I have been through the stages of grief– denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and finally acceptance – since medical student clerks were pulled from clinical duties due to COVID-19.
Many medical students have similarly felt at odds and are asking themselves how to best use this time.
There is no right answer. Everyone copes with uncertainty differently. Some people find comfort in the presence of family and friends (virtually, of course), while others cope by planning – planning for their futures, planning COVID-19 relief initiatives, or simply planning the day out. It’s easy to fall into a mindset where you feel like you have to be productive. I’m guilty of this myself.
But the truth is that we all need to learn how to decompress.
The unexpectedly vast amount of time given to us is an opportunity to slow down and reflect on what is most important to us. I would argue that this is human connection. In times of crisis, we yearn for someone to be there for us, to tell us that this too shall pass. It’s an opportunity to be grateful for what you do have – a roof over your head, a sink to wash your hands in, and technology to virtually connect with coworkers, friends and family.
For Type A personalities such as medical students, this is incredibly challenging. The fear of the unknown can be paralyzing. How will CaRMs be affected? What will clerkship look like once this is over? When will this even be over? These are valid questions with no answers and dwelling on them can do mental harm. The blessing of human intelligence is the ability to imagine multiple futures; the curse is that this can cause great anxiety. Thus, we need to let go of the future and focus on the present. We need to consistently resist our own thoughts in order to love ourselves unconditionally.
However, medical students have trouble surrendering control. Author Elizabeth Gilbert says “control” is an illusion and really just a manifestation of our anxiety. If we recognize that we are not truly giving up anything since we did not actually have control, then it is much easier to come to acceptance. If we think of this quarantine as a retreat, it will become easier to be present in the moment. Once you’re here, you can then smell the roses.
I applaud all of the compassionate people banding together to provide relief efforts during this pandemic. And if you aren’t, that’s OK as well. You are doing just as much by staying home #socialdistancing. I think it’s important to recognize, though, that there is more that will be needed. Sit in that reality for just a moment. This pandemic will not be going away anytime soon. We are only in “mile one” of this marathon. Be kind to yourself while you adjust to our new reality. Do not feel obligated to volunteer if what you need at the moment is time to recuperate from the demands of clerkship. Consider limiting your access to social media and the news to escape the state of negative affect (defensiveness, guilt, shame, fear, and anxiety).
Time and time again, humans have survived great suffering. We have lived through tremendous adversities and have come out more resilient. Know that we are not alone in experiencing this. Whatever comes next, we will be able to adapt. Remember, this too shall pass.