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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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! 😉
- 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!
- Other Resources
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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
- 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?)
- 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!