By Camila R. Guetter
During the COVID-19 pandemic, medical students are facing many changes in their education and schedules. Lectures turning into a virtual format, cancellation of clinical rotations, and closure of exam centers, to name a few. We understand how all these changes can make students feel anxious and stressed. Although as healthcare workers we all recognize and support the need for social distancing and other measures to flatten the curve, it is completely valid to feel frustrated and anxious as your plans constantly change.
These are definitely unprecedented times. As a result, we are all facing the need to reinvent ourselves and adapt our habits, goals, and expectations to the situation. In this article, I want to discuss how this is especially true regarding medical education, and how medical students across the United States and around the globe are having to adjust their daily study routine and figure out how to stay well (mentally and physically) and productive while social distancing.
Here are some thoughts and suggestions on how to do so. Everyone has their own studying strategy, so not all suggestions will apply to everyone, but hopefully you will find some of them useful to you!
1. Stick to a pre-set schedule: it is easy to fall behind on your to-do list when you suddenly find yourself with lectures that turn into an online-only format or when you have to study from home all day long when that was not the environment in which you better concentrate. In order to achieve your goals, a good idea is to make a list every night of what you would like to accomplish the next day (or every Sunday for what you want to accomplish the following week). Be realistic, and set times to tick each of the boxes. Wake up at a predetermined time. Include periods of time in your schedule for exercising and relaxing too. Having a schedule to stick to can be very helpful in order to keep track of what you are doing and what still needs to be done. In addition, ticking off a task from your to-do list gives immediate positive feedback and contributes to your wellbeing as you realize you are getting things done!
2. Find the best spot in your home to study: somewhere comfortable, but maybe not too comfortable… quiet or maybe with some background music (you choose the genre!). We all know what our best environment to learn and concentrate in is. Although some people might not be used to studying for long periods of time in their homes (some may prefer to study at coffee houses with some background noise), try to adapt your space so that it feels more like your usual study place. Make your own latte, turn on background lounge music, the same you usually hear while studying at your favorite coffee house – maybe that will feel a little bit more familiar and will allow you to be more productive!
3. Prevent eye straining: we are all probably finding ourselves joining in a lot more conference calls than usual (school daily/weekly update calls, lectures, group/research meetings, talking to friends and family). On top of that, a lot of our studying (question banks, videos, lecture notes) is usually based on a laptop or tablet screen. This is definitely something that can make us tired and can lead to eye straining. Here are some good recommendations to avoid eye strain (which are also simple to add to your routine):
- Blink more often. Use eye drops to keep your eyes lubricated if needed (consult your doctor to check which one is best for you). In general, eye lubricants without preservatives are safe to use frequently.
- Practice the “20-20-20 rule.” If you haven’t heard about it before, here is the opportunity to learn something easy that can help you rest your eyes. While studying, look away from your laptop every 20 minutes and focus on an object 20 feet away from you for a period of 20 seconds. You can then go back to studying!
- Take breaks away from your phone, tablet, computer, laptop. In your free time, do something that does not involve a screen. You can still binge watch your favorite TV series, but it is a good idea to alternate with something different such as reading a book, meditating, or cooking. It might also be a good time to pick up an old hobby like knitting, baking, drawing, playing an instrument, etc.
- There are also lots of other pieces of advice regarding the ideal angle and distance from your eyes to the screen, best lighting options, etc. You can easily find this information online!
4. Practice your knot tying skills: here is another great option for taking time away from your laptop and acquiring surgical skills at the same time! A shoelace and a couple of Youtube videos is all that is needed! Also make sure to check the ACS/ASE Medical Student Core Curriculum for some great resources to prepare for your surgical clerkships when they resume.
5. Check out the AWS resources for medical students: the AWS National Medical Student Committee has put together great resources for students, such as specialty specific resource guides. Click here to access them!
6. Don’t forget to exercise: exercising keeps both your body and mind healthy. If you were used to an exercise routine prior to the social distancing measures and suddenly stop it completely, it won’t be long until you are feeling tired and unable to concentrate properly. There are many apps and content online for indoor exercises, many of which are adapted to objects you can easily find in your house. In addition, if you are located in a region where outdoor exercising is allowed, going for a walk or a run is a great option for burning some calories and clearing your mind. Make sure to follow regulations/recommendations on outdoor activities in the region where you live.
7. Eat well: be conscious of what and how much you are eating. No need to say how easy it is to start eating differently from your normal when you find yourself at home all day long. Make sure you are getting all the nutrients that you need in order to keep your body healthy!
8. Meditate and practice mindfulness: if you were used to doing this already, keep it up! If not, what a great time to try some mindfulness and meditation! It can be a great alternative to help reduce your anxiety levels. There are many apps and websites for beginners (many of them made their content free of charge during the COVID-19 pandemic). You may find that this is something that you enjoy and want to continue doing even after the pandemic to relax after your busy days as a medical student! Another great option for de-stressing is to join the Resident and Associate Society of the American College of Surgeons (RAS-ACS) in their “Take a Breath and Decompress” hangout series. Click here to check the date and time for the next calls.
9. Last but not least, know that it is ok not to be productive all of the time: things are constantly changing, and we are all having to adapt. Focus on the positive things of your day, and make sure to take some time off to relax as well. Talk to your friends, family, and significant other. Sharing your day with them can always help relieve the pressure and anxiety all this uncertainty can bring.
The Association of Women Surgeons has also put together a list of resources for members on the website. Make sure to check those out too. Together, we will get through this, and we will come out even stronger! Stay safe, everyone!
Camila R. Guetter, MD, is originally from Curitiba, Brazil, and graduated medical school from the Federal University of Paraná. Camila is passionate about pursuing a career in academic surgery and is very active in AWS. She currently serves as the Medical Student Chair for the AWS Blog Committee and the Vice Chair for the AWS National Medical Student Committee. She is also a member of the AWS Publications Committee. You can find her on twitter at @camila_guetter.
Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.