Four Tips for Staying Happy and Sane

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

I recently came across an article on TIME titled, Doctors on Life Support. It's about stressed out medical student’s struggling with work-life balance and what their schools are doing to support them.

The article really inspired me to reflect upon my own experience in dental school thus far. Aside from the learning and the growth, there were also many challenges - one of it being learning how to prioritize my time.

Starting out first year, life and school were both on top of my priority list, next to being healthy. I've heard that being a dental student is tough, and staying sane requires good self-care. I was so proud of myself for sticking to this list the first few weeks, going out with friends on weeknights for a bite, or weekends for a kayaking trip.

As the academic year proceeded, I found the list to be more and more lopsided, with me gradually spending more time doing and thinking about school. Everyone freaks out the week before the exam. Even outside of exam weeks, my mind was trapped in the study mode too. When I had a choice between going out or study, I would most likely have picked study (that, or going to sim lab). For the uninitiated non-dental students, sim lab is short for simulation lab, where dental students learn and practice dental procedures before moving onto treating real patients. My priority list now had "school" in giant letters, and its eminence had forced "life" into a tiny corner.

This was exactly what I feared the most that would happen when starting dental school. I didn't know how to juggle between life and school, so I ended up dropping the ball on life. It really bothered me, since a big part of my decision in choosing UCSF was that I loved San Francisco and wanted to explore the city. I also think this was something people avoid discussing about. The TIME article put it well - "Everyone you meet, you think, might be smarter and more capable than you­ and you’re the only one struggling."

With second year starting soon, this whole reflection process really got me thinking about how I should approach the new academic year. I thought back to a year ago, when we were starting our first week of dental school. I want to recapture the energy and excitement I had then.

I don't know if I'll succeed in the perfect work-life balance this year, but I'm going to try to keep mindful of these tips for staying happy and sane.

1) Health and personal wellness first. Every time I talk to my grandma over the phone, she always ends the call by reminding me to fill my stomach and stay warm. It's a very grandma-type of thing to say, but it has its logic. A healthy body and a healthy mind should always be the top priorities.

2) Stay grateful. One summer day while walking home from school, I had a déjà vu moment that reminded me of my interview day at UCSF. I remembered how much I liked the school and wanted to be a part of it. Those initial memories of UCSF always helped me to put things back in perspective - why I chose to pursue a career in healthcare, and why I picked this place to do it. It is important to remember where we came from and to not take what we have for granted.

3) Focus on ourselves. It is easy to compare ourselves to our peers. What would we gain from that, other than just feelings like inferiority or superiority? I've learned to put blinders on sometimes, especially when I catch myself hurrying through exercises because I see classmates around me getting assignments checked off. We are here to build a strong foundation for treating future patients, and everyone moves at different pace depending on their past experience in the field. It's not a race but a journey, and everyone’s journey is different.

4) Be okay asking for help. Learning to show vulnerability is hard, especially in the field of healthcare, where there is a culture that dictates us to not show weakness. I used to feel embarrassed about asking for help for something I didn't understand. Once I was able to put down my ego and seek help, I found that I learn much better through peer interaction, which also applies when I offer assistance to others. Additionally, this openness often brings people closer together.

Hopefully these tips and tricks will help you reflect on your own experiences at UCSF and how you can maintain a better school-life balance in the coming year!