9 Ways to Thrive in High-Stress Work Environments
By: Sydney Green
“You chose this life!”
You wouldn’t believe how many times I, and so many of my classmates, have heard this sentence. Yes, I may have chosen this life, but I did NOT choose the mental debilitation that came with it.
You may be asking: What exactly is this “life” you’re talking about? Well, allow me to enlighten you and open a door into my world. As a medical student I'm constantly in this cycle of study, test, study, test, fail, study some more, test, learn about the stress of saving lives, do it all over again. My days start early and end very late. On average, I tend to be awake for about 18-20 hours a day. Six out of seven days of the week I’m at the hospital, often before dawn, where I am expected to see patients for an hour and go around with a group of other students and residents to see the same patients simply to get berated on how poorly or praised on how well I know the minute details about a person I just met. And this is all before 7AM. The remainder of the work day is composed of being with an attending physician who then continues to “pimp” me on topics over whatever rotation I am on at the time. (Before going any further, I’d like to add that pimping means to bombard me with questions at any point in time with the intent of allowing me to learn or embarrass me in front of patients, nurses, other physicians, or other students.) The hospital work day tends to end around 6 or 7PM. After that, I go home and I’m expected to stay awake long enough to decompress, study, eat, possibly exercise, and finally sleep. Here’s the kicker: I often am not able to fully decompress after a day of work. I find myself constantly pushing through the exhaustion to get more time to study, often skipping dinner and going to bed once I physically cannot keep my head up anymore.
I often physically put myself in bed around 11PM, but I would lie there unable to fall asleep for about an hour, sometimes more. My mind is constantly racing about what I did that day, the questions I was asked and the answers I provided, and the guilt I felt about going to sleep instead of staying awake to study more. Over time, the exhaustion and deprivation built, the guilt didn’t shake, and a feeling of constant anxiety started to creep up on me. At first, it was only in my head in the form of racing thoughts and “what if” scenarios playing on a loop. When I did fall asleep, I would wake up every 2 hours afraid I missed my alarm. My sleep hygiene got worse and I found myself unable to eat as much as I used to. Next came the physical manifestation of anxiety: a racing heartbeat, shaking, and sweating when I drove to work and was expected to speak in front of a group of colleagues. My mind got foggy and voices become more muffled. I was simply going through the motions of trying to get to the next day.
This has built up for me since last July and reached its head around mid-February. I realized that I was avoiding texts from friends and family, being short with those around me, and would find myself crying out of nowhere. Despite all of this, I would display a completely different person on social media. I’d post a picture of myself smiling or share something funny, when on the other side of the phone I’d have a stoic face with the darkest under eye bags you’ve ever seen.
By the beginning of March, I grew tired of being tired. I finally put my foot down and decided to put myself first again. I’ve always believed in the power of self-care, so I went out to find different ways in which I could help reduce my stress and anxiety, as well as improve my overall quality of life. I have found that the following coping skills have helped me tremendously since diving into this high-stress life.
Get a hobby
I bought a camera after my first semester of medical school as a “Congrats, you survived” gift to myself. I found that doing something creative is incredibly helpful with getting your mind off of things that make your head feel full and heavy. Photography granted me the ability to stop, take a breath, and focus on a subject (nature, pets, friends, family, food). Also, you can wholeheartedly Google tips on how to step up your iPhone photography skills if you don’t have a camera. So, go forth and snap some pics!
2. Change of Scenery
I recently added hiking to my repertoire of stress relief, and I LOVE it. Hiking is a form of exercise so it’s best to start off small and work your way up. Simply put, your first “hike” can be walking around your neighborhood. Hopefully, your neighborhood is flat, but if not, hills are good for toning thighs and glutes! Regardless, go as far as you want and build up from there! Same with gradual elevation (you want to be able to climb Everest, right?). Once you’re ready for trees and shrubs, hit up All Trails to find a good place to start hiking as well as gauge the level of difficulty for a specific hike, length, and maps. Got a dog? Take them! Got a friend? Take them! Hiking is always better with a buddy.
Everyone’s personal favorite. The great thing about hiking, other than what’s above, is that it often doesn’t feel like exercise. But what if it’s raining and being amongst the trees isn’t the best call? Yup, go pump some iron. Or walk on the treadmill, elliptical, stationary bike, whatever you got. Stream your favorite show so that you can 1) kill time and 2) think about something other than working out. Don’t have a gym membership? That’s fine! There are plenty of small workouts you can do in your living room. Pinterest and Buzzfeed can help you find pretty much anything for a “10 Minute Weight-Free Workout” in your own home.
4. Go for a Drive
If you’ve got a working vehicle and gas money, go for a drive. You’d be surprised at where the car will take you. Sometimes when you’re thinking about which direction you want to turn when sitting at a stop sign, you start thinking about left or right instead of if you annoyed someone at work today. Going for a drive is also a great way to discover new places that you may not have known were so close to you! My favorite thing about driving is being able to play my music and sing as loud as I want without fear of judgement.
I find that travelling is something that I didn’t know that I needed until I have to go back home. Travelling helps grant a new perspective on things and helps you think about what’s currently in front of you rather than what’s going on back home. For extra fun, try to leave the anxiety and stress of work at home. I don’t know if I would necessarily call it a vacation because that adds to the stress of having to find things to do. Instead, aim for having an open itinerary and looking up things to do as your day begins. Force yourself to be at ease with spontaneity and the anonymity of the day. On the other hand, one of the easiest things you can do is have a day in and just chill.
6. Call a Parent
Sometimes I feel that this can often go without saying. Our parents have seen some things. They’ve seen the world. They know how cruel yet also amazing it can be. When it seems that life has you down and you feel like you’re kind of stuck, our parents are always there to help pick us back up. They’ve been doing this since we were born. This is something that I have had a tough time with since leaving to go to college at 18, but I’m proud to say that I’ve gotten so much better at it since starting medical school. Long story short, if all else fails, call a parent; the advice they give is free.99.
7. Talk to a Friend
Friends are our chosen family. It’s probable that you’ve all got some amount of stress in life - maybe not the same amount or intensity but you’re all stressed together nonetheless. I have found that my friends can not only empathize with my stress but sympathize with it as well, especially in medical school because we’re all going through it together. Who better to understand the exhaustion of waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning than others who also have to wake up that early. However, sometimes you need a fresh set of ears who has NO IDEA what you’re going through to listen to you. Sometimes you need someone with an unbiased opinion of your situation. That’s what your outside of work/school friends are for! These friends offer something that’s very refreshing to hear: “It’s going to be okay!” I like to equate this to the “You’re doing great, sweetie,” Kris Jenner meme. Classic and it makes me laugh.
8. Take a Nap
Listen, y’all. Naps are bae. Sometimes just checking out and going to go take a nap is all you need. Naps are helpful in giving your mind and your body time to reset and start anew. Don’t have the ability to go home right away? Car naps are great. Office naps are also great. Just make sure you’ve got something to rest your head on. A jacket of some kind. Be sure to set an alarm, though! Don’t sleep your day away because that doesn’t help anyone. Another trick is to invest in coffee naps. What you do is drink coffee, then set an alarm for about 20 minutes; you’ll wake up way more refreshed! I haven’t tried other means of caffeine for those that don’t drink coffee. I assume that as long as there is some kind of caffeine, the trick will work. The gist of it is that while you’re sleeping, the caffeine will be at its peak and there isn’t a period of constant yawning and waiting for the caffeine to kick in.
9. Go to Therapy
This is something that many people are very hesitant about, but let’s be clear, talking to someone (or a group) who has no idea who you are and doesn’t know anything about your past is someone who can give some pretty good feedback. The downside to therapy is that it costs money. You can use insurance, but copays can still be pricey. Regardless, it is completely beneficial to see your thoughts spoken back to you from a different perspective and you’ll feel less alone with your thoughts. Also, many colleges and universities offer some type of free counseling services to students.
All in all, always remember that you are not alone in this thing we call life. There is always light at the end of the tunnel and help is closer than you think.
Until next time,
About the Author
Hello, there! I am a current medical student at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, GA. I’ll be finishing up my degree in 2020 and will be going into pediatrics. I am passionate about children’s health and advocacy, both domestic and abroad, and have recently dabbled in understanding the stigma of mental health in the healthcare field. Outside of studying, I enjoy photography and have been trying to expand my subjects to more than just landscapes and nature. Feel free to check out my Instagram account @sydneyscamera_ to check out my work!