5 Healthy Ways for Medical Students to Reduce Stress

Executive Summary

Stress, substance abuse, and suicide among medical students and doctors are growing concerns in the medical community. The problem has resulted in a petition for medical associations to track physician suicides, provide confidential counseling, and require medical school programs to address an abusive culture that includes bullying and humiliation.

The Association of American Medical Colleges and the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education are focusing on the issue and are considering encouraging medical students to join clubs and seek counseling. Stress is a contributing factor to both addiction and suicide, and medical students must find healthy ways to reduce their stress levels.

These methods include:

  • Doing physical activities
  • Reaching out to others
  • Meditating and taking deep breaths
  • Eating healthier foods
  • Getting more sleep


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1. Do physical activities

Physical activity is one of the top ways to reduce stress. Hiking is a great example of an accessible physical activity to reduce anxiety, depression, and stress levels. Fortunately, nearly any physical activity relieves anger, tension, and frustration, so medical students do not have to worry about finding great quantities of time to go to the gym. To maximize stress reduction, exercise for 30 minutes or more. However, short, 10-minute activity bursts effectively will relieve stress and boost energy and optimism because exercise releases mood-boosting endorphins. Medical students should take short breaks from studying to play music, dance, take a walk, or play an activity-based video game.

It is important to note that regular exercise that incorporates moving both the arms and legs is most effective at reducing stress. Exercise helps people focus on their body and movements rather than on their thoughts and concerns, and it adds mindfulness that combats negative thoughts and stress.

2. Reach out to others

When feeling stressed, medical students should take a break and meet up with a friend or call someone. Developing relationships with fellow medical students and other peers helps reduce stress because people can discuss their problems, vent, and get advice from others. Talking with someone else offers medical students reassurance and helps them gain perspective and develop strategies for coping when they feel overwhelmed and stressed.

3. Meditate and take deep breaths

Relaxation techniques such as meditating and taking deep breaths help ease stress and anxiety. Psychologist Robbie Maller explains that meditation alters neural pathways in the brain and makes people more resilient to stress. Meditation does not take a great deal of time; all medical students need to do is put their feet on the floor, close their eyes, and focus on repeating a positive mantra such as “I can do this.”

Medical students also can reduce their stress by placing a hand on their stomach and matching the mantra to their breathing. Avoid distracting thoughts and focus on the breathing. Feel the breath move throughout the body while inhaling and exhaling deeply.

4. Eat healthier foods

Of course, medical students don’t have much time to cook and often find themselves eating takeout, junk food, and cafeteria food in a hospital. Fatty, sugary foods worsen stress, so medical students should make a better diet a priority. There are several healthy foods that help manage stress:

  • Dark Chocolate – Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants that lower stress hormones in the body. Dark chocolate also lowers blood pressure and cholesterol and has mood-boosting capabilities.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Foods rich in omega-3s are avocados, tuna, salmon, herring, and sardines. These foods lower stress, anxiety, and depression. Busy medical students can add flaxseeds, chia seeds, or walnuts to their yogurt, breakfast cereal, or smoothies to get the benefits of omega-3s.
  • Citrus Fruits – Oranges, strawberries, and grapefruit relieve stress because they are high in vitamin C. Other foods that contain high levels of vitamin C are red and green peppers, kiwi, baked potatoes, tomatoes, and broccoli.

5. Get more sleep

While medical students may feel like they never will sleep again, it is very important that they get quality sleep as much as possible or take naps to recover lost sleep. Losing sleep increases stress, anger, sadness, and exhaustion, so it is in the best interests of medical students to get at least seven hours of sleep a night.

Medical students are under a great deal of pressure, and the stress they feel can lead to substance abuse or suicidal thoughts. Being proactive by taking steps to manage and reduce stress is in the best interest of students in medical school.

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