How to Deal with College Stress as a Medical & Healthcare Student

From recognizing the signs and sources to knowing when and where to get help, here’s how to keep stress from getting the best of you in school.

Stress is an inevitable part of college for any student, but school can be particularly stressful for medical, nursing, and other healthcare students. They not only have to take in loads of information in classes but must also deal with the demands of residencies or clinicals (not to mention the highly competitive nature of med school and healthcare careers).

Stress can become a  much more serious issue if left unchecked, so it’s important not to ignore it. This guide provides effective solutions to help medical and healthcare students manage their stress levels and take care of their overall mental health. After reading it, you’ll better understand symptoms of stress and related mental health concerns, learn simple self-treatment strategies, know when it’s time to seek outside help, and have all the resources you need to be healthy-minded and successful in college.

What Do We Mean When We Say “Stress”?

People often use “stress” to refer to a wide range of factors and feelings, so it’s important to know exactly what we mean when talking about stress so you can better identify and differentiate between stress and other issues commonly associated with it, like burnout, anxiety, and depression.

Stress

Stress happens when a person is presented with a challenge but does not have the resources available to effectively deal with that challenge. Sometimes stress can be positive and lead to growth, but if the stress is inhibitive rather than motivating, the failure to respond well to challenges can have significant negative consequences, both physically and emotionally.

SYMPTOMS

  • Headache
  • Restlessness
  • Withdrawing from friends and social activities
  • Stomach pain or upset
  • Fatigue
  • Substance misuse
  • Anger outbursts
  • Change in eating habits

TREATMENT

Stress likely can’t be avoided altogether, but it can be managed. Managing your time well to account for studying, hobbies, and other commitments can help you balance your schedule and prepare for stressful events in the future. Exercising, meditating, hanging out with friends and family, meeting with student support groups, and talking with a counselor can also help alleviate stress.

Burnout

When stress persists for a long period of time, it can lead to burnout. Burnout is a state of physical and/or emotional exhaustion. It can be debilitating and is common in medical students—one study found that 45 to 60 percent of med students and residents experience stress-related burnout.

SYMPTOMS

  • Emotional exhaustion (for example, a lack of enthusiasm for work)
  • Depersonalization, or treating people like objects
  • Feelings of low personal accomplishment (negative self-appraisal, work doesn’t feel meaningful, etc.)
  • Stress and its symptoms
  • Suicidal thoughts

TREATMENT

Prevention through stress management and planning is ideal. Students should try to recognize burnout symptoms early so changes can be made to alleviate its negative effects, like choosing a meaningful career path, taking care of their physical health, and taking breaks or vacations.  Students experiencing burnout should see a counselor or therapist, seek peer support, or try changing up their routines.

Clinical Depression

Clinical depression is on the more severe end of the depression scale. It’s persistent rather than caused by specific triggers, like loss or illness. Clinical depression, also known as major depression or major depressive disorder, is extremely common in medical students, with around one-third of medical students experiencing some form of depression.

SYMPTOMS

  • Feeling empty, hopeless, or sad
  • Anger outbursts
  • Irritability or frustration over small issues
  • Insomnia and/or hypersomnia
  • Lack of energy
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Feeling withdrawn from friends, family, or hobbies
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Suicidal thoughts

TREATMENT

Students can alleviate symptoms of clinical depression on their own in many ways, but it’s important to keep in mind that prescribed medication and therapy are options too, since self-treatment isn’t always sufficient. Exercise, time management, socializing (even when it’s difficult), and creating a support group to talk with can help.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are marked by recurring intrusive thoughts that cause excessive worry, tension, and fear. Anxiety disorders go beyond feeling nervous before an exam; anxiety affects your ability to do daily activities and can have mental and physical symptoms. Examples of different anxiety disorders include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Specific phobias
  • Separation anxiety disorder

SYMPTOMS

  • Nervousness and restlessness
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Sense of impending danger or doom
  • Sleep trouble
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Hyperventilation or shortness of breath
  • Avoiding anxiety triggers to the point that it’s disruptive to daily activities
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Weakness and tiredness

TREATMENT

Anxiety disorders can be treated, but students may need outside help to stabilize their anxiety. Balancing school and work with enjoyable activities can help alleviate anxiety, and identifying triggers early can help with anxiety prevention and early intervention.

Top 15 Reasons Why Healthcare Students Feel Stressed

When it comes to stress, burnout, anxiety, and depression, prevention and early intervention can go far. Identifying potential stressors early can help students effectively manage their stress and better avoid major mental health issues. These are some common stressors in medical school, nursing school, and other healthcare degree programs.

  • Heavy workload
    Medical and healthcare students have thousands of years’ worth of medical information to learn, and they also have to keep up with emerging trends, technologies, and best practices.
  • Competition 
    Premed students can feel the pressure of being in an environment with other extremely high-achieving peers who are all competing to get into med school, but the pressure continues through med school too as competition for quality residencies arises.
  • Lack of control 
    Students can feel a lack of control in different ways,such as not having control of their schedules, needing to take in more information than they can process in a given time,and working in unpredictable clinical settings.
  • Strenuous clinicals 
    Students often have to do clinicals while balancing regular coursework and labs. During these clinicals, students may have to deal with a large volume of patients with myriad health issues as well as potentially chaotic dynamics with interns, residents, supervisors, and other students.
  • Exposure to illness and infection
    Getting sick can derail a student’s academics,especially with the heavy workloads involved in medical and healthcare programs. However, students must work directly with a lot of sick patients. Fear of contracting illness or infection can be extremely stressful.
  • No time to address physical and mental health
    Neglecting your health can cause issues in and of itself, but knowing you’re neglecting your health because you don’t have time makes for an even more stressful situation.
  • Poor sleep cycles
    Compensating for crammed schedules by foregoing sleep is common, but it typically just makes stress worse. A bad sleep schedule can lead to more physical and mental health issues,and in turn,more stress.
  • Death and dying 
    As students progress through their schooling,they may start to think about or directly deal with patient mortality. Knowing firsthand that your patients are dying can take a toll on your mental health.
  • Disillusionment 
    Medical and healthcare students often reach a point where the realize that school or their career choice wasn’t what they expected, and they feel negatively about it. Disillusionment can be caused by stress and exacerbate it as well.
  • Ethical and moral dilemmas
    There will likely be times when students have to face unexpected ethical and moral dilemmas. This can be stressful and make students feel anxious, hopeless, frustrated, or depressed.
  • Stigma 
    While stigma surrounding mental health issues is changing, medical and healthcare students often feel like they shouldn’t need to seek help. Additionally, many campus resources may be staffed by classmates and professors,making treatment feel inaccessible to some.
  • Pressure to put patients first 
    Students may feel that their patients’ issues are greater than their own or may stress that putting themselves first makes them a bad healthcare professional.
  • Feeling inadequately trained for necessary tasks
    Particularly during clinicals, students may have to contend with issues they do not have enough training to handle. Fear of harming a patient and not giving them proper care can be a huge stress.
  • No time for hobbies,friends,and family
    When students don’t have time to do things they enjoy, they lose important outlets for stress. Feeling like school takes up all their time can make things feel even worse for students.
  • Social isolation
    Between the competitive nature of school and the amount of time poured into studies, healthcare and medical students often spend a lot of time alone. Having nobody to talk to or interact with can make school extra stressful.

Expert Tips for Reducing Stress in School

Stress can often snowball into more issues that can become overwhelming and difficult to treat while in school. While treatment for these issues is available, it’s important and helpful for medical and healthcare students to manage their stress before it becomes more serious. Below are just a few ways students can help keep their stress levels in check.

Reducing Stress
  • Meet up with people. 
    Med school can be isolating, so students may need to make extra effort to connect with friends, family, and peers. Whether building a support group with classmates in similar circumstances or simply taking a break from studying to spend time with friends, building positive interactions with others into your routine can help alleviate stress.
  • Keep your health in check. 
    Healthcare students should know the importance of exercising and maintaining a good diet, but their tendency to put patients and schoolwork before themselves can cause students to neglect their own health. Maintaining good physical health can help keep mental health in order too.
  • Manage your time effectively. 
    Controlling your schedule is a great way to reduce stress and foresee potential stressors. Students may find that blocking out time not only for classes, clinicals, and studying but also for personal enrichment, like hanging out with friends and enjoying hobbies, helps maintain good work-life balance.
  • Find a relaxation technique that works for you.
    Yoga, meditation, tai chi, or even intensive martial arts that incorporate mindfulness can help students let go of stress and alleviate anxiety and depression. Many campuses have meditation rooms as well as yoga and martial arts classes, but students can also practice relaxation techniques on their own or with the help of apps.
  • Stick to a healthy sleep schedule. 
    Healthcare and medical students are often pressured to stay up late studying, but lack of sleep exacerbates stress and can lead to a decline in physical health as well. Students who work on closing their books and getting to sleep at a decent time every night generally have less stress and more energy to handle their busy schedules the next day.
  • Journal at the end of the day. 
    Journaling at the end of the day may make students feel less stressed and anxious and allow them to rest their minds. Instead of lying awake pestered by every little thought or worry, writing those thoughts can help students dismiss them for the night. They may also be less worried about remembering everything, since they’ll have a written account.
  • Spend time working with your community.
    When medical and healthcare students get stressed out over schoolwork, they can lose sight of why they entered the industry in the first place. Getting out in the community can remind students that the point of their education is to help people, not to get bogged down by grades. This can reinvigorate stressed students and help them ease up on themselves.
  • Seek professional counseling or therapy.
    There are certainly times when students need more hands-on guidance for reducing their stress. Counseling and therapy are good solutions when the stress-reducing techniques above aren’t sufficient on their own. Having a professional to talk with and guide them through specific stress management steps can be invaluable to medical and healthcare students, especially if they are currently experiencing or on the verge of experiencing more severe mental health issues.

When & Where to Get Additional Help for Stress

Sometimes, managing stress on your own isn’t enough, and that’s okay. Although students may fear stigma or question their career paths, seeking professional help for stress management and related issues doesn’t mean they aren’t fit to work in healthcare. Knowing the signs that you or a friend may need outside help addressing stress can help get things back on track.

Signs that You (or Someone You Know) Should Seek Outside Help

  • Feeling pressured by high expectations from yourself or others.
    If you constantly feel like you’re falling short or that you aren’t accomplishing what you’re supposed to, you may be at risk for burnout and depression and should seek stress management help.
  • Being preoccupied by doubts in your education or career path.
    Wondering if you’ve made the wrong career choice can be a sign of burnout. Often, these worries are due to stress and its symptoms, which can cause students to lose passion for healthcare or doubt their ability to handle industry demands.
  • Feeling overwhelmed very often.
    If you feel like you can’t manage daily tasks and activities, it may be time to seek help. This kind of stress can lead to serious anxiety disorders.
  • Feeling removed or withdrawn from others.
    Stress can cause students to isolate themselves, which only worsens the problem. If you feel yourself starting to withdraw, consider talking to a counselor to work on healthier methods for coping with stress.
  • Experiencing symptoms that are disruptive to daily activities.
    Symptoms of stress, like irritability, headaches, insomnia and hypersomnia, and fatigue, can prevent students from navigating day-to-day life. If stress becomes this prohibitive, seek treatment.
  • Having insufficient time to do things you or they enjoy.
    Many medical and healthcare students get caught in the idea that school is going to take up all their time and may see this as normal. However, not having enough time to get everything done, including self-care and relaxation, is not healthy. Students may need help managing a work-life balance.
  • Experiencing suicidal thoughts. 
    If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, seek treatment immediately. Stress can be serious and may lead to suicidal ideation, especially in healthcare. The suicide rate for physicians is more than twice that of the general population, but professional treatment can help.
info

This guide is not meant to replace professional help. If you or someone you know has stress that is leading to thoughts of suicide, talk to someone immediately by contacting the National Suicide Prevention 24/7 Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or calling 911.

Find more ways to get confidential help at
SuicidePreventionHotline.org.

Counseling, Support, and Treatment Services in Your Community

Once you’ve decided you’d like some outside help dealing with your stress, the next question is where to get it. There are plenty of local therapy, support and treatment resources you can take advantage of, from professional counseling services to stress management workshops. Here are a few on- and off-campus options to consider.

On-Campus

  • Counseling center 
    Counseling centers can provide individual counseling, group counseling, and crisis support and response along with other types of academic and social support.
  • Mental health clinic 
    Campus mental health clinics may be staffed by graduate students and licensed mental health professionals. They may provide short-term therapy and referrals for long-term treatment.
  • Mental health screening kiosks
    Some schools have convenient kiosks and desks with information and tests to help students check in with their mental health and see if they may need professional support.
  • Stress management workshops
    Schools often offer group workshops to help students manage stress and other associated issues. Workshops are short-term and can provide students with useful tools and resources.
  • Student support groups
    Peer-to-peer support can be invaluable throughout medical and healthcare programs. Students meet regularly for discussions with peers who are going through similar situations.

Off-Campus

  • Private practices
    Students can seek short- and long-term care at private practices. Therapists, psychiatrists, counselors, and other mental health practitioners can be found in these offices, which can have a cozier feel than hospital offices.
  • Hospitals and medical facilities
    These facilities can provide similar services to private practices and may be more convenient for students who need to address multiple issues, as many different specialists may work in a single facility.
  • Religious/spiritual groups 
    Spiritual guidance and support can be helpful for many students. While not a substitute for therapy, connecting with religious and spiritual groups can help students manage stress before it gets out of hand.
  • Home
    Some students find that moving home to be around family and old friends alleviates stress and social isolation. Online and hybrid healthcare programs may be a nice solution for students who decide to move home.
  • 12-step programs and support groups
    Support groups and step-based programs exist for a huge array of mental health issues. Students can search for organizations in their area to get support off campus.

Stress Management Apps & Online Therapy

Busy school schedules and tight budgets can make traditional mental health treatment challenging for some students, but that doesn’t mean mental health has to go unaddressed. There are many flexible treatment options that don’t require office visits. Online therapy or counseling and mental health and wellness apps, for instance, can be convenient and affordable solutions for students.

Best Stress Management & Wellness Apps for Healthcare Students

Many apps are available to help students address a wide range of mental health and wellness issues. The following apps can help students take control of their well-being and track mental health progress whenever students need support.

AppHow it worksPriceAvailable on
AnxietyCoachDeveloped by the Mayo Clinic, this app helps users gradually face their fears and reduce anxiety. Self-tests, anxiety ratings, to-do lists, and informative readings work together to help users understand and manage their anxiety.FreeiOS
HappifyHappify aims to help users with a range of mental health issues, including stress, anxiety, and mood, by using games, diary prompts, and other exercises. Users can focus on specific themes, like Conquer Negative Thoughts and Cope Better With Stress.Free limited version

Various price options for Happify Plus, starting at $12 for Android users and $14 for iOS users
iOS and Android
MindShiftMindShift CBT uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to help users actively control their anxiety, relax better, and develop mindfulness practices. The app has a wide array of features, including quick relief tools, comfort zone challenges, thought journals, and progress tracking.FreeiOS and Android
MoodKitMoodKit is a CBT tool that can be used on its own or in conjunction with therapy. It hinges on four main tools: activities, a thought checker, a mood tracker, and a journal.$4.99iOS
MoodToolsMoodTools focuses specifically on helping users with depression. The app includes depression tests, interactive thought diaries, suicide crisis safety plans, videos, and activities.FreeiOS and Android
SanvelloSanvello is a robust app for people with depression, anxiety, and other mental health diagnoses. Mood tracking, guided practice for mental health improvement, coping tools, and anonymous community support make Sanvello a favorite for many.Free limited version

$8.99/month or $59.99/year for premium access

Premium access may be covered as a health insurance benefit.
iOS and Android
T2 Mood TrackerT2 Mood Tracker is a simple but useful tool for tracking emotional experiences over time. The app comes preloaded with six issues, including anxiety, depression, and stress, but users can also customize their scale. Graphs and charts can be easily exported to share with your mental health professional.FreeiOS and Android

Online Therapy & Counseling for Healthcare and Medical Students

Many apps and online platforms provide an affordable, convenient way for students to connect with mental health professionals and seek help for stress and related issues. Online counseling providers can differ by delivery format, price, and available practitioners, so it’s important students do their research to find a service that works for them. Students should make sure they are getting treatment from certified and/or licensed professionals, but they can also check to see if their provider is accredited by the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) and compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

We’ve compiled a handful of the top providers of online counseling and psychotherapy to give students a headstart in their search.

ProviderHow it worksPrice
7 Cups7 Cups is a peer-to-peer emotional support platform created by mental health professionals. Designated “listeners” are professionals from a range of mental health disciplines, and users can also interact with and support one another. 7 Cups also offers HIPAA-compliant message-based therapy sessions.Free

$150/month for therapy with unlimited messaging
AmwellAmwell is a video therapy service whose interface closely mimics in-person therapy sessions. Amwell is ATA-accredited, accepts insurance, and works with a huge selection of licensed, experienced therapists and psychiatrists.$59-$99 per session for therapy

$199 for initial visit and $95 for follow-ups for psychiatry
BetterhelpBetterhelp offers both text and video counseling sessions. Users are matched to certified and licensed counselors who may have different professional and training backgrounds but have undergone rigorous training and screening. Users can get counseling through video sessions, phone calls, live chats, or message exchanges.$40-$70/week, billed monthly
BreakthroughBreakthrough is unique in that it accepts most major insurance plans and allows users to sort through therapists by specialty, location, and insurance coverage. The calendar feature makes it easy to schedule appointments, which can be done through video or messaging.Varies by therapist and insurance coverage
Faithful CounselingFaithful Counseling is an excellent option for students who want mental health counseling from a Christian perspective. Faithful Counseling is a branch of Betterhelp and connects users to counselors who are practicing Christians. Counseling is delivered through text messaging, video sessions, and phone calls.$40-$70/week, billed monthly
Pride CounselingMedical and healthcare students who are also members of the LGBTQ+ community may find that pride counseling is a nice option for them. Counselors are certified and licensed and specialize in LGBTQ+ issues. Users can communicate through message exchange, live message chat, video conferencing, and phone calls.$40-$70/week, billed monthly
TalkspaceTalkspace matches users to therapists but also gives them the option to try a new professional if they don’t connect well. Online messaging is the primary delivery method, but video and phone sessions are available as well.$65-$99/week, billed monthly
Related Degrees

10 Additional Resources for Dealing with Stress as a Healthcare or Medical Student

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – Healthcare Professional Burnout, Depression and Suicide Prevention

Students can find a selection of studies, stats, and other resources focused on addressing and destigmatizing suicide and depression in healthcare professions.

American Holistic Nurses Association – Holistic Stress Management

The American Holistic Nurses Association provides information and tools on managing stress in nursing careers from a holistic viewpoint.

American Medical Association (AMA) – Equipping Physicians to Manage Burnout

This AMA page provides physicians with ongoing burnout prevention and assistance tools, like podcasts, workshops, and weekly burnout tips.

Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) – Medical Student Well-Being

The AAMC’s student well-being page is a great place for medical students to share and read stories from peers that provide insight, tips, and resources for maintaining well-being in medical school.

EMResident – Mindfulness meditation: How to stay focused in med school and beyond

A medical student shares his experience with mindful meditation in school and provides tips for other students who want to give it a try.

Harvard Health Blog – Anxiety in college: What we know and how to cope

Students can get an informative overview of anxiety in college and tips to alleviate it in this Harvard blog post.

Help Yourself. Help Others. 

This site provides free online mental health screenings, possible explanations for feelings, and informative resources to explore next.

Mayo Clinic – Stress relievers: Tips to tame stress

The Mayo Clinic offers easily digestible tips for managing stress that students can practice when school gets overwhelming.

Surviving Medicine – Mental health: Choosing to prioritize myself

In this interesting and insightful article, a medical student shares his experience of seeking treatment for his mental health issues while in medical school.

ULifeline

ULifeline is an excellent mental health resource for college students. Students can find information on a range of topics plus resources and additional help.