Stay fresh at med school

Three top tips for freshers on caring for their mental health and wellbeing

Location: UK
Published: Wednesday 21 October 2020

Emergency medicine doctor and mental health advocate Alex George highlighted the importance of mental health and wellbeing in a live Q&A at the BMA Virtual Freshers Festival on 14 October 2020.

To help you protect and maintain your mental health throughout the year ahead, watch the Q&A recording, then check out these top tips from the BMA.

Starting out at med school can be daunting at the best of times and it’s probably an understatement to say that this year has brought new challenges!

Exam stress and heavy workload, social anxiety, lack of sleep, and missing family and friends back home are just some of the things that freshers have to contend with as they begin their medical studies.

Now, they’re having to deal with the social restrictions and additional anxieties arising from Covid-19. It seems now is the perfect time to share our top tips for managing your mental health and wellbeing to ensure you make the most of your first year.


Protect yourself (and others) during Covid-19

The impact of regional lockdowns is being felt by many, but particular thoughts need to be given to fresher students living in halls in these areas. As we all know, Covid-19 thrives on social contact, and living in accommodation where you’re sharing kitchen and bathroom facilities has led to outbreaks in many student digs, as well as a rise in depression and anxiety. To stay safe, and sane, during this tough time, make sure you:

  • Protect yourself and others by following the government guidelines and restrictions on social interactions in your area, such as wearing masks, and washing hands regularly
  • Given that many of you are effectively being asked to isolate as much as possible, focus on making your dorm room space homely and comfortable
  • Try learning a new skill or hobby. There are some great suggestions in this article from the Evening Standard. Ok, maybe they’re not as exciting as the usual round of fresher’s parties, we admit, but you’ll at least have a great time learning something new!
  • It’s natural to be nervous about making new friends when you first start at med school. Once again Covid-19 is making this more challenging than normal, but there are lots of virtual events and meet-ups you can join including BMA’s virtual freshers festival – the largest of its kind for med students!


Eat well and get lots of sleep

The old saying, 'you are what you eat' is one we’ve all heard a million times, but that’s because it’s true! Eating a well-balanced diet and staying hydrated are so important, that we’ve already laid out 5 tips for fuelling your brain in your first year.

One of the benefits of not being able to hit the fresher party circuit is that you won’t be missing out on valuable sleep! Research shows how important sleep is to our overall wellbeing and brain function but it’s not just how much sleep you get, it’s also the quality that’s important. Here’s how to get in the recommended 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night:

  • Avoid caffeine late in the day
  • Don’t drink alcohol before bed
  • Reduce blue light and screen exposure in the evening
  • Try to wake up and go to bed at consistent times every day
  • Find ways to relax and wind down such as a warm bath, reading a book (no, not your medical books!), listening to relaxing music or meditating before bed.


Learn to manage stress

Everyone experiences stress at times, but none more so than doctors. And as a student, the pressure to smash your medical exams will be intense. That’s why learning how to manage stress now and recognise when it’s starting to affect your health and wellbeing will be crucial to your success as a doctor in the future.

Common signs of stress include feeling constantly anxious, difficulty concentrating, mood swings or being short tempered, difficulty relaxing or sleeping. When stress isn’t properly managed it can lead to depression, so it’s important to tackle stress head on.

Try to understand the reasons for your stress and work out what’s within your control, and what isn’t. Let go of what isn’t within your control and put measures in place to help you deal with what is. Here are some tried and tested ways to reduce and manage stress:

  • Adopt some meditation and mindfulness techniques to reduce stress, anxiety and related problems
  • Take a break from studying and do something you enjoy, even when you think you don’t have time
  • Get into the habit of exercising once a day, even if it’s just a walk around campus. Fresh air and a hit of endorphins can do wonders for lifting your mood and mental wellbeing
  • Again, make sure you are eating and sleeping well
  • Most of all, try to keep things in perspective and don’t be too hard on yourself

If you know you’re stressed or feeling depressed, talk to someone – whether it’s a friend, family member or a counselling service at your university. If you’re feeling alone and don’t know who to turn to, the BMA also offers a 24/7 counselling service that’s ready to help.

As you embark on your med school journey in the time of Covid-19, we want to be there for you, supporting your mental health and wellbeing throughout your first year and beyond. Watch the BMA Virtual Freshers Festival to get more great tips from Dr George on protecting your mental health.


Five takeaways

  • Take time out of your studies to do something you enjoy
  • Join virtual events to meet new friends and experts
  • Exercise regularly or try out a new routine or sport
  • Eat well and get enough sleep as often as you can
  • Don’t be scared or embarrassed to ask for support