Stressing About Stress

By Anthony Honigman

“Can you chase those bloods?”  “Yes, but what’s your management plan for this patient?”  “Have you even looked at the VIA practice questions yet?”  These questions alone are enough to raise the cortisol levels in any budding young medical student!

While some of these are asked tongue-in-cheek, one question still remains — why are we as medical students, and eventual working doctors, so prone to work-related stress and anxiety?

It may because the stressors of hospital (and medical school) are a product of the interaction between the demanding nature of the work and our often obsessive, conscientious and committed personalities.  It may be because we as medical students face fierce competition for a limited number of future jobs and training positions.  Or it may be because medical school can impact on both our social and financial freedom and wellbeing.

While the source behind rising stress levels in medical school varies from individual to individual, I find there are a number of ways to help reduce stress levels:

Recognise stress in yourself.

The first thing is learning to recognise stress and the way it manifests itself in you.  Irritability, over-eating, under-eating, procrastination and distractibility, just to name a few, are behavioural changes which can act as your internal alarm notifying you that you are stressed and something needs to be done to combat it.

Try relaxation techniques.

Relax!  Easier said than done, right?  Not necessarily, all it takes 5-10 minutes.

Meditation, mindfulness and breathing techniques all help to reduce your stress levels through lowering heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and improves concentration and mood.  I find that doing one of these techniques before sitting down to study or before going to sleep helps to reduce your feelings of stress.  There are plenty of resources on the Internet and I personally can recommend the ‘smiling mind’ app.

Get out and exercise.

Personally, this is a surefire way to reduce rising stress levels.  At least 45 minute of strenuous exercise not only helps take your mind off anything that had been worrying you, but also releases endorphins – the neuropeptide responsible for reducing pain and stress.  I find that after physical activity, you are able to look at an old problem with fresh eyes and discover new ways of overcoming it.

Life only gets busier, so it’s important to start building healthy habits now.

Maintain your social life.

Regularly catching up with friends and family outside work or university is essential.   Having a network of supportive relationships contributes to psychological wellbeing through establishing a sense of belonging and self-worth as well as a feeling of security.


Many people, including myself at times, are reluctant to let anyone know they are stressed or not coping.  Make you sure not only have access to those who can help in times of stress, but that you reach out to them when you need them the most.

The medical profession does not have a good track record in acknowledging and managing stress.  We as students and future doctors need to not only recognise our own stress levels, but also in those around us.  Only then can we implement ways to lift the dark cloud of stress and anxiety and see things clearly.

Featured image by user stuartpilbrow at Wikimedia Commons.

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