Managing Stress In The Fast-Paced Medical Field

The other day I cried in front of my attending in the little office we share at an adult outpatient practice. We had only worked together once so were still somewhat uncomfortable around each other – still learning about each other and feeling out our individual expectations. I started crying because I was a few minutes late which normally wouldn’t have stressed me out enough to begin weeping but I had been dealing with some pretty heavy personal stuff that had completely sapped all of my emotional energy. When I arrived at the office, worn out after staying up all night trying to deal with what was going on, I couldn’t handle the crushing guilt I felt over my tardiness. Managing stress, especially in health and medicine, is tough.

It’s important to be honest here so I will also say I was considerably upset about my attending seeing me this way – emotional, not in control, allowing my personal life to affect my work. I apologized over and over as I blotted my tears with the Kleenex he held out to me with a sympathetic look on his face. “I’m not usually like this” I remember saying at least three times. He commiserated. He understood what I was going through. He normalized it for me and told me everything would be ok. He suggested I take the rest of the day off but I decided to stay, feeling bad enough about being late and then breaking down crying that I didn’t feel like I could take him up on his offer.

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Later, after I had calmed down considerably, I tried to sort through why I had been so distraught. Yes, what I was going through personally was very stressful. Yes, I was extremely sleep-deprived and yes I was late and nervous about being considered unprofessional. But while my emotional response wasn’t unusual for the situation, I think it was worsened by the fact that in the medical community there isn’t much room or sympathy for workers who are struggling, especially those who are still in training. When it comes to our patients there is endless understanding and compassion. We are constantly trying to put ourselves in their shoes and understand what they are going through. This is not the case for healthcare providers and trainees. As students we constantly live in fear of how others will perceive us. Will we be determined not smart enough? Not compassionate enough? Not professional enough? These fears are realized when you see a fellow student kicked out of surgery for having difficulty observing a tough case or when you witness an intern being chewed out by their senior because they were a few minutes late after dropping off their kids. When we are unable to maintain the impossibly high standards of our profession we feel as if we have somehow failed.

The reality is, no one can go through life without making mistakes. Sometimes your personal life will bleed through into your work and cause you to be late or not focused or even cause you to not be in a place where you can safely care for patients. You are not perfect, you will mess up. You will cry in front of your attending. In fact, my attending told me that day that I was the third medical student to have cried in front of him (I hope he meant this year, not like, ever). I’m not sure what caused those other students to break down but it made me feel better to know that others struggled too. It made me feel less alone.

I think it’s important to normalize these experiences. Just because we are going to be doctors doesn’t mean that we don’t feel things or that we have to keep all of our emotions pent up inside constantly because we are afraid of being judged and found wanting. I’m hoping that as time goes on more physicians will be like the man I worked with who gave me the support and showed me the kindness I needed to pull myself together and get through the rest of the afternoon. I hope to be that kind of attending someday.

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Chantal Mendes

Chantal Mendes is a writer who loves science. She graduated with a journalism degree from Boston University (go Terriers!) and is currently a third year at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. In addition to her interests in cardiology and pediatrics, Chantal enjoys rock-climbing, anything Lord of the Rings related and looking for the best poutine in Vermont. She shares stories of her journey from journalist to prospective doctor on her blog, journalistdoingscience.blogspot.com and tweets @Chantal_Mendes.