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Jun 4, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

The European Psychiatric Association (EPA) recently highlighted an “alarming” trend in the medical community: Nearly half of medical students experience emotional exhaustion, AKA “burnout,” which can put them at increased risk for mental illness and dropping out of school. There is good news, however: Students can learn to nurture their own wellness in order to prevent burnout by adding one or more of these five fields of study to their schedules.

1. Athletics

Medical students often find themselves pitted against each other in the quest to be the best. However, researchers have determined that the best way to promote engagement and reduce exhaustion among medical students is by learning for focus on their own goals -- and to derive a sense of competence from achieving them. This mode -- dubbed the “mastery goal approach” --l is already alive and well in athletics.

Athletics and medicine are also both areas where self-compassion is paramount to resilience. Reveals medicine assistant professor Oksana Babenko, “Many athletes tend to beat themselves up and ruminate after a negative event. But evidence shows that lack of self-compassion is associated with procrastination and avoidance coping...Not only that, but individuals who are more self-compassionate also tend to be more engaged in their studies and work; they are curious to learn more rather than fearful of making a mistake.”

2. Wellness and behavioral studies

One of the most troubling things about the high incidences of burnout among medical students? They’re not particularly vulnerable to burnout when they matriculate. In fact, “medical students tend to begin their studies with mental health profiles that are better than their peers in other fields,” says the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). It is only after enduring the challenges of medical school that they start to experience more burnout than their peers in other fields.

Due in part to this phenomenon, many medical schools are now recognizing their responsibility to prioritize student wellness by offering programming designed to help students change negative health behaviors in order to reduce the symptoms of burnout.

3. Psychology

We’ve already addressed that medical students are at increased risk for mental health issues. To blame for the problem, according to assistant professor of clinical psychiatry Joshua Nathan, MD? “We have to talk about mental health and wellness in students without stigmatizing it.”

According to students, meanwhile, there’s also a lack of understanding -- one that could be remedied through more education. “I think for first and second year students especially, people don’t know the difference in whether this is a normal amount of stress or is this diagnostic anxiety of depression. A lot of people think, ‘this is med school, I’m stressed out all the time, this is just normal.’ Opening that discussion up and telling students, ‘you you can actually get through this and we can help you out’ would help,” said one third year student.

4. Nutrition

Medical school can be demanding. As a result, many students end up cutting corners when it comes to nutrition. Unfortunately, a diet of coffee and ramen noodles can do more harm than good. Eating right, however, can be an invaluable part of burnout prevention and healing. Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, consuming protein-rich foods and reducing caffeine intake are all ways to boost the immune system and feel better.

Says health specialist Jodie Brandman of the value of nutrition for beating burnout, “During periods of chronic stress, nutrients can become depleted and are therefore needed in larger quantities to help with repair. These include magnesium (found in leafy greens), B vitamins (in whole grains and veggies), zinc (in some seeds and shellfish) and vitamin C (in leafy greens & red fruits/ veggies). “ The more students know about nutrition and nutrients, the better positioned they are to make positive choices.

5. Yoga and other ancient meditative disciplines

The stress-reducing benefits of yoga are well-known, making its study a natural fit for medical students fighting the battle of burnout.

Fourth-year medical student Anna Askari told the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) of how yoga helped her through medical school, “I definitely use yoga as a way to exercise, but also just to be mindful, to take deep breaths. As medical students, most of us are Type A personalities, and we have this guilt when we’re not doing something school-related. That takes away from any rest period that you need to give yourself. Yoga forced me to think about myself and take that time.

Researchers looking into medical students and mental health have declared there to be “an urgent need to develop preventative strategies to improve wellbeing and mental health in medical students." However, medical students aren't without resources.  In addition to interventions by medical schools, students can take proactive steps to  safeguard their own wellness by rounding out their medical school studies with coursework in these burnout-banishing fields.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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