Students in medical school are some of the most notoriously sleep-deprived individuals this side of new parents and Navy SEAL trainees. They’re also among the most stressed-out students on the planet, with massive workloads and overwhelming schedules.
According to the American Medical Student Association, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a common med school affliction that can lead to panic attacks, depression, nervous breakdown, and even increase the likelihood of heart disease. While it sounds grim, it is possible to survive and even thrive in medical school. We’ve rounded up some tips on dealing with sleep deprivation, insomnia, stress, and other med school maladies.
Stress is an inevitable part of getting an advanced degree. What you can control is how you allow it to manifest itself and how you let it affect your life and health. Here are a few ways to get a handle on your stressors:
- Squeeze in time for self-care. Self-care can be as basic as exercising, eating right, and getting enough sleep as often as possible--making these things a priority whenever you can will help you get through stressful periods. Indulge in more luxuriant acts of self-care once in a while, like a massage or mini-vacation.
- Practice relaxation techniques, like mindfulness meditation, yoga, or deep breathing.
- Use time-management tools. From old-fashioned day planners to cutting-edge apps and gadgets, there are tons of options for keeping yourself on track and evaluating how you’re spending your time.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Whether it’s tutoring in a subject you’re struggling with or talking to a counselor, use the resources that are available to you on campus, in your community, or even online. There’s a whole new crop of mental health apps, like TalkSpace and Crisis Text Line, that offer access to 24/7 support right at your fingertips.
Sleeping on the Fly
Sleep is an essential body function, and if you aren’t getting enough of it, it’s eventually going to claim its ground with or without your permission. Scout out safe places to catch a quick catnap, or ask other students or staff for recommendations. Some universities and hospitals now offer nap rooms. If you can’t find a dedicated space for a short snooze, you may have to get creative. After a med student was attacked online by a blogger over falling asleep at her desk, dozens of doctors and med students responded by posting pics of the unusual places in which they’ve fallen asleep at work.
Compensating for Lack of Sleep
Some days are inevitably going to be sleep deprived, with no other option than to power through until you get a chance to crash. While it may be tempting to load up high-octane caffeine pills or even “uppers” like Ritalin and Adderall, just don’t. Monster doses of caffeine and improper use of prescription drugs can have nasty side effects well beyond the jitters, including liver damage, severe anxiety, hallucinations, and seizures. Instead, eat healthy (sleep deprivation makes you crave carbs, fat, and sugar), go for a brisk walk in the fresh air, or try a couple energy-boosting yoga poses, like Bridge Pose or Cobra Pose. And while caffeine toxicity is a real thing, coffee in moderate amounts will probably be your best friend in med school.
While working around a crazy sleep-study-work schedule, keep in mind that sleep deprivation, insomnia, stress, and other health problems are all closely interconnected. If you rely too heavily on caffeine or become dependent on daytime naps, you can quickly throw off your natural sleep schedule and wind up with insomnia, which will compound your existing stressors. Making a healthy sleep schedule your top priority whenever possible can prevent the sleep-stress cycle from spiraling out of control.