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The importance of self-compassion amidst Finals Week stress

stressed-out-student-shutterstockToday marks the first day of Dead Week for pre-clinical students at Stanford’s medical school, the seven days before the first day of Finals Week, where everything we’ve learned throughout the school quarter will be put to the test, literally. It’s naturally a stressful time, as one might imagine.

Next week will be my classmates’ and my first round of final exams as first-year medical students, and I’ve already entered study spaces where the tension and anxiety running through the room as people pored over notes and flipped through flashcards felt almost palpable. We, as current Stanford medical students, have been told time and time again that we’re the “cream of the crop,” some of the country’s most brilliant and inspired minds. Yet we can be so harsh on ourselves when it comes to this time of the year: Instead of rewarding ourselves for accomplishments with “carrots,” as the idiom goes, we often punish ourselves with “sticks.” For example, I've found myself skipping meals in lieu of studying for extra hours (a “stick”), instead of realizing that I just learned a whole week’s worth of material in a day and rewarding myself with a 30-minute mindless TV show break (a “carrot”).

We’ve just entered the season of sparkling lights and gift giving, warm drinks and tasty sweets, the time of the year where a bit of magic blankets our lives, and friendliness and generosity abound. And in the short time that I’ve known them, I’ve learned that my classmates are unendingly compassionate, kind, and genuine to each other. While there is no shortage of kindness being shown to others this time of year, I’ve noticed that so many of us forget to be kind to ourselves. And yet, it’s so important to do so.

I’m a huge fan of TED talks, and I recently listened to a TEDx talk called “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion,” given by Kristin Neff, PhD, a self-proclaimed “self-compassion evangelist.” She spoke on the difference of self-esteem – one’s judgment of self-worth – and self-compassion – how kindly one relates to oneself, embracing oneself, flaws and all. She went on to discuss how human beings throughout history have thrived and been more successful in their professional, emotional, and personal pursuits when, subconsciously or not, they practiced self-compassion.

Yes, it may be beneficial to have both high levels of self-esteem and self-compassion, but I believe that when times get tough for us medical students, we should try harder to be kind to ourselves – rewarding ourselves with carrots and not beating ourselves down with sticks. This isn’t to advocate for laziness or sleeping in all day instead of studying; I’m simply arguing for students to take better care of themselves during Dead Week and Finals Week. Treating ourselves to a nice meal after a long evening of reviewing anatomy, or taking a 15-minute break to walk around campus after sitting in the library all day with note cards and lecture outlines can do a lot of good.

There are very few things in life that are certain, but I can almost certainly guarantee you this: When you realize that you’re allowed to be kind to yourself, to treat yourself with as much care, concern, and kindness as you would treat a best friend, you’ll find yourself calmer, less-anxious, and more confident in what you’re able to achieve.

To my classmates and anyone going through a stressful end-of-quarter time: I wish you all a very productive and fruitful Dead Week and Finals Week, filled with many small carrots and lots of self-compassion. ‘Tis the season of giving – don’t forget to give back to yourself!

Stanford Medicine Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category

Natasha Abadilla was born and raised in Hawaii, graduated from Stanford undergrad in 2014, and spent two years doing public health work in Kenya before returning to the Farm for med school. She is currently a first-year student who enjoys writing, cooking, eating desserts, running, and scrubbing into the OR. 

Photo by Shutterstock

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