Mindfulness, Medicine and Me

Andrew C. Elton, BS

It is the anatomy final in my first year of medical school; I move quickly through the lab trying to identify the semblances of human structures laying on the stainless-steel dissection tables. My fellow medical students are standing by the dissection tables, shoulder to shoulder, leaning, twisting and contorting themselves to get a better view of the structures. The anatomy professor walks in to announce the halfway point of the exam. I am mostly done, but I still need to identify structures from the most difficult unit – the head and neck. Then it started. My respirations quickened, heart pounded against my ribs, and soon enough my panic attack was in full force. It felt like I was losing control and my ability to concentrate deteriorated. I quickly found a chair in the corner of the lab and sat down hoping that no one would see me.

Panic attacks and anxiety have been a familiar experience for me since high school. During my sophomore year, I struggled with hip pain due to a bone lesion that required surgery. My panic attacks started after this shocking experience and continued through high school, college and now medical school. I always believed that I would grow out of them, as if it were a function of age. It was not until medical school that their frequency began to challenge my ability to take good care of myself. Almost any lecture, laboratory or exam became a trigger for my panic attacks. As if medical school was not stressful enough, for me, being in class became a panic-inducing experience, with my classmates constantly asking me why I always sat near the exit.

Eventually, I sought counseling, and in doing so, I felt my passion and enthusiasm to attend class flow back again. However, it was not until my second year of medical school that I pursued counseling and was introduced to mindfulness. In clerkships, we acquire skillsets in various specialties to become well-rounded physicians. For instance, in general surgery, we practice technical skills like suturing, and in psychiatry, validation skills. Outside of clerkships, I have acquired the tool of mindfulness to maintain presence and mitigate anxiety. Some ways that mindfulness can be practiced include meditation, breathing exercises and taking intentional breaks during the day. I am happy to say that adding mindfulness to my toolkit during medical school has played a key role in personal healing and will serve me well in my future career as a physician.

A career in medicine is a long path accompanied by stress in our professional lives and, inevitably, within our personal lives too. I am writing this perspective piece to emphasize the importance of mindfulness in my medical school experience, and in doing so, I hope to encourage others to seek help earlier.

How can you combat burnout?
The simple answer lies in these three things:

  1. Actively seek well-roundedness and find friends/family to confide in.
  2. Choose at least one hobby outside of medical school and stick to it; even if it is just once or twice a week.
  3. Share your feelings with those you trust, especially people close to you who want to hear how you feel.

How can you be an ally to your fellow medical students?
The people who best understand your medical school experience are likely sitting right next to you in class. Of course, there are many ways to be an ally. When you or your classmate succeed, celebrate with them. When the workload becomes overwhelming, share how you feel and validate each other's feelings.

"Instead of condemning people, let's try to understand them.
Let's try to figure out why they do what they do.
That's a lot more profitable and intriguing than criticism;
and it breeds sympathy, tolerance and kindness."

— Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

Andrew C. Elton, BS

This article was authored by Andrew C. Elton, BS, medical student at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis, MN. Twitter: @AndrewElton1