PA school, or any school for that matter, can be very stressful. Stress turns into anxiety which can be crippling and have a negative impact on your schoolwork as well as your personal life and well being. I myself struggled a great deal with stress management and anxiety throughout a good amount of PA school until I was able to take a step back and use coping mechanisms.
At the beginning of PA school, my stress level was at 75% and it only increased as time went on. It got to a point where I was unable to eat, unable to sleep for more than maybe 2-3 hours a night. If I took 30 minutes to eat a meal, I would be consumed by guilt that I could have spent that time studying or fear that it was time wasted I could have spent studying. It wasn't until I went to a well visit after my first year that I realized just how much the stress and anxiety was impacting me. I had unintentionally lost weight from high cortisol levels, lack of sleep and lack of nutrition. That was not okay.
I began my third, what was branded as the most difficult, semester of PA school, nervous about how I would do academically, nervous about how I would deal with it mentally and nervous about how my body would react to it physically. I realized the fear was causing more harm, hindering my success rather than fueling it. Here are a few of the methods that worked for me and allowed me to successfully finish PA school with a high academic standing and work in a highly stressful environment without feeling overwhelmed!
1. Reset your sleep cycle
Sleep is the most important part of your day. We all have, and will continue to, pull all nighters in an attempt to cram before an exam. Staying up most nights a week can actually impact your ability to cope with stress. Getting a full nights rest will allow your hours during the day be much more productive thereby lowering stress levels. It can be difficult to fall asleep when you're thinking about all you have to do. Try guided meditation, sleep podcasts (my favorite is Sleepy on iTunes/Spotify) or talk to a healthcare professional about starting a low does of Melatonin when you need it.
2. Eat clean, Eat smart
Stress can affect your appetite in one of two ways: either diminish it completely or make you ravenous. I lost my appetite completely and would only eat when someone reminded me to. Others began to eat constantly. Neither is the way you want to go. To avoid going down either road, meal prep. Have prepped breakfasts, lunches, dinners and several snacks through the day. That way you are always in charge of what you're putting in your body. Having made meals ready to go will allow you to save time and remind you to eat. Having preplanned snacks will avoid trips to the vending machine for candy. Eating cleaner will give you more energy and increase your focus!
A lot of people go from getting physical activity a couple times a week to completely cutting it out in an attempt to save time to study. That makes sense right? Why spend 15 minutes to drive to the gym, 1 hour to work out, 30 minutes to shower and drive home? That's almost 2 whole hours you could have spent finally learning what the spleen does! True, you spent 2 hours you could have spent reading on working out. However, you'll come back to studying feeling refreshed, awake and with a greater sense of focus. Your remaining time spent studying will be much more efficient than if you study throughout.
4. Identify your triggers
Learn what triggers your episodes of stress. Maybe it's the classroom you're in for 14 hours a day. Maybe it's a certain person. Maybe it's the close proximity of a deadline. Maybe it's a certain time of day. Whatever your trigger may be, find it, pinpoint it. Now you know just what is causing you to be stressed. You can come up with methods of preparing beforehand.
5. Learn to breathe
Breathing deeply is a great way to help lower your heart rate, lower your respiratory rate and help you think clearly. There are gifs to help regulate the rate of your breath.
Inhale while the octagon goes up and exhale while the octagon folds. I use the 3-2-1 method since that gif isn't always readily available. Inhale for a count of 3, hold your breath for a count of 2 and exhale for a count of Both methods will bring you in the moment and allow you to think more clearly.
I used each of these 5 methods to help me throughout the rest of PA school. Towards the end of PA school, I was able to balance long hours of rotations, studying for up upcoming exams, studying for the PANCE and have a social life without being stressed, without being a ball of anxiety. Give them a shot and let us know how it worked for you!