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7 Ways to Manage Stress During Your Pre-Med Post-Bacc Program

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We’ve said it before on this website, and we’ll probably say it again: pre-medical post-bacc programs aren’t remedial. They’re hard. That’s because medicine is a difficult and challenging profession in which you assume responsibility for others’ well-being. To prepare you for that future, the coursework you take on during your post-bacc certificate or post-bacc master’s program will be difficult and challenging, too.

It’s normal to go through periods of feeling overwhelmed

However, managing those stressful periods is critical: you don’t want to burn out of medical education before you’ve even been accepted into medical school!

Here are seven tactics for managing stress during your pre-medical post-bacc—tactics you can use as you progress through to medical school and the busy, challenging medical career that will last the rest of your life.

1. Avoid Comparison and Perfectionism

Pre-med post-baccs are competitive environments. Competition can be motivating, but it can also be a source of anxiety. Position yourself as your main competition and aim to improve your own performance without reference to others.

It may be worth avoiding social media if comparison is an issue for you. On social media, other students may show edited highlights of their post-bacc or medical school experience. Seeing only the high notes may cause you to feel as if you are “failing”. It’s more likely that those other students probably just didn’t post about the struggles they’re experiencing right along with you.

On a similar note, don’t put additional pressure on yourself by seeking to be perfect at everything. One strategy for controlling perfectionist urges is to manage your expectations. Before setting out to achieve something—completing a research project, taking the MCAT, tackling organic chemistry—define the minimum standard of success you need to reach to continue toward your goal of getting into medical school. If you meet the minimum standard, you’ve accomplished what you set out to do—even if it wasn’t perfect. Anything you achieve beyond that is a bonus!

2. Create a Schedule You Can Stick To

Your post-bacc program will be an intensive one to two years. You may feel you have to eat, sleep, and breathe medicine during that time. While you’ll certainly have to work very hard, pacing yourself is critical if you want to avoid burning out before the end of your program. Create an achievable study schedule on a weekly and per-session basis.

On a weekly basis, you can:

  • Block off time for sleep, exercise/hobbies, and a couple of time-defined social events (for instance, 90 minutes to have dinner with your friends, not an open-ended pub crawl) first
  • Review your assignments and deadlines for each class for the week
  • Break out specific tasks you will need to accomplish for each assignment
  • Spread those tasks out over the week, respecting your sleep, exercise, and social schedules

For each individual session, you can:

  • Make a list of the specific tasks you need to accomplish during that session
  • Set time limits for each task – you can use a timer-based method, such as the Pomodoro Technique, to help with this
  • Establish scheduled breaks that involve walking away from your desk

If you’re prone to being distracted by your smartphone or social media, try treating these distractions as rewards – 20 minutes of browsing Reddit for every two hours of study time completed, for example. You can also schedule blocks of time for wandering around the Internet. If neither of these strategies seems ideal, there are plenty of phone and browser apps out there to help you restrict access to these time-wasters during your study periods.

3. Get Moving

As a future doctor, you already know how important regular exercise is to a person’s health. Making time for it during an intensive post-bacc is difficult, but worth it for the opportunity to release tension, support your immune system, and just have fun. Ideally, you’ll find a way to exercise that gets you outside and involves interacting with other people. However, that isn’t always possible.

If joining a gym, class, or sports league isn’t possible, consider folding exercise into your daily routine. Can you commute on foot or by cycling? Can you schedule regular breaks in a long study period to do some push-ups, stretches, or swing a kettlebell? As long as you are moving regularly and with some intensity, you are doing yourself a favor when it comes to managing stress.

4. Feed Your Head

Again, you’ll already be aware that nutrition plays an important role in supporting cognitive function, mood, immune system function, and energy levels. While it’s easy to raid the vending machines or nuke ramen noodles between classes, making the effort to eat a balanced, healthy diet will pay off in the long run.

Eating a balanced, healthy diet doesn’t mean living on green smoothies, either. Ensure you have some fruit, some vegetables, and some whole grain every day. Choose lean proteins. Carry a water bottle with you and try to fill and drink it twice. Reduce your reliance on takeout and processed foods as much as possible.

If you want more specific shopping advice, there’s a lot of evidence to support the benefits of the following foods:

  • Leafy greens – Kale, spinach, chard, collards and broccoli all contain nutrients that support healthy nervous system function.
  • Nuts and seeds, especially walnuts – Research indicates the healthy fats and vitamin E content in nuts also help support cognitive function, while walnuts in particular seem to support better memory.
  • Berries, especially blueberries – The phytochemicals and antioxidants in blueberries and other berries have been shown to improve learning capacity, memory, and motor skills.
  • Deep-water fish – Salmon, tuna, sardines and herring all contain abundant omega-3 fatty acids, which support learning capacity and memory. Vegans and vegetarians looking to increase their omega-3 intake can incorporate walnuts and flaxseed into their diets instead.

Finally, remember that cooking for yourself can also be a way to relax.

5. Activate Your Support Network

Nobody accomplishes their goals without help from others. When you start your post-bacc journey, talk with family and friends about how important their support is to you, and ask for their continued help as you take on this intensive year of training. Some specific ways they can help might include:

  • Scheduling regular in-person or phone check-ins to talk about how you’re doing
  • Being your “fitness date” to ensure you have a reason to get exercise at least once a week
  • Providing childcare if you have dependent children
  • Keeping you on-task when you’re studying at home—for example, you could give your roommate “temporary custody” of your smartphone until you complete a set block of study time

People who care about you will know how important becoming a doctor is to you. They’ll be happy to offer help however they can. Making sure your support network is standing by means you’ll have people ready to help you weather the inevitable feelings of doubt, overwhelm and worry all pre-med post-bacc students face from time to time. They’ll also be ready to celebrate your successes!

If you find yourself struggling with serious negative thoughts, depression or anxiety, don’t hesitate to seek professional assistance. Your post-bacc program may be able to help you connect with counseling or therapy resources on campus. Being anxious or depressed isn’t shameful. It’s common. Having the courage to address depression and anxiety now can even equip you to help future patients once you are a doctor.

6. Prioritize Sleep

Speaking of refreshing and re-energizing, don’t neglect regular quality sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation has demonstrated negative effects on memory, mental performance, cardiovascular health, mood, body weight, and even risk of accident. Don’t get in the habit of caffeinating through sleep deprivation during your post-bacc.

Sleep deprivation’s short-term impact on your stress levels and academic performance is bad enough, but once you are in medical school and in residency, lack of sleep could put patients’ lives at risk. Think about it: would you want a neurosurgeon to operate on your brain if you knew she had only slept three hours the night before?

7. Take It One Step at a Time

Finally, remember that while you have so much to accomplish during your post-bacc: the MCAT, boosting your GPA, gaining clinical or research experience, applying to medical school—you can only ever complete one thing at a time. Break down every large goal into small steps and tasks. Focus on the task that’s in front of you without worrying about all the rest of what you have to do later.

Your pre-med post-bacc isn’t a grim gauntlet of stress: it’s a golden opportunity for you to prove you can be an exceptional medical student and future contributor to the field of medicine. Take care of yourself now so you can take care of others someday.


Photo by Reinhart Julian

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