Cycles

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I’ve been unwell these past few days. My heart was beating to its own rhythm, despite many repeated attempts to quell it through meditation and deep breathing. My new yoga challenge, Yoga with Adriene’s Yoga Camp, requires a longer commitment to daily practice (around 40 minutes per day instead of the 15-20 minutes of my previous DoYouYoga.com challenge. My schedule has been thrown off with multiple interruptions, and it’s been really difficult to get back on track. I’ve been spending a longer amount of time on the black hole that is the internet (I’m very active on the Reddit MCAT board, as so many of my fellow students are helping each other out immensely, but I lose a lot of time there). The wifi connectivity in my house is incredibly shoddy, and I’ll often start some work but have to take unexpected pauses because I’ve lost internet connection. I’ve been trying to finish my daily work earlier to catch up with my latest read, Cal Newport’s latest book Deep Work. I’ve had multiple reminders from family and friends about my waitlist status at medical schools. And I’ve just been feeling slow.

I want to curl up in ball and go to sleep forever. I want to be alone for hours and simultaneously be meeting up with people for meals and conversation. I’m drained, but full at the same time.

I’m entering the bad part of my mental cycle.

Over the past couple of months, and especially with the last thirty days’ daily yoga practices, I’ve learned to listen to my body more closely. My body is my master, and my mind is the instrument I use to work with and control it. When the body is calmed in times of meditation, the mind is able to speak to me. I’ve found that the thoughts that enter my consciousness during these periods of silence tend to be the solutions to problems I’ve been considering. I’ve come up with answers to scheduling conflicts, emails with potential employers, lulls in motivation, and all sorts of thoughts that are giving me anxiety (and I know this is true because every time an anxious thought pops up in my mind when I’m trying to study,  I write it down on an index card to deal with it later).

This isn’t just my trademarked phenomenon, however, as many of the world’s prominent figures and regular people alike solve problems through quiet introspection. This is actually one of the recurring themes in my current read, Deep Work by Cal Newport. Cal describes having solved complex proofs and other problems during his doctoral study at MIT on foot, as he took regular runs to and from work to free up his thinking time. Tim Ferriss, productivity guru, has talked about how aspects of his daily routine, like meditation and exercise, enable him to work out solutions.

Yet some days, I cannot calm down. No eustress in my future, as my mind just sends alarm signals that amps me up for some nonexistent stressor. The world gets to me, and I cannot calm down. My brain is taking in too many signals, from a lot of things I could cut out for a while like the internet and my phone constantly going off.

My mood starts slipping, and I lose my sense of gratitude. It starts with me not wanting to engage in my nightly routine, with tasks like brushing my teeth seeming to lose complete meaning. Then, I start to snap at the people I interact with, to the point where I am unable to even explain my thought process to them and just start sighing and grumbling. Then, my daily work seems unbearable – watching concept review videos, or sitting in a lecture, or even just writing down a to-do list. I wrote more about this feeling in Off-Days and Fog.  I’m over the work. I don’t want to do it anymore.

Finally, the culmination of this spin cycle is the sleepless night.

Yes. I spend one night completely awake in my bed with my thoughts running for the hills and no way for me to stop it. I toss and turn and try to find some solace. Even though my eyes are closed, it’s like there is a light being constantly illuminated in my face, and I feel it’s burn even though my eyes are slammed shut. Just like the shedding of the endometrial lining, this sleepless night is the most uncomfortable and painful time of what I’m calling “my mental period”. It’s also the most unexpected, as it usually presents itself after weeks of incredible REM cycles, which makes it the most unpredictable aspect of this whole drama.

See, yesterday, I knew I couldn’t go on anymore. I had lost hours of work after being distracted on the internet. Little spiffs with my parents turned into silent cry-fests. After my 50 minute yoga video, I was so mentally and emotionally drained that I resorted to eating the saltiest food in the house so I wouldn’t collapse from low blood pressure. I’d had enough.

So I got up from my study area, and announced (pretty loudly) that I was going to take a shower. A morning shower is part of my daily routine, and it always helps me re-energize. Back in college, I often started long nights of study with a fresh shower, typically with really scented soap to awaken my senses. After watching some March Madness games (I’m a huge underdog fan so I cheered really hard for Little Rock yesterday!), and a longer-than-normal shower complete with luxurious cocoa butter lotion afterwards, I was ready to take it slow. My family even surprised me by deciding to order pizza, and the two pepperoni slices I found myself reaching for were heaven. I understand the euphoric feeling of a cheat meal, as while I ate my slices yesterday, I wracked my brain to determine when the last time I had pizza was, and my search results were inconclusive. I couldn’t remember. Plus, I’ve been eating really well since my yoga challenge’s beginning, with more fruits and veggies and less processed snacks. The pizza was truly a delight, and as I sat with my family watching college basketball and feeling full, I spoke of my gratitude, and how lucky I felt in that moment. I thought I had beaten the cycle.

Well I forgot about the sleepless night that I was yet to experience.

This morning, I awoke after about 1 hour of rest. I was ecstatic because I knew what was going to happen.

I was going to have a phenomenal day today.

You see, after my sleepless nights, the worst part of my cycle is over. I get back to work with a renewed sense of urgency. Even though my eyes remain tired, my body is thrilled to be rejuvenated, and can’t wait to start rebounding.

I completed my morning meditation and yoga. I’ve been adding yoga twists in the morning to help fully awaken and elongate my spine. I even brought it up to some warrior poses to feel powerful. Pretty soon, before I had even brushed my teeth, I was up at my whiteboard calendar re-working my study schedule and looking through textbooks to pull material for brainstorming.

By the time I had stepped in my morning shower, my mind was abuzz with ideas to install chrome extensions to control my internet time-wasting habits, and delete some useless apps from my iPhone. I was so excited to get to my desk and crank through my daily Anki cards.

Then, I got soap in my eye.

To fully understand my state of mind, you need to be aware that my family is not going through the greatest of times. Finances have always been rough, but my mom was recently laid off. Our car died in the middle of a parking lot (we only have one), and towing to the shop found us in need for a new battery and other parts. Our roof is in need of fixing. My parents have been wearing very old eyeglasses, and get daily headaches from the eyestrain, but cannot afford to get new pairs. To add to this, don’t forget about my rejections from med school and complete uncertainty about my future + depression. It’s what they refer to as “a bad time”.

So when I screamed in pain and sunk to the floor of the shower, completely exposed and vulnerable, we all knew the familiar feeling of sadness that creeps up when we least expect it.

Every time I work so hard for my future, the universe knocks me down rung after rung on the ladder of life until I’m free falling. I randomly grasp at whatever rung is within my reach, and begin the climb over and over again until I’m higher than before. Then I get pushed down. And the cycle repeats.

After many many tears, and arguments that took place way too early in the morning (I brought up my depression, my parents brought up how sick of it they were, yadda yadda yadda), here we are. I’m sitting at my laptop screen typing away because I know that writing and sharing this story will make me feel better than walking up to the fridge and scarfing down slice after slice of the leftover pizza. I made a cup of lemon and ginger herbal tea, and decided to pour some honey in it.

Because some days, life’s terrible, seemingly endless cycle is unbearable. But our universe relies on cycles to survive. The daily rising and setting of the sun promotes balance, and reminds us that tomorrow will be a new day, a new chance to earn glory and feel renewed. The daily turning of our Earth speaks volumes – as for every moment we are in the dark, we will make up for that time by being in the light.

And even though I’m standing deep in the dark right now, and “happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

Today, the honey in my tea is my light.

Tomorrow is a new day.

 

–A.

 

 

Thirty

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No I definitely do not look like this, but my inner peace does! photocred

One of the shortest Ted talks I repeatedly refer to for inspiration is by Matt Cutts. The 3 minute 20 second talk describes how Cutts was able to transform every single aspect of his life by trying a hobby for 30 days. He took up photography, rode his bike to work, and even wrote a novel! His challenges had such a positive impact on his life and health, that he was able to advance his career, change his perspective on happiness, and even climb up Mt. Kilamanjaro! He simplifies the idealogy to “small changes = sustainable”.

The phenomenon of “Thirty Day Challenges” are everywhere. Just a quick scroll on Pinterest will show you 30 day detoxes, 30 day happiness plans, 30 day recipe challenges, and so many other diverse projects you can take on. I’ve tried to complete 30 day challenges before – I remember vividly trying to hold abdominal planks for as long as the day’s challenge told me to when I was following the 30 day, 30 plank challenges. I think I gave up around day 4. I also remember trying to follow 30 day fitness calendars, as per the Blogilates regimen. During the summer after my freshman year of college, the pilates calendars were working for me, and I lost around 15 pounds and felt in great shape! Yet, the moment I’d return to campus, the fitness regimens would fall apart.

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Well, today was my last day of the DoYouYoga.com 30 Day Beginner Yoga Challenge. I completed all 30 days of yoga videos in order without skipping a single day. I have gained so much in such a little time, and have been able to commit to a safer, healthier lifestyle. Here are some lessons from my experiment:

ONE. Do it every day at the same time – I recently finished reading Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. The book analyzes habit loops and teaches you how to create a new habit and how powerful habits are in our daily lives. The book opened my eyes to the extent of the role habits play in our psyche. I can tell from the moment I get out of bed in the morning if my day is going to go well or not just by if I remembered to fill up my water bottle so I can drink my morning 8 ounces. If the water bottle is present, I don’t think twice about it and proceed to consider other aspects of morning routine, like showering and eating breakfast. Duhigg writes about the habit loop: a cue which leads you into a routine that ends in a reward. He gives an example of his own habit routine with eating cookies and gaining weight in this video (it’s a fun watch!).

For me, I was able to learn from the book that if I wanted to start a new habit, I’d need to cue myself daily to do the routine, and provide myself with a reward. I set up the cue – an alarm on my phone. This alarm would ring every day at 3:00 pm. It was automatic, and would require no conscious effort on my part. I didn’t want to set myself up to fail, and taking up too much of my mental effort when I’m studying for the MCAT was definitely out of the option. This cue led to me unplugging my laptop and taking it into my bedroom, where my yoga mat sits neatly rolled in a corner, awaiting my routine practice. I’d play the day’s video, usually about 15-18 minutes in length, and allow myself to work towards relaxation and flexibility. Afterwards, I’d roll up my yoga mat and store it in the corner of my room, wash my face and hands, and proceed to the kitchen to enjoy my reward – an afternoon snack. I quickly realized that yoga is best performed on an empty stomach, and wanted to kill 2 birds with one stone (my horrendous afternoon eating habits and lack of activity) by finding a routine that would force me to think about why I was eating.

Pretty soon, I’d find myself consciously stopping workflow around 2:50 and mentally anticipating yoga practice time. I began reading various yoga blogs and learning more about the spirituality behind the practice. As a woman of South Asian descent, I’m familiar with the practice of yoga, but I never before attempting to delve as deeply into the challenge as I found myself going. This leads me to my next point,

TWO. The benefits of Yoga are far beyond the physical movement. I’m dealing with a difficult time in my life, where I see other people able to take flight in their careers and relationships from what feels like my cage at home, as I study to retake an examination and reapply to medical school. Yoga has taught me to walk along a path of acceptance. I cannot control what happened in my past, and I need to learn to only reference it from time to time, not LIVE in it like I am doing. I’d find myself pressed to the verge of tears in poses, wondering whether it was from the pride I felt in being able to hold a downward dog without panting or whether Erin Motz’s points on the yoga video led me to really open up internally. I attempted this project with an open heart, really hoping to explore my inner thoughts on this journey and hoping for the strength to change. Little by little, I found myself replacing my afternoon microwave popcorn snack with an apple (of course it was slathered in peanut butter). I have been able to turn away from caffeine completely (even the little amount in my Tazo Zen), and drink around 3-4 cups of herbal tea daily. I start and end each day with a guided meditation (from calm.com, Stop Breathe Think, and Pacifica). I turn to meditation to take study breaks instead of mindlessly watching Netflix and YouTube. I journal more, and when I express gratitude, I’m really meaning it. I leap out of bed in the morning to cycle through a Vinayasa flow, when 28 days ago I could not even hold a downward dog for more than 30 seconds. I’ve already downloaded the calendar for my next 30 day yoga challenge, and am excited to continue this journey tomorrow.

THREE. My focus and concentration has improved. The most surprising part of these past 30 days was the improvement in my ability to study. I barely noticed it at first. My study sessions were getting longer by 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, a full hour. I found myself in a flow of sorts, an optimal arousal for study without being too distracted or overwhelmed. Whenever I found myself getting overwhelmed, I just focused on deep, diaphragmatic breathing, and brought my attention to myself. I don’t feel shame at falling behind on my study schedules in the past when I’d feel too overwhelmed to continue. Rather, I acknowledge the pieces that led me to feel that way and take an introspective look at myself. I learned that I like to work with music or some documentaries/Ted videos in the background. However, when it’s time for me to learn a difficult concept, I can completely focus on the task at hand. I don’t see my to-do lists as handcuffs anymore, and I don’t feel trapped by my past. I’ve been inspired to work hard and tap into my inner energy for success. And so far, I’ve been very happy with the results.

I hope that you are able to find your yoga, your passion for self-care and relaxation, in whatever means you can. The strategies for taking care of myself will be invaluable for my future career in medicine, and help me accept the present more than I ever did while I was in college, constantly pining of the future.

–A.

Active

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I’m currently reading Cal Newport’s latest book Deep Work, and I remembered why I used to spend hours pouring over his blog, Study Hacks, for life advice. Cal is someone who has mastered it all – he’s been an excellent student, an excellent employee, and an excellent author. I used to read the incredibly intense posts about “Four Weeks to a 4.0” and case studies about how students would earn perfect scores with only about 2 hours of studying, and I would tell myself that I could never become that person. I spent days studying for exams in college, and would end up with sub-par scores every time and hating myself for years afterward because I would see other students earning better grades than me. “How come I can’t be that top-scorer?” I would chide myself – “I’m too stupid for this major/class/exam/goal”. 

It wasn’t until a family tragedy that found me facing three advanced courses, the MCAT, and my research thesis until the tables turned. Suddenly, I found myself having to learn a wealth of knowledge for all of my classes on top of studying for the MCAT the first time around (I scored a 507 on the May 2015 exam). Once I found myself in that do-or-die, sink-or-swim situation, I started DOING. I started SWIMMING. Here’s how:

Remember my last post about flashcards? What I found myself doing last year was one of the most efficient ways of learning material without realizing it. I was studying ACTIVELY.

The most important thing to remember about active studying is that it is the only type of studying that matters. Reading notes passively while highlighting can help with recognition memory, but total recall is the only way to ensure that you know the material without cheating yourself of anything. By employing flashcards, practice exams, and the incredibly famous Cal Newport strategy of teaching the material to other people/pretending you’re lecturing to a classroom, you are forcing your brain to see exactly what it knows and exactly what it doesn’t know. This method is crucial, because when you sit down to take an exam, that’s the point of being tested on material!

I highly recommend watching the Cal Newport talk I posted in the link above. It’s around 40 minutes long, but Newport outlines his 3 step strategy to becoming a top student while maximizing your free time. He doesn’t believe in spending long hours in the library studying. He believes in solely studying actively by testing your brain before you actually have to take the real exam. I revisit this video from time to time to inspire myself. Cal’s point that learning is hard and uncomfortable actually makes me feel better about my own struggles! Everything is hard in the beginning before it is easy, and he really stresses this point that the uncomfortable nature is unavoidable in the learning process.

For me, this feeling of uncomfortable discomfort is coupled with hard-hitting FEAR. I’m always afraid that I won’t be able to learn the material in time, or that even though I’m going to study the material as hard as I can that I’m going to blank on the exam, or that the exam will be too difficult for me, or that I’m going to fail in the medical school application process again.

As usual, in times of panic, we turn to our favorite Jamie Foxx quote:

“What is on the other side of fear?

NOTHING.”

–Jamie Foxx

Now, I add the lessons from the Dr. Andrea Tooley video about tips and tricks for studying. She makes sure to mention that one of her mantras in studying is that she has the capacity to learn anything. Here it is below in quote form:

“I have the capacity to learn ANYTHING. There’s nothing that I can’t learn.”

–Dr. Andrea Tooley

She’s right – it might take you a day or two, or even a full week to learn something properly, but the human brain has an amazing capacity for new material. We are designed to be able to absorb and implement as much new information as possible! That’s how we help human evolution! Our big brains are geared for survival (Evolution is incidentally my least favorite part of Biology, but it’s coming into play here!) And, I was able to see where I went wrong earlier in my college career – I would keep telling myself that I was not smart enough for something.

What complete sh*t. 

I have the capacity to learn ANYTHING. I have the capacity to implement ANYTHING. In 3.5 years, I went from being your average 18 year-old to a qualified Bachelor’s of Science degree-holder. I have learned new languages from scratch. I have taught myself skills like knitting and bike-riding. I have learned how to read music and play an instrument. How did I master these domains? By starting at the beginning and getting over my feelings of being uncomfortable.

Cal Newport was right, again. Learning how to ride a bike was so hard in the beginning! I fell time and time again. It was so painful and uncomfortable! Likewise, I made so many mistakes when learning how to speak Spanish in high school. I embarrassed myself in front of classes of students during oral presentations! When I was learning to play my instrument, I would always embarrass myself in band in front of the other students by playing out of tune or playing in a rest (THE HORROR OF FIFTH GRADE BAND CLASS!).

But by learning actively, and testing myself by getting back on my bike without training wheels, speaking Spanish to others in a clinical setting, and practicing my music until I could play it from memory, I mastered the skill.

We can apply this to academia by testing ourselves.

  • Flashcards are quick and easy ways to pinpoint our weaknesses.
    • Cal Newport and Andrea Tooley share the same idea of creating a quick quiz-and-response sheet. The idea is to write all of your notes for a unit in question and answer form. Write the questions on one side of the page and then fold it in half so you can’t see the answers on the other side. You can quiz yourself anywhere, from walking to class to studying on the treadmill (true Andrea Tooley fashion).
    • When I do my daily Anki, I always try to write out as much information as possible, as if I’m testing myself with a “free recall” situation. They tend to look like this:

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  • Use practice exams to test yourself in a simulation setting. You can never go into an MCAT without taking a full length exam to see how you react to the 8 hour time conditions! Likewise, don’t go into a course midterm or final until you’ve utilized a practice exam completely.
    • Ideally this works the best if you have access to practice exams from your course and professor. However, making your own practice exam has incredible merits, and by predicting what material your professor is likely to test, you’re prioritizing your studying!
  • LECTURE. OUT LOUD. TO YOURSELF. I have started doing this in my own house, and although my family thinks I’m crazy, it is 100% the most effective study technique I have ever used. You can’t hide from your brain’s false sense of understanding of the material this way!
    • More on this topic in upcoming blog posts! I’m still getting the hang of it!

As a daily affirmation, tell yourself that you have the power to learn anything, and that you should be learning it ACTIVELY!

–A.

 

 

Anki

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If I could go back in time and tell myself only one WORD before college started, I’d scream ‘ANKI’ in my ear  drum. Or, if you prefer the MCAT Neuroanatomy way, the sound wave would enter through my pinna, proceed through my external auditory canal to the tympanic membrane, follow through the malleus, incus, and stapes until it hit the oval window. From there, the wave would work through the perilymph of my cochlea and start getting converted to electrical signals across the basilar membrane and the hair cells before traveling up the vestibulocochlear nerve. Then, it’d proceed through the brainstem to finally be interpreted in the auditory cortex of the temporal lobe. Today’s post is about how I was FINALLY able to learn that process and not be intimidated by it.

According to the internet, “anki” 暗記 means “learning by heart; memory work.” *Ankisuru 暗記する means learn by heart commit to memory. Anki is a flashcard program that provides spaced repetition based on how well you feel you have learned the material. I have seen the tool pop up on several premed and medical school student blogs and decided it convert over from my beloved Quizlet and Study Blue websites that I use to make my online flashcards.

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This is what the Anki home screen looks like. I have created decks for all of the MCAT topics under the username MCAT Study. Each day, I have a certain number of flaschards “due” for me to study based on how I rated the flashcards I studied yesterday. Every morning, after I tackle my MCAT Questions of the Day in my email inbox, I sit down to work through all of the cards that I have “due”. I’ve found that Anki works the best when you review the cards every day, and I’ve incorporated the flashcard review into my daily studying.

anki2To create new cards, click the ADD button in between DECKS and BROWSE. From there, you can add to a new Deck or an existing Deck. You can even add images, audio, and video clips to the cards. I’ve found many tutorials on YouTube instructing users on how to create card loops and multiple cards from a single image. For now, I’m usually typing up practice discrete questions and regular formulas and facts I have to memorize.

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When you start studying, the cards you have created pop up question first. This card was one of today’s Behavioral Sciences cards (Chapter 2 of Kaplan Behavioral Sciences). After you answer the card out loud, in your head, or on paper – I jot down the answers on flashcards to use up the HUNDREDS of blank flashcards I have left over from college – I hit the space bar for the answer/back of the card to pop up.

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After the answer is displayed, Anki’s rating system is displayed at the bottom, allowing me to decide how well I think I know the matter that is being tested. Then, the card will be shown to me in the time interval I have specified. This is incredibly perfect for studying for exams, LIKE THE MCAT, when you are studying months in advance and need to remember all of the information for a very long time. I wish I was able to use this as a college student to make flashcards on lecture material for exams! Can’t you see how awesome this tool would be to study for a cumulative final!

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You can even change the settings for cards as well based on how many you need to review!)I’m currently studying Thermodynamics and Thermochemistry, and finished my “due” cards for today. However, even though I finished the number of cards Anki gave to me, I hit the CUSTOM STUDY button to add more cards for today’s study only. You have the options to customize everything about the repetition of your deck.

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This morning was the first time I saw this card, so notice how little the increments of time are – 1 minute, 10 minutes, and 4 days. I usually hit the 10 minute button so Anki knows that I want to review this card more than others in my deck.

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At the end of the studying session, Anki tells you how many cards you studied and how long you spent studying them (it manages your time for you! How awesome is that!!?!) There’s nothing more satisfying than going down the line and seeing that you have no cards “due” for that day.

Even though it seems like a massive pain to create your own Anki decks, I highly recommend you spend the time and actually do it! I cannot stress this enough! As you can see, the spaced repetition of the material is based on your own preferences. I make cards based on my own weak material, and I know that trying to learn a big deck of cards would be useless if it didn’t include my personal weaknesses.

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For example, when I created this card, I specifically included the two questions on there to focus my memorization on what was really important about Broca’s Area in the brain. I’m always confusing the functions of Broca’s Area with Wernicke’s Area, and the MCAT loves to take advantage of this! However, now that I’ve specifically created a card for this topic, and can use Anki’s spaced repetition to make sure I don’t forget the functions, I see it way more often that if I used a pre-made deck. Now, as soon as I’m prompted with this card, my mind goes to the mneumonic I’ve created for the location of Broca’s area (BF = BoyFriend = Broca’s Area in Frontal Lobe), and connect that to the function of Broca’s Area, which is speech production!

It’s also incredibly tedious to go through all of the “due” flashcards each day, but I know it will be worth it when I achieve my dream score on the MCAT! I’m already seeing the effects of Anki when I tackle my MCAT Questions of the Day and daily sample passages! Furthermore, I don’t have to spend a dedicated day to review when I’m looking through all of the relevant material each day!

I think the only downside to Anki is that the mobile app they’ve created in companion to the downloaded software is $25 on the app store! That’s really expensive in comparison to free apps like Quizlet, but if I needed to study on the go for classes and the MCAT, I would be sure to make the investment. I plan on making that purchase when I enter med school or a post-bac program!

Now it’s time to get back to work!

-A.

 

Headspace

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My quest to quell my anxiety started towards the middle of my last semester as an undergraduate student, where I completed my entire senior thesis research project (from getting IRB approval to running subjects/collecting data to writing the drafts and finished paper) in the span of about 3 months. In addition, I was balancing my usual two jobs, two advanced biology courses and even the dreaded advanced organic chemistry. OH and I was in the process of applying to medical school, which if you have no experience with the system, you should know that each day without hearing back from a school is the worst day of your life.

You walk from class to class without realizing how you’ve gotten there. You jump out of your seat and your heart leaps away from your body every time the email notification on your phone goes off. The pain in your gut when someone in your class discusses their interview experiences with their friends will hit you like a stab wound, as your heart sinks into the what feels like the depths of Tartarus. You will find yourself calling schools in public places, rattling off your 9 digit AMCAS ID number like your home address without a care in the world for the people listening to your phone call. You dread logging into social media for fear of seeing another “medical school acceptance” post, and start visiting these sites with fewer and fewer frequency until one day, you’ve forgotten your password. Tears will stream down your face in a massive lecture, and you will brush them off with your left hand while continuing to take notes with your right hand.

In short, it is hell on Earth.

After my first medical school interview in September, I waited 16 weeks to hear back from that school. Allopathic medical schools cannot send students acceptances until October 15th, so I knew what I was getting into, but the prospect of an early medical school interview raised my confidence (even though I kept it secret from all of my friends, not wanting to draw attention to myself like other students in my classes. But, October 15th came and went, and my inbox stayed silent. When I found out that this particular school releases results on Thursdays, every day of the week leading up to Thursdays felt unlivable, and Thursdays themselves I often don’t remember on account of blacking out from the fear.

When the mental breakdowns, massive amounts of studying and thesis-writing, long hours at work, and general loneliness got too much to handle, I knew I had to stand up for myself and make some changes. I was tired of fearing email notifications and being afraid of running into classmates around campus because they would ask about my application season. I was tired of not feeling like I was in control, and that the “mistakes of my past” – i.e. getting Bs in pre-requisite coursework – would haunt me for years to come. Most of all, I was tired of not being able to sleep at night, and scared of having to miss sleep until a medical school acceptance that wouldn’t come for potentially years ahead.

This post is going to share the steps I took to reclaim my life back, and the tools I use to help me on my journey to recovery. I hope that by consolidating these resources and sharing them, I’ll be able to spread the recovery with my readers and other members of society (here’s looking at you, pre-meds!) that might need them. I’ve been getting a lot of private messages on Instagram, and am so thrilled to be able to serve as a friend/companion/coach/mentor to other students in my position. I’m always recommending these resources, and please know that I welcome all private message communications!

  1. Establishing a Morning Routine – Like I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Podcasts were the first things I turned to for guidance. I walked around a lot to my classes in college, and always seemed to have my headphones in to listen to music. After running through the same playlists and exhausting my musical taste, I turned to Podcasts for a more informative experience and to literally have a fresh voice inside my head. Fate brought me to The Tim Ferriss Show, and I credit him with everything – his podcasts inspired me to take the first steps to pull myself out of my fog. The title that sparked my interest the most was this podcast called “5 Morning Rituals That Help Win The Day”. The first of the five habits was to make your bed each morning, and have that be the first thing you do when you get up and out of bed. I never made my bed in the morning, and it was contradictory to my “clean freak” ideal. I couldn’t get myself to do it, and it would start a messy room deterioration process, often accompanying exam weeks. I told myself to give the idea a shot, and made my bed the next morning. And the next morning. And the morning after that. Four months later, and I’m still making my bed each morning as the first thing I do in the day. That’s progress, and recovery.
  2. Journaling – Also in the same podcast, Tim Ferriss describes journaling as part of his morning routine. In fact, loyal fans of his podcast created the journal he uses. It’s called The Five Minute Journal, and it works to start your day with optimism and end your day with gratitude. I haven’t bought the journal yet, but I created my own version in a spare notebook and tried it for a week. By forcing your mind to be grateful first thing in the morning and making time to feel happy about the day’s work before you go to bed, you start putting your successes and failures in perspective. You find that your failures aren’t even as big as they seem compared to having food on the table and a roof over your head. Some days, I couldn’t get myself to be grateful for any of my “accomplishments”, and I would just write “I’m thankful for having a loving, supportive family”, which would shock me into realizing just how lucky I am. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to break a spell of depression. Before I’d realize it, I’d call my mom before class just to talk to her, look up at a beautiful morning sky on my way to class, take a deep breath of fresh air, and just feel happy to be alive. Journaling, especially when gratitude is involved, has been a powerful tool to enact change.
  3. Mindfulness–  Another Tim Ferriss morning ritual technique that I decided to try was meditation, more specifically – mindfulness. After reading about the Stop, Breathe, Think app on a College Fashion blog that I occasionally peruse, I decided to check it out to see what all the hype about ‘Mindfulness’ was. This app offers several free guided meditations and also a daily check-in feature where you chronicle your feelings. I was skeptical initially, but all that changed when I tried the “Relax, Ground, and Clear” meditation during a particularly stressful study session for Organic Chemistry. I played the 6 minute audio on my phone, took a seat on my floor, closed my eyes, and followed along. The soothing female voice was incredibly relaxing, and I was able to take a journey inside my head to clear it out. I always imagine a tiny version of me spraying Windex and just wiping away all the dust and clutter inside of my brain when I’m meditating, and that helps me immensely. Immediately after that first mindfulness meditation, I felt incredible – I didn’t need to down another cup of coffee to study, but felt renewed and recharged all by myself just by breathing! This morning, I played the same “Relax, Ground, and Clear” meditation in the shower to help me work through a tension headache. The feeling of the guided meditation along with the ambient shower noise and perfect temperature was the absolute best way to start my day! I can’t believe I didn’t try it earlier! Other apps I’ve tried for mindfulness meditation include www.calm.com and Headspace. Headspace gives you a free 10 day mindfulness exercise, but I found the male Australian voice to be a little more distracting than anticipated!😉
  4. Yoga – I’m currently on Day 13 of DoYouYoga’s 30 Day Challenge. I didn’t publicize it earlier because I was afraid that I would fall through and not be able to even make it to the second week, as many of my previous attempts had in the past. I figured out that the reason I was never able to finish a 30 day challenge like I wanted to was because I never scheduled the time in my day consistently. In my previous post, you’ll see that 3-3:30 pm is my daily yoga time. This came about because I set an alarm in my phone that rings every day at 3 pm reminding me to do my daily yoga for the day. Each video in this challenge is approximately 12-17 minutes long, and I knew I didn’t want to do Yoga right after eating. The 3:00 hour seemed like a great time to do Yoga to fight the afternoon slump and also not interfere with any of my eating habits (you know I take food very seriously). This challenge has been so fantastic for me! I already feel my downward dogs improving and I’m starting to get addicted to the habit! Yoga to me is the first step towards improving my physical health as well, and I even found myself going for lunchtime walks last week when the weather was nice! It started a great positive chain reaction, and I’m looking forward to completing this challenge and starting the Yoga With Adriene 30 Day Challenge afterwards!
  5. Other Resources
    1. Momentum Google Chrome Extension  – The beautiful pictures, gorgeous clock and name display, inspiring daily quote, and task list where you focus on completing one main goal have helped my productivity levels immensely.
    2. Coffitivity – This website provides you with a soundtrack of background noise, as in a coffee shop or public library. I find it helpful for long hours of studying when I’m by myself in a silent area and need to hear other people so I don’t go crazy! They have an app as well!
    3. Adult Coloring Books – After seeing all the pictures on Instagram and Pinterest, I caved and printed off a free Mandala coloring book page from Google and whipped out my trusty crayola colored pencils from a bucket my family has had since I’ve been in third grade. From the very moment the first pencil hit the paper, the scent alone brought me back to simpler times, and I was transfixed.
    4. Herbal Teas – High levels of caffeine and anxiety attacks don’t mix. Although I could never predict when my anxiety attacks were going to occur, I could always predict that I would have a coffee by my side whenever I was completing anything academic. This recipe for disaster
    5. Podcasts – I recently listened to the Ted Radio Hour podcast Headspace on one of my afternoon walks. It samples from different Ted Talks about mental illness and illuminates strategies of people surviving with the same diagnoses. I found it to be very inspirational. A new podcast I discovered this week is called The 5 AM Miracle with Jeff Sanders, which covers everything from productivity tips to fitness tips to overall happiness tips. I’m looking forward to listening to the programs! As usual, The Tim Ferriss Show podcasts brighten my day with the stories of struggle from celebrities, helping me realize that everyone starts SOMEWHERE on their recovery journeys. My favorite Tim Ferriss Show guests are Jamie Foxx, Shaun White, B.J. Novak, and Rainn Wilson (can you tell I love the Office?)
    6. Books – I will be doing a separate post about the books I have read and am currently reading to help with recovery, but never forget the healing power of the novel. My public library is actually the only place I visit regularly that is not my home, and I have read a total of 8 books since the beginning of 2016 (more than I read during four years of college combined). The “medical journey” books are some of the most inspiring that I’ve ever read, with the likes of Atul Gawande and Michael Collins. There are also incredible productivity books out there that I’m working my way through.

I hope that these strategies will be able to help you through any struggle – large or small. Remember that Recovery is, and always will be, a work in progress. In fact, after using the calm.com website before a stressful phone interview yesterday, I sufficiently calmed myself down with the guided meditation and repeating one of my favorite quotes for motivation (from that INCREDIBLE Jamie Foxx podcast with Tim Ferriss!) – “What is on the other side of fear? Nothing.”

The interview turned out to be so exhausting (for someone who hasn’t left the house in weeks and only has spoken to their family), I couldn’t focus on studying for the rest of this day. So, I downloaded the Mandala coloring book page, put on some episodes of House on Netflix, and sat to work writing this master post.

After this (and maybe some binge watching of Fuller House on Netflix!), I’m going back to work! Fully rejuvenated!

 

–A.

Efficiency

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I wanted to think that the rudimentary study schedule I drew for myself was perfect. After all, I’m taking the exam in June and I have put everything in my life on hiatus for the event, which means that I should have endless amounts of free time to study and be on my way to a 528 (the perfect score on the exam which I don’t think anyone has ever scored yet). Yet, at the end of the day, my anxiety creeps up again and questions me repetitively with “Why do you feel like you haven’t done enough work today?” “SHUT IT, Anxiety,” I fight back – “I’m tired and I’m using my exhaustion as a gauge for how hard I worked today.”

“Oh yeah?” Anxiety quips back, “We’ll just see how prepared you feel when Test Day rolls around!”

After laughing at me, Anxiety has sufficiently completed the night’s round of self-torture.

Well, I decided to put my efficiency to the test today in order to see just how I was spending my time. I can’t take credit for this idea, however, as tons of self-help and productivity gurus have written/blogged about it before and I most recently came across it while watching the YouTube channel of med student couple Jane and Jady in this video. I took it a step further than Jady’s strategy of just tracking the amount of time he actually spent studying with the stopwatch feature on his phone. I decided to use an index card.

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Since my alarm went off at 7:15 am, (I was actually awake at about 6:50 am and just rolled around trying to find some last few minutes of solace – so I guess I cheated myself out of those extra 25 minutes of time!), I noted down the activities I completed and the times I started and ended the activity. It wasn’t as obtrusive as I thought it was going to be initially, as I didn’t want to pay for the convenience of the multitude of apps out there that allow you the same features with just the tap of your phone screen. I already carry around my phone with me all day, and the index card was pretty weightless.

After the day was finished, I added up all the time together and put it into categories in an Excel Spreadsheet.

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It turns out, I spent an embarrassing amount of time eating and taking food breaks, and not as long as I thought I did on study time! In my defense, the 101 minutes I spent on a Lunch break included cooking lunch for myself, doing dishes, and doing the laundry in my household (both my parents work and I help out around the house as much as I can now that I’m an adult who lives at home after graduating college.) Another embarrassing quip is that the 22 minutes I spent in the bathroom this morning included taking a shower!

Shockingly, I was able to see a pattern in my study time that I didn’t discover before – until a longer, uninterrupted study session before dinner today (106 minutes), I never noticed that I study in much shorter chunks of time that are approximately 30-40 minutes in length! Even when I was studying for the 106 minute long stretch, I found myself reaching for my phone while watching lecture videos and scrolling through Instagram and Buzzfeed! I also found myself letting Netflix episodes run in the background of my work, not really paying attention to them, like I wanted background conversation to help keep me focused.

So, although the total amount of time spent on MCAT work was 5.716 hours, that includes a 55 minute organizing session in the morning where I worked with the AAMC guides (see the first picture) and organized my flashcards. Today, I spent 4.8 hours of the day actually studying, which is only 36 minutes longer than I spent eating today.

With these lessons in mind, I designed a new schedule that would account for my mind’s wandering in study break form (obviously when we get closer to test day, I won’t be able to take as many little breaks as I want to, and will then be redesigning a study schedule – but remember that MCAT studying is a marathon, not a sprint!), my daily chores, and the fact that I HATE eating and studying at the same time.

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I’ll talk about my budding yoga time in another post soon, but this new schedule allows me to utilize the Pomodoro technique (think 50 minute chunks instead of 25 minute periods) while letting me spend my free time how I want to and still leaving me with spacious food breaks! The best part is, I can increase my efficiency studying by about 130%!

Obviously, life happens, and I don’t expect to stick to this schedule every day! I have lazy days, and off days, and am stuck in a fog on some days too. Weekends are particularly challenging for me, as my whole family is at home and I crave spending time with them! However, this experiment in Efficiency has really opened my eyes to how I actually spend my time as opposed to how I think I spend my time. Perhaps I’ll describe an entire weekend to see how I spend my “free time” there, but I think I’m going to need a bigger index card!🙂

-A.

Fog

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This crazy weather my region of the US has been having is ridiculous – it’ll go from being a beautifully sunny day in the lower 40s to showering us with a 3 inch snowfall in the matter of one day (sometimes its the same day!) That weather is really reflective of where my head has been the last couple of days since my blog post about Off-Days. I feel like every day in this past week has been an off day for me. My fellow sufferers of Depression will be able to understand that sentiment.

“Depression is like trying to house-train a pet: just when you think you’ve made some progress, your new puppy has had an accident on the living room carpet and you’re left trying to pick up the pieces and bust out the carpet cleaner.”

–A.

In all honesty, I went through a bad week. I did a lot of reading, I even regularly did laundry and other chores just to get my mind out of the pit of darkness it currently was in. But, even though I was craving structure and progress, I vegged out completely and watched a lot of Netflix. I go through periods where I get stuck on a concept and will not budge from where I am mentally. In this case, I told myself I could not study for the MCAT if I didn’t finish The Office on Netflix. Let’s examine that statement for a moment, shall we. I stubbornly decided to sacrifice my education – the one thing in life that I believe can redeem myself and make my family proud, the one goal  I have set for myself in life, and the one aspect of myself I associate with truly being ME – in order to finish a pre-recorded TV series on a medium that will still exist one year (probably more) from now.

What’s wrong with me?

NOTHING. I am a human being, and I have to accept that and love myself. Recovery is a work in progress, ladies and gentlemen, and I keep making steps towards the road I’m on by questioning my actions. Soon, during one of my The Office Netflix binges, I came across this article by Buzzfeed. It helped me realize that what I was experiencing was not unique to me, that hundreds if not thousands of other members of society have it worse than I do. I was able to kind of snap back to my goal-oriented self for a moment. Soon afterwards, my loan check had arrived and I was able to register for the MCAT, after two months of anxiety that I would not be able to get a test date. I treated myself to my absolute favorite pens, the Pilot V5 Precise series, and set to work building a new, more forgiving schedule.

By questioning my decisions, I’m able to have a sort of therapist-like conversation with myself. Journaling has been essential in this progress, as forcing myself to outline the steps of why I want to do something (like mindlessly snack on junk food or re-watch old John Oliver videos on YouTube) allows me to get to the root of my urges. For instance, I questioned the reasons why I wanted to have a snack of oreos dipped in milk before bed and came to the conclusion that I wanted to reward myself after having a great day of healthy eating, completing chores to help my family, and studying yesterday. Although it got out of hand, and I ate more oreos than I planned on doing so, I determined that I won’t mindlessly eat out of the original oreo container and will portion two or three into a smaller bowl next time.

Likewise, I decided to build a schedule with even more flexibility than last time, breaking up physics chapters into three days and a designated review/break day at least once a week. I’m only human, but I’m working to make myself better every day. Signing up for MCAT question of the day emails also helped in this journey because I like to start my study sessions with these questions and also a CARS passage or two. A lot of MCAT question of the day emails are free, and the CARS passages from Khan Academy (along with their other godsend materials) are free as well. In addition, by setting a morning routine of reading theSkimm in bed, scrolling through Instagram (I was pleasantly delighted and incredibly humbled when I saw that my most recent post has gotten over 50 likes! THANK YOU SO MUCH IG COMMUNITY!!), showering + breakfast, and  then attempting my MCAT questions of the day to start my dedicated study time, I’m helping pull myself out of this fog.

Anyone suffering like I am, craving structure but afraid to make progress, feeling helpless and lost, and just looking to start the day right needs to listen to my favorite Podcast by productivity guru and best-selling author Tim Ferriss. His podcast, the Tim Ferriss show has helped me pull myself together, as he interviews prominent successful celebrities to find out about their rise to the top and the rituals they stick with to better themselves (the Jamie Foxx podcast episode is one of my favorite podcasts ever!). This episode in particular describes his own morning rituals, and really helped me. You can check him out on the free Podcast app in your iPhone or online!

Until we meet again,

–A.

 

Off-Days

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Last Saturday, late in the afternoon, I was meticulously working my way through my first chapter of physics review for my MCAT studying. Physics and General Chemistry are my worst subjects – I completely failed at all attempts to learn them while I was in college, and promptly ruined my GPA and mental sanity due to these mega “weed-out” courses at the large public institution I attended for undergrad. So, while studying for this last chance MCAT (#LCM?), I made a vow to not touch new material until I fully understood the material I was working on. That means regardless of the meticulously crafted schedule I had designed for myself with an exam date of April 23rd looming nearby, I was not going to proceed forward in my preparation until I could explain to myself what everything meant.

I had great luck with this strategy the previous night, as for the first time in my life, I was able to understand orbital chemistry in the first chapter of the Gen Chem review book. I almost cried for two reasons – out of sheer joy that I wasn’t skimming over the subjects of the review books I feared the most and subsequently scored the lowest on, but also that if I made this commitment earlier in my education, I would have saved myself a lot of time and spared the pain, potentially ending up with a higher GPA and not having to retake this exam. But, isn’t the whole point of my journey to recover what I have lost? I must be thankful for the opportunity to learn and relearn this material, because now I can master it and never look back come the relaxation of test day.

However, all small wins defeated when I opened up Chapter 1 of Physics and gasped pretty audibly. It covered everything from translational motion to rotational motion and even torque and equilibrium (the material takes up about 250 questions in the 1001 MCAT Physics Questions I owned – needless to say, it was way more than 1 chapter’s worth of information). It was going to take me way longer than the 4 hours I had allotted in my schedule to this chapter. So, I sat down and began to work…and work…and work. Soon, it was the next day, and I still hadn’t finished this chapter due to my overwhelming commitment to master the material before proceeding. However, I was making incredible progress with Khan Academy videos and equation-memorizing. But it kept wearing me down, and the last feeling I wanted to experience was pre-exam burnout, ESPECIALLY in this crunch time period.

So, I did what anyone who is facing exhaustion and feelings of being overwhelmed would do. I got up, went to the kitchen, and proceeding to eat my way to relaxation. The first thing in the pantry that caught my eye was a box of pancake mix, and before I knew it, I was mixing up some batter and tossing in some frozen blueberries from a package I reserved for morning smoothies.

As I ate and dived into my latest read, Gone Girl (potentially a book review to come?), I thought about the crazy schedule I had created for myself, and why I was rushing to complete it. I made the commitment to master material before moving on, and what scholar could master a course’s worth of material in just 4 hours?! Not someone with anxiety and depression that was working at the top of their skill set to maintain calmness, that’s for sure. And, why did I even decide on that test date – April 23rd? To apply to AMCAS right out of the gates on Day 1? That’s what I did this current application cycle, and what purpose did it serve? My new MCAT score was delayed in processing, and I didn’t receive interview invitations until December anyways. Plus, friends of mine who applied later in the cycle had gotten in to schools on a normal timeline anyways. Why should I place this crazy amount of pressure on myself only to regret my actions a few months down the line.

So I took an “off-day” – I sat and read for pleasure, I watched the Superbowl with my family (slay QUEEN BEY), and I wrote out some thoughts in my journal, all the while questioning my decision to cram for this exam. After much thought, and a day of rejuvenation, I came to the conclusion that I was going to postpone my MCAT exam until June because I really wanted the extra time to prepare material (I wasn’t going to squander time aimlessly and I also wasn’t going to drive myself insane) and I would have enough time to submit an AMCAS application in July and still had the chance to make it into medical school and complete secondaries before any potential post-bac programs started up.

This break was one of the best decisions I’ve made so far.

-A.

Zen

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For images of my musings, check out my Instagram account!

Note – this post is in no way sponsored by Tazo tea. I’m singing its praises regardless. 

I don’t know how it happened exactly, but somewhere along the road in high school, I fell in love with green tea. Not just any tea in particular, but that pinnacle of excellence known as Tazo Zen. It was that time where drinking Green Tea was the Kale and Green Smoothie of the health world. You know, where if you had even one kale salad or power green smoothie, you felt like you lost 20 pounds instantly? Even though I was barely 17 years old my senior year of high school, I decided that my skin could use the antioxidants and fountain of youth look and took the plunge. At first, while taste testing various green teas, I couldn’t stomach any of them. I’ve tried the real authentic green teas, and I cannot get over how bitter some of them taste! It’s like coffee, I assume, where you have to work to get used to the taste (but everyone else is in love with it and drinking coffee makes you cooler, right? Isn’t that how it works!?)

When I tried Tazo Zen, it all just clicked. The lemongrass provides the blend with just enough freshness for rejuvenation and the hint of spearmint cleanses your palate and opens your soul. I was hooked.

I cannot even begin to tell you how incredible I felt about myself when I’d show up to first period with a travel mug full of Tazo Zen. Not that I was drinking it to show off – I was usually at high school around 6:20 AM for meetings and organizations and I definitely needed the caffeine – but I did feel a little spring in my step for not turning to coffee like the majority of my classmates. When I started working in the hospital setting, my trusty mug of Tazo Zen saw me through morning admits and days full of surgery. It really boils down to the fact that I was always feeling at peace with myself and having great mental health days whenever I was drinking this tea. I felt in control, not overworked or exhausted, and was really looking forward to the day ahead of me. I wasn’t dreading work or class or even social interaction. I was…simply put…ZEN.

When things started to change in college, the Zen was quickly neglected for lattes and mochas and trendy blended coffee drinks that cost more than $5 for a grande. I was spiraling out of control, stressed by everything I had on my plate with school and volunteering and student jobs and toxic friends. I had no Zen in real life, and would face this battle for years to come. I’d break a caffeine addiction cycle, only to come crawling back begging for forgiveness and promising to never abandon again.

After moving back home post-graduation, I had the chance to do what I never had before done – actually break my caffeine addiction. It started slowly, coming off of probably the 2 hours of sleep I had during Finals Week and Graduation celebrations. Pretty soon, I’d forget to make a morning cup of coffee and would not even realize it. Then I found a box of my old staple, my best friend, my miracle drink Tazo Zen, and the rest was history.

Even after my medical school application cycle has sent me reeling into a tailspin, my Zen has kept me going through it all. My morning and afternoon cups have kept me going, and I look forward to staying committed to their cause throughout my MCAT studying.

-A.