ADCOM Q&A (coping with stress)

by Lorien E. Menhennett

There is no doubt that medicine is a stressful career. You literally have people’s lives in your hand. So it’s understandable that admissions committees would want to know how someone handles stress, because that is a predictor of how they will handle it in the future, as a physician.

So, if asked: How do you handle stress?

Here is how I respond:

How I cope with stress depends on the time constraints of the situation and the type of stress. If it is “acute” stress (a short-term issue that must be acted on quickly), I handle it differently than if it is “chronic” stress (a long-term issue that must be dealt with over an extended period of time).

For acute stress, such as having a lab report, an exam, and a quiz all on the same day, what I do is first allow myself a moment to acknowledge that I feel stress. I think that is very important, not to deny that feeling. Because all that does is bury the feeling and give it more power over you. But I do not wallow in that feeling, or I would become paralyzed. Instead, I quickly move on to a plan of action, which empowers me. I prioritize what I have to do and then set about to doing it.

I find that this strategy not only works for when I feel stress, but it helps prevent stress. On my Google homepage, for example, I keep a running to-do list, organized by “low,” “medium,” and “high” priority. This keeps me on task, getting done the most important things first.

Chronic stress is different. You cannot necessarily act immediately and make it go away. An example from my current situation is that my husband, Geoff, got laid off from his job about three weeks ago. No amount of my prioritizing will find him a job. But no amount of my stressing will find him a job, either. So what I have to do is alleviate the feeling of stress that this situation causes so that I can continue to focus on what I need to do, namely, my school work. The way I do this is through several means of positive self-expression.

First, I talk. With my husband, with my family, with my friends. I tell them what I think, feel, fear, and hope. Expressing these things helps me feel a release, and also often helps me find remedies for the problem.

Second, I write. In writing, I find I can sometimes access a deeper level of thoughts and feelings because I have more time to consider my words. But it is still a method of sharing, of expressing, of releasing. And I find great relief in it.

Third, I create. Through color, shape, form, and texture, I express what is going on in my heart and head, whether it is frustration, anxiety, or anger. And often, the deeper I feel something, the more interesting my art is, because the more emotional inspiration there is behind it.

Fourth, I play. Music, that is. This is actually something that I used to do all the time and have gotten away from. But am trying to rekindle it now. I have played the piano since I was about 8 years old (I took lessons for 9 years). I have an extensive repertoire of songs that I can play, based on my mood. But I also find it rewarding to channel the nervous energy of stress into learning something new. I have recently gotten back into ragtime music (after being a childhood fan). And I just ordered Scott Joplin’s complete rags for piano on today. So I will have plenty of material to keep me busy, and to help me de-stress.

I believe that having several coping mechanisms in your “toolbox” for dealing with stress is extremely important, because we all know that life is full of stressors. That is unavoidable. But I believe it can be overcome, and I believe the above-mentioned methods help me do that.