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Finding Your Feet: Navigating Med School During ‘The New Normal’

By Malaikah Khan

Given how abruptly the world grinded to a halt in early 2020, the start of a new academic year feels like something we’ve never experienced before. As it should be, of course. Social distancing and regular mask use, though a novel affair, are crucial to limit the spread of COVID-19, and these are measures that you’d hope for all institutions to take seriously.

Having said that, nobody can deny that the world has changed beyond recognition these past few months and with it, our lives have turned upside down. It’s not easy trying to flip the switch from the low-level underlying existential crisis that accompanies a pandemic to the diligent study mode associated with earning a degree. Accepting that it’s not easy is the most important step because it allows you to forgive yourself when things don’t pan out how you hope. It might be a gradual process to get used to the workload of your medical degree once again.

Getting back into study mode

For me, one of the biggest issues has been how small my attention span has gotten over six months of not really focusing on anything as deeply as I used to when I was studying regularly. One of my favourite things to combat this has been using the Pomodoro technique of studying for 25 minutes and taking a 5-minute break. After 3 or 4 Pomodoros you can take a longer break of 15-20 minutes. When you commit to a task for 25 minutes, you get over that mental hurdle of “how long until I can take a break?” and you can focus on the job at hand, knowing that you’ll be getting a decently sized study chunk done, but you’ll still get a break before you need to go any further.

Something to remember while you’re setting yourself up to study is the value of having a distraction-free environment. It’s inevitable that having your phone anywhere near you while you study means the slightest difficulty you come across, you’ll think “hm, let me think about this deeper while I check Twitter”. Or as soon as your phone screen lights up with a notification, your soul will simply not rest until you check it. I know you’re guilty of it; I’m guilty of it too.

The only way to avoid this issue is to remove your phone from your sight. Turn it on silent and put it far, far away from you, in another room if possible. Especially considering the state of current affairs, the more you peruse social media as a news source, the more mentally taxing it becomes to check it. Checking your feed starts with a cute cat video and very quickly morphs into hard-hitting opinion pieces on governmental advice about the pandemic. Not that this is a bad thing, of course! Staying in the know is important and we are lucky to have easy ways of being able to stay informed, but the effort of switching your attention multiple times not only makes you tired quicker, it doesn’t let you see the task at hand clearly.

Moreover, the significance of living a healthy lifestyle in terms of exercise and diet is more important now than ever before. With the rise in online learning, we can’t forget how demanding Zoom lectures can be on our eyes and ears. My favourite way of bringing myself back to life in between webinars is to get lots of fresh air breaks, whether that’s opening the curtains and windows to get some natural light and air circulating around the room, or even going for a quick walk around the neighbourhood when I get a longer break.

Entering the clinical environment with a virus looming over your head

With COVID cases rising once again, it’s only human to be worried about going into the environment that you’d associate most with the virus. From what I know about my university induction (and which I’m sure will be a universal occurrence), there will be a huge focus on proper donning and doffing of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). We are entering the clinical environment to learn and as such, I would say to try and conquer your fears and open yourself to new experiences as far as possible. The intrinsically altruistic nature of the work done by healthcare workers calls for us to look after and treat patients with all kinds of conditions, and I’m sure this is a notion that you will have acknowledged before starting your degree.

Although, that’s not to say that you should suffer in silence if you have any concerns, and I would highly suggest you get in touch with pastoral support at your university to talk things through.

The things we’re living through at the moment make it all the more rewarding to be going into a field like medicine, because it can truly make a difference in people’s lives. Take special care of yourself while you find your feet, speak to people who you trust, support those around you, and treat everyone with compassion as we adjust to the new normal.

Check out Malaikah's blog: where you can find more charming articles like this, on everything from what a realistic online PBL session is like to the cutest desk tours!

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