I work as a Lead Advisor at IU School of Medicine. In the last few weeks, I have spent my time in “advising” sessions talking to students about schedules, letters of recommendation, curricular changes, board exams, and all of that seems completely normal—but it’s not. These conversations are about the uncertainty of it all in light of the current climate. The “What ifs” and the “When?” are questions I cannot answer for them.
Inevitably, most of the conversations lead to discussions about emotions including fear, anxiety, restlessness, helplessness, etc. I have always been an advisor who talks to my students about their well-being, but now, more than ever it is at the forefront of what is necessary to address.
This pandemic has left many of you dealing with a slew of emotions you may have never experienced before. You may have no idea what to do with them, or even what they are. Most of you are worried—worried about what your academic journey is going to look like moving forward, worried about when you will get to see patients again, worried about what your Step score will be now that you’re stuck in a “holding pattern” waiting for testing centers to open, worried about who you letters of recommendation will come from, worried that you’ll lose your skills/knowledge/etc., worried about what this means for you.
And it is possible you experience guilt for feeling this way. You might feel badly for considering your feelings in a time when the whole world is going through the worst health crisis we’ve experienced in over 100 years. You may start to question if you are cut out to be a doctor because you’re thinking about yourself and your educational journey. Or maybe you are feeling frustrated with needing to be sidelined right now since you feel ready, healthy and capable of doing something to lend a hand. You might feel stagnant and confused, and at worst, helpless and isolated. You are not alone.
Guess what? It’s okay to not be okay.
It is absolutely okay to grieve the loss of a Sub-I you really looked forward to. It’s definitely okay to be sad about spending months in dedicated Step 1 study time. It’s totally fine to be bummed out that much of IMPRS might be virtual. And it’s within your right to grieve the loss of Match Day and Graduation…go on and be sad. Those are experiences that you are missing or that might be taking on completely different form.
It’s also okay to be sad about staying at home, not seeing your friends in person, and feeling lost and helpless. It is important to understand that in this time, grief is a normal and acceptable reaction. You may know the stages of grief (denial, angering, bargaining, acceptance). You may even know that they don’t always happen in order (if not, you do now). What you may not know is there is also a less recognized form of grief—anticipatory grief (Berinato, 2020). This type of grief comes into play in situations like this where we don’t know the outcome—it tends to bring out the worst in us. We focus on negative outcomes, and can easily get overwhelmed with the “what ifs” and the worst case scenarios. This causes our primitive brains to feel unsafe and clouds our judgement and emotions. So what do you do? How do you deal with all of this?
Feel the emotions. Recognize them. Give them their time and space, but emotions must eventually move. When they do not “move” they lead to negative outcomes…depression, unhealthy levels of anxiety, and other mental health disorders. Experience your emotions. Then focus on the present, not when clerkships will start again, not September 15, not beyond that. Focus on the present; the day you are in. Take a deep breath. Feel the air come into your lungs.
Name five things you see right now. Name four things you can feel. Name a sound you hear. Focus on the now. Then recognize that you have the ability to accept your emotions and can control them. And while you’re at it; turn your focus to what you can control. That might be making a nice lunch or volunteering for a hotline. Or it might be turning off the computer/putting down your cell phone because you just don’t feel like seeing what others are up to with all of their amazing free time and ceaseless energy while in “isolation.” And for goodness sake, do not feel bad about giving yourself some time to process your emotions (you do not have to be the most productive person in the world, even if you are holed up in your apartment all day every day). You may be tempted to say to yourself, “I should not be feeling bad right now; there are so many others who have it way worse than me.” Instead, say to yourself, “I am going to give myself twenty minutes to feel this sadness.” If you fight it, your body will fight you. The last thing you need right now is to knock yourself down; accepting your emotions will allow you to take control of them.
I cannot tell you when this pandemic will end, and I cannot tell you what the future holds for your academic journey. IU School of Medicine has just released changes to the curriculum and it’s possible that further changes will be necessary as we, as a school and a nation, respond to the evolving crisis at hand. What I can tell you is that you must focus on your emotional well-being in order to preserve the best part of you for the road that lies ahead of you. If you want to be the best physician you can be, now is the time to start practicing skills to prepare you for that. Take action by working on yourself. Let’s do better in a time of crisis, not worse.
If you would like to talk to a Student Advocate for Mental Health about any feelings you are having right now, related to COVID-19 or any other issue, we have students who are trained and able to listen. Please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For resources on how you can take action/step up/volunteer during this time, please visit this blog post.
For ideas on activities you can do while “social distancing” to combat social “isolation” please see this Google sheet.
To be connected to Wellness Coalition activities, please consider the opportunities below:
Quarantales (Virtual Lunches/Wellness Check-ins by Class Year): Tuesdays at Noon (EST)
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Kristen Heath is a Lead Advisor in the Mentoring & Advising Program at IU School of Medicine. She has worked in higher education for over eight years, starting her career off on Air Force Bases teaching Psychology coursework. She is passionate about lifelong learning and devotion to personal well-being. When she is not in the advising office you can find her teaching Zumba, dancing, or riding bikes with her son, Ryder. She is a fan of the outdoors and loves to camp, hike and garden.