It’s a few weeks into MAPS and you’ve been having a great time getting to know your classmates, exploring Nashville, and looking at prosections that are older than yourself. You think to yourself, “Hmmm…med school is actually manageable. I can do this if I just work hard.”
Simple right? Not for my friend Tia.*
Tia is not usually stressed-out. In fact, Tia routinely handles life with steadiness and perspective. However, during MAPS, Tia received a failing score on her first gross anatomy exam.
So why was she stressed? The same reason most of us get stressed: frustrated expectations. Tia had been studying hard since the start of MAPS and predicted to at least get a B. She also figured that since she had never failed before, it wasn’t going to happen now. So when she didn’t pass, she went into panic mode and started to doubt herself, creating a stressful unmet expectation. She was experiencing the gap between what she anticipated to happen and what was actually happening.
So what can you do about the stress and frustration that comes from unmet expectations? You have two choices: Either change the reality around you or change your expectations.
Sometimes it’s possible to change reality. But often times, the reality around you is difficult to change. What if it’s a professor with whom you’re frustrated? Or maybe a fellow classmate? You can’t get rid of them and you can’t drop out of med school. In my experience, trying to change reality usually creates more stress. For example, trying to get more accomplished in a day can be even more frustrating than accepting my own pace because it’s an expectation I have of myself and I believe it should be in my control.
This leaves us with what Peter Bregman, strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership, describes as the best strategy for reducing stress: Change your expectations. In other words, be prepared for things to not go as planned. If changing your expectations proves too hard, another strategy is to get some perspective. Imagine a scale from 1-10 with 10 being the worst reality you can imagine. A 10 might be being in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Maybe a 9 is a serious illness that most probably will result in death. Perhaps an 8 is something that will change your life forever, like going to jail or a car accident that puts you in a wheelchair. Let’s say a 7 is something that is temporarily life-altering, like being evicted from your apartment.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Almost everything we freak out about is somewhere in the 1-3 range. One might even say that our moods and our stress levels are determined by events that actually don’t really matter. That’s useful to remember when you find yourself extremely irritated by Nashville drivers, or when the electric company keeps you on hold for 30 minutes while they investigate a $5 discrepancy on your last bill, or when you receive a failing grade on an exam. I’m not saying don’t remedy the situation. I’m simply suggesting it may not be worth getting worked up about.
That’s not always easy. A number of small stressors add up to a lot of stress and it’s natural to be stressed by things that don’t really matter in the whole scheme of things. I do it all the time. Plus, we are the some of the brightest people in the country. We hate to fail. But we can substantially reduce our stress by recognizing that in many situations, we have become perfectionists where perfection isn’t necessary, realistic, or even useful.
Tia’s stress was highest when she thought the problem was just with her. But, eventually, she found out that the class mean for that exam was a 62% (still failing). She also realized that she would not get kicked out of school because such occurrences happen every year. Somehow, that helped her change her expectations. She knew there was nothing she could do, and once she settled into this new reality, she was able to get some perspective and enjoy the rest of her time at Meharry. Energy never gets destroyed, but only converted. Similarly, an apparent failure is an opportunity to grow and learn. Where was failing that exam on a scale from 1 to 10? No more than a 2.
(Written By T.O – 4th Year Medicine)