldn’t work well, I felt guilty whenever I tried to do something that wasn’t considered “work.”

That depression got me thinking: Why am I not able to go back to normal? I was so afraid of over-thinking because I didn’t want to reach the conclusion that I had lost my passion in the process of all this striving. I was terrified to feel that my decision to study medicine was wrong, since that implied massive life changes that I was not ready for. I decided to stop thinking and convinced myself that my problem needed time and would resolve on its own.

After realizing that my problem wasn’t resolving, I sought advice from older medical students. They told me that I was just burned out. They said that I was overwhelming myself by doing so many things at the same time, and that it was completely fine to be not interested in a certain module. Maybe that was not the specialty for me. Most importantly, they told me that in the process of building up my brain capacity, it is crucial not to leave out my soul. That struck me. I didn’t notice how much I was leading an unhealthy, demanding lifestyle until someone said it to my face.

Having gotten this feedback, I felt the need to know the reasons to deal with them when they recur. I felt that the problem stemmed from my struggle for perfection, when in reality, no one can ever reach perfection, because at that point what is left to learn? Perhaps all these tasks were attempts to fill the gap inside of me, especially since I was no longer an active undergrad student. I noticed that I needed to acknowledge that a new stage of my life had started and that the situation had changed. I obviously have less time now, and I shouldn’t be harsh on myself, but am I really the only one to blame? Doesn’t the whole system and community expect us to work hard? Definitely, but I should learn how to deal with it.

If such an episode recurs, I learned that I made a mistake when I stopped thinking about my problem and waited that much. I can’t cure myself without digging for reasons to resolve. I was just not interested in that module, and that’s OK. I was burned out. When I need to rest, I should rest. From that point onward, I started giving myself mini-vacations during modules whenever I felt there was a need, and it worked just fine. I met with friends and practiced my hobbies, such as drawing and painting.

Finally, I concluded that I needed to change my mentality on setting priorities. Exercise is a priority. Having a good time with beloved ones is a priority. Apparently, I was so busy learning the theory of patient well-being that I forgot to maintain my own.

Sarah B. El Iskandarani is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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