Welcome to our leadership blog series! This month Bethany Slade, Chapter President of Bastyr University, Washington, discusses how to come back from burnout in medical school and reignite your inner light.
Leadership Blog Series: Reigniting the Spark: Coming Back from Burnout
Medical school is hard. When I think back to the bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked version of me that arrived for her first day of class more than three years ago, I see a woman whose outlook was as fresh and as optimistic as the brand new spiral notebook and colorful pens sitting in her backpack. I had worked hard earning my undergraduate degree; had packed up my husband, two teenaged children, and the home we had occupied for nearly a decade; and brought my family from the sunny deserts of Arizona across the country to the cool and rainy Pacific Northwest. I was ready for anything. Having just spent three months living in the forest with my family (that’s a different story…) I was 100% going to thrive at Bastyr.
Fast-forward three years, and I found myself embarking upon another first day of a new quarter. This time there were no new pens, my eyes were definitely duller and battle weary, and a new level of cynicism had crept into my speech. As each academic task loomed before me like a daunting specter and I completed it with weary resignation, I realized that I was only halfway through my planned academic path (six years!) and the unexpected had happened – I was thoroughly exhausted. The passion and excitement for learning new things and discovering the mysteries of medicine and been completely extinguished by the grueling pace I had set for myself. I was burned out. It was discouraging to realize this, and at first, I just felt tired. I was overwhelmed and exhausted by the whole process of learning. I wanted to shut down, but after a week (and then a month) of trying to go through the motions, I realized that I couldn’t stay in this state of stagnation forever. I needed to do something to start moving myself forward again. I needed something to reignite my spark. The problem was, I had no idea how to recover from this burnout.
As I pondered on my problem, I thought about something one of my mentors,Dr. Louise Edwards, used to say when discussing our approach to treating patients in an advanced case studies class. What she said, and had us repeat over and over again, was “Restore the determinants of health!” I realized that in the past three years of intense focus on my career goals I had begun to adopt some very bad habits. I said yes to every opportunity (for fear of missing out); I ate out for most meals (because it was so easy and cheap); I spent less time with my family and friends (because I always felt I had something more pressing to do for school); I abandoned my exercise goals (that was probably just pure laziness); and it felt like I never did anything that wasn’t school related.
I realized that I was in the midst of a “[Future] Physician, heal thyself” moment. It became essential that I restore the determinants of my own health by going back to the basic building blocks I had learned in year one. I had to apply to my own life the philosophies that I had been studying for the last three years.
To reignite the spark, I had to remember why I was studying naturopathic medicine to begin with. The belief that the body has the power to heal itself—that simple changes can have a huge impact on people’s lives and their health—is what brought me to naturopathic medicine in the first place. Once I remembered that fundamental things were really the basis for health and wellness, I could start to put the pieces of my own life back together again. I could start to see how to make space for my own health, and how to take care of myself. It became easier to say no when an opportunity presented itself that would take me away from my family. It became easier to say yes to my kids when they wanted to spend time with me. I began remembering that it felt good to take the stairs and to stretch my muscles. I remembered that I like to eat whole foods with a colorful rainbow of diversity. I remembered that I know how to do creative things.
Overall, in reflection of the last few years, I have come to realize that in working so hard to learn how to heal other people I had forgotten all about healing myself. By giving myself space in my day for the things that brought me happiness and strength I was able to rekindle my flame of excitement for naturopathic medicine. Medical school is still hard, and I still get tired of studying on a regular basis, but now I also get excited about next week’s lecture because I know that the wisdom shared with me in each of my classes has the power to change someone’s life.
In addition to her studies in Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, Bethany is pursuing a concurrent Master’s Degree in Midwifery. Her dream is to provide reproductive, pediatric, and family healthcare to families in underserved populations. Before coming to medical school, Bethany was a stay at home mother, focused on raising her two sons. She was active in her kids’ schooling, volunteering with the local Parent Teacher Organization and in the classroom. A native of Arizona, Bethany moved her entire family, including her husband and sons, to Washington, and spent the summer prior to school camping and exploring her new home. In her free time, Bethany enjoys reading, crochet, hiking, and watching TV comedies. She loves to laugh and to meet new people, and she hopes to inspire everyone she meets to find their personal joy in life.