Positive stress management is key for med students

It’s not easy being a medical student.

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Marilyn Baetz, Department of Psychiatry

It’s not easy being a medical student.

That’s something most current, and former, med students would agree on. But what interested a research team, which included the College of Medicine’s Marilyn Baetz (Department of Psychiatry), a couple years ago wasn’t the amount of stress, but how the students reacted to it.

“I’d observed medical students and residents over the years to see the changes that occur, the stresses placed on them as they go through their career, and then the difficulties that obviously ensue for many physicians as we are in practice,” Baetz explained. “So I thought it would be interesting to look at it from the beginning as they come into medical school.”

Shortly after the idea took root, an incoming summer student gave Baetz and her team the ability to get the ball rolling on data collection.

“I thought this would be an interesting project to look at,” Baetz continued. “When they come in, measure how they perceive their stress, and look at things to do with coping – do they use positive ways to cope, do they use negative ways of coping – and then measure their resilience.”

Ways we cope with stress have a big impact on how we handle stress;  negative methods like drinking or smoking  versus positive methods being more along the lines of talking to someone about the stress or exercising. Baetz also used a measure of resilience which looks at the individuals tendency to rebound from pressure and stress in general.  And once the sample was compared to the data received about the general population through the Canadian Medical Survey, her team had found some interesting results.

“Compared to the general population we found that medical students in general had higher stress, which makes sense,” explained Baetz. “They also tended to have more negative coping in general - but males also had the higher positive coping scores than the general population of their peers, and had higher resilience.

“Females had more stress than the males did, so there was some gender differences associated with that.”

And while the parameters of the study didn’t look into the ‘why’s’ behind why female medicine students had a higher amount of perceived stress, Baetz believes it’s something that medical schools in general should consider. Baetz notes that other studies suggest it may be their personal lives that are responsible for the extra stress – namely that they may have more familial responsibilities than their male classmates, though she stresses that this study didn’t collect any data on that subject.

So what should medical students do to help combat the stress, and through that decrease the prevalence of negative coping strategies?

“Take more time for wellness and taking care of yourself,” she stressed. “We know you’re busy with the pressures within medical school, taking the time to still do some exercise, get your proper sleep, not use drugs and alcohol to cope – those are things that are basic mental health strategies, but are so important.”

And it’s a battle Baetz knows that most, if not all, students have to deal with. But while a lot of students tried to cut corners in terms of sleep or exercising because their busy school schedules didn’t allow the time for them, she stresses that making the time is key.

“Understand that taking some time for your own self-care will really benefit you in that you’re able to study more effectively - take the time to figure out what are your good care activities.”