I recently had the privilege again to meet with a group of bright, hard-working medical students. Their college mentor, my friend and colleague, invited me to lead a discussion on meaning and stress. She saw them, only starting their second year, already losing sleep and well-being over choosing a subspecialty (they do not have to declare until 2 years from now). I recognize a similar anxious urgency in my own son, who applies to college this fall. My friend and I wish for all of these young people to suffer less and really enjoy the journey of learning and integration, so we sat them down for a chat. As usual, I learned at least as much from our conversation as the students did.
We discussed the Meaning to Stress Ratio, a framework I started using with patients years ago. In essence, I posit that if your experience of meaning/personal fulfillment at work outweighs your experience of stress, then it is likely a sustainable situation. We can afford to pay high amounts of stress if the work has enough intrinsic value to us. Many students seem hesitant to choose certain specialties for fear of stress (hours, responsibility, risk), among other things. Some are even prepared to forgo their true interests and passions, and commit to fields with better, lower stress ‘lifestyle’.
My friend and I, sitting in the circle of students like a couple of Cub Scout den mothers, tried our best to reassure and encourage her students that they, like we who went before them, would figure out their true places in good time. Our goal was to give them both moral support and some concrete tools to navigate the journey more lightly.
“What does meaning feel like in your body?” This question occurred to me while preparing for the session. I had never thought to ask it, to anyone, before now. For years I have asked patients where/how they feel stress in their bodies. The intent is to strengthen self-awareness and identify smoke alarms of sorts, so people can take steps to head off unhealthy consequences of excess stress and rebalance self-care practices. And though I ask patients about sources of meaning and personal fulfillment in work, I never wondered what meaning actually feels like, physically. How fascinating!
I thought to ask now because these students are still searching for meaning in their work (lives), while many of my patients have long since identified and pursued it. If body signs of stress are smoke alarms, perhaps body signs of meaning are smoke signals. They draw us in the direction of what needs us, and what we need. Students reported sensations like ‘energized,’ ‘light,’ and ‘revved,’ and feelings of satisfaction, contentment, peace, and inspiration. They described being in flow.
In the end, we agreed on three practices for my future colleagues to develop as they find their rightful place in our profession. I write this as a message to those students—Onward in solidarity:
Know your body signs. Check in with yourself physically on a regular basis. What body systems agitate and/or crash under stress? How does this manifest in your behaviors and performance? Your relationships? When do you notice the opposite happening, what does that feel like, and could this be a sign of meaning? Once you know your signs, what will you do when you notice them emerging? How can you set your personal marathon course with pee stops and goo stations where you need them? How do you feel at your highest and best, and what helps you get there? How can you get more of that?
Maintain strong boundaries and observe. There will never be a shortage of people, mostly older doctors, telling you why you should or should not choose this field or another. They will project their own biases, disappointments, pride, and traumas onto you, ostensibly to help you, but I suspect it’s a version of self-soothing for them. Do not let them enter your psyche; they may not have your best interests at heart. Rather, look around for the people who exude joy at work. Find the ones with whom everybody loves to work, the intense yet relaxed, the energized, light, satisfied, and peaceful ones. Interrogate them about what makes them click at work, and see if it resonates with you. Observe yourself in their presence—do you vibrate at the same frequency? What does that tell you?
Cultivate relationships with those who/m: 1) you admire, 2) seem to balance meaning and stress well (then probe their practices), 3) sincerely care about you and your well-being, 4) will give you honest and loving feedback/reflections/observations about you/r attitude and impact, and 5) will stick with you through the hard times and hold you up—and whom you would support in kind. These are the people who earnestly call you out and forth, who help your best self shine, sometimes through your own BS.
I’ll find a way to translate these principles for Son, as he writes his college essays. If only I could breathe peace and excitement into his lungs, and suck out the anxiety and pressure. For now I can at least be one of those loving mentors, standing by with Gatorade and cool towels when he swings by me this lap and the next, and the next.
Deep breaths, my friends. Find your pit crew and trust the process. You’ got this.