The various pressures of medical school can have a significant impact on the mental health of students. In fact, med students report increased levels of psychological distress than peers of the same age upon leaving medical school, according to the National Institutes of Health. Much of the stress experienced by students can be attributed to very challenging course content and the fact that it can take anywhere between 7 and 12 years to become a qualified doctor in the specialty of your choice. If you are a medical student who feels like your stress levels are getting the best of you, remember that you are not alone. There are literally thousands of other students in the exact same position, battling their demons on a daily basis. Thankfully, there are a number of things you can do to reduce your stress levels and get through med school with your mental well-being intact.

Understanding the role of cortisol in the body

As a med student, you are undoubtedly already familiar with the role cortisol plays in the body. While a spike in cortisol can be of short-term benefit in a taxing situation, prolonged stress can result in unhealthy cortisol levels which can be detrimental to your health. In order to regulate your cortisol levels, it is essential to steer clear of the things that can stimulate its release. Although consuming caffeine in moderate amounts can be beneficial, it can also increase cortisol levels to the same level as what it would be during a full-blown panic attack. Alcohol and sleep deprivation can have a very similar effect. Apart from minimizing your exposure to cortisol excretion stimulants, you can also engage in a number of activities that will help keep your stress levels down.

Contribute to your community

When your stress levels are sky-high due to your med school workload or looming exams, you may find relief from doing some volunteer work in your community. Whether you volunteer your services at a community clinic or help out at a soup kitchen, you are bound to leave feeling increasingly focussed and invigorated. Even if it’s only for an hour a week, volunteering will also remind you exactly why you decided to become a doctor in the first place. You clearly have a great passion for people and want to help them. This is bound to help you put all your stress in perspective and provide you with new motivation to deal with them effectively.

Get enough exercise

As you may know, regular exercise has been proven to be an excellent stress reliever. Not only does regular physical activity reduce cortisol levels, but it also stimulates the production of endorphins. Although you will certainly benefit from vigorous exercise such as running marathons and partaking in powerlifting competitions, even moderate physical activity can help reduce your stress levels. Find an exercise you enjoy and aim to get active for at least an hour every few days. While this may seem like a difficult feat to achieve when you constantly find yourself running between classes, it is important to remember that any exercise is definitely better than none at all.

Pay attention to your spirituality

If you are spiritual or religious by nature, you may find that engaging in relevant activities can help lower your stress levels significantly. Studies have shown that adults who are spiritual are prone to lower cortisol levels in the face of stress than those who do not conform to any form of religion or spiritual belief. While prayer is often associated with a lower prevalence of stress and depression, engaging in spiritual endeavors such as yoga and meditation can also help diffuse stress.

Don’t forget to have fun

When you are in med school trying to make your way through a heavy workload, finding the time to have fun may seem near impossible. While having fun does not necessarily have to entail getting raucous at an off-campus bar, chances are you may experience a reprieve from your stressors while doing something you enjoy. Simply sharing a few laughs with friends can lower cortisol levels substantially while having a hobby can act as a long-term stress reliever. Research has shown that the fun derived from engaging in a hobby is able to reduce the impact of chronic stress by providing a positive outlet for pent-up emotions. Med students are often faced with almost unbearable amounts of stress. Luckily making a few simple lifestyle changes can help stabilize cortisol levels while improving overall mental health and well-being.