For as long as I can remember, stress has been a constant in my life. It was there as an undergraduate student when I was applying to medicine, as a medical student on clinical rotation and now as an Internal Medicine resident physician learning to juggle multiple demands in both professional and personal spheres. At this point, I’ve accepted that it will continue to be an inevitable part of life, but I no longer want stress to be so…stressful.
Over these last few years, I’ve found the following principles helpful in redefining my perception and management of stress.
1. Done is better than perfect. Let’s be real, most people in medicine are type A perfectionists. It’s probably what drew us to the field in the first place. Perfectionism, while it can motivate us to excel, can unfortunately manifest in unhealthy ways such as extreme rigidity and stubbornness, chronic fatigue and burnout. With multiple competing interests and demands for our time, completing each to-do item with such precise expectations is nearly impossible. Now, I relegate a set time limit to a specific task. Once that time is up, I only dedicate more time if the task is incomplete. Otherwise, I move on with my other action items. This has helped me to boost productivity while avoiding ruminating, with no significant compromise in the quality of work I produce.
2. Find ways to let off steam. Do you process things verbally? Go call a close friend or co-resident physician to rant about a particularly hard day. Or perhaps you prefer to be alone in your thoughts? Try scheduling some time with yourself to give space to your emotions. Are you an uber fit person (bless you) who loves to sweat? Then perhaps a long run outside or an intense work-out at the gym will be therapeutic. No matter what your preferences are, finding outlets that work for you will come in handy time and time again, throughout your training and beyond.
3. Plan to reward yourself. I’ll be honest, I’m a total dopamine junkie. Rewards are a very strong motivator and even the promise of one will help to override the profound laziness that lies in the core of who I am. If I find myself dragging my heels on tasks (ahem, like that research project I should have finished months ago), I promise myself a small reward after I complete a portion of what needs to be done. The reward can be anything, whether it’s a spa day/massage, planning a vacation in the future or biting the bullet and buying that item you’ve been eyeing for months.
4. Learn to outsource tasks. One of the best things I’ve ever done in my life is hire a housekeeper to help with cleaning every two weeks. Now, I never have to get stressed about a messy home and I never have to use my limited free time on cleaning (which I absolutely hate). This applies to other tasks as well. Do you absolutely loathe cooking? Look into a meal prep company that can supply you with healthy, nutritious meals. Do you dread grocery shopping? Look into a local grocery delivery service. Find ways to outsource things you dislike to professionals who can do the tasks more efficiently and completely than you. Know when you need to ask for help!
5. Stop with the self-guilt. I personally found this the most helpful for overall stress reduction. In the past I would experience so much guilt—at feeling overwhelmed in the first place or even more commonly, using “non-productive” ways to deal with my stress. Were there times when I processed my emotions by eating my weight in McDonalds, or binge-watching Love is Blind? Yes. Is it healthy if I do this every day? No. But did I feel better after immediately doing it? Yes. Sometimes, the coping mechanisms we use may seem unhealthy or non-productive and that is OKAY. Learning to silence the inner critic and giving yourself full permission to do what you need to do is, in my opinion, the most stress-relieving thing you can do for yourself.
Dr. Hyejee Ohm is an Internal Medicine resident physician at the U of A.