How Can Medical Students Handle Feelings of Being Unprepared or Overwhelmed?

    Authored By

    Doctors Magazine

    How Can Medical Students Handle Feelings of Being Unprepared or Overwhelmed?

    Medical training can be as daunting as it is rigorous, prompting even the most diligent students to confront feelings of inadequacy. We've gathered insights from Resident Physicians to Plastic Surgeons, distilling their experiences into seven key lessons. From learning from mistakes day-to-day to valuing flexibility and communication, these medical professionals share how they navigated the challenges of medical school.

    • Focus on Learning from Mistakes
    • Embrace the Unexpected
    • Put Ego Aside and Ask for Help
    • Abandon 'Know-It-All' Mentality
    • View Challenges as Growth Opportunities
    • Leverage Preparation, Mindfulness, and Teamwork
    • Value Flexibility and Communication

    Focus on Learning from Mistakes

    I think there is really only one correct answer here—you will always feel unprepared and overwhelmed. That's what medical school is for, to help you feel that way less. Although it seems easy to get discouraged and down—every medical student feels that way at times—it is important that you are learning from your mistakes. As long as you focus on one thing from every day to improve, you will always come out a better you—and that's what is most important. Everyone sees that.

    Vikram Purewal
    Vikram PurewalResident Physician

    Embrace the Unexpected

    During medical school, I remember vividly the anxiety of being put on the spot to interpret a chest X-ray during ICU rounds. It felt like every eye was on me, expecting proficiency I wasn't sure I yet possessed. While you can study hard and prepare for many challenges, daily surprises will often test your readiness. However, these experiences taught me that while preparation is crucial, adaptability and an open mind are just as vital. Each challenge, whether it was a delightful patient interaction or a test of my patience, shaped me into a more competent and compassionate doctor. Remember, as a medical student, your fresh perspective and eagerness to learn can make you a powerful advocate for your patients. Embrace the unexpected, and use it as a stepping-stone in your journey to becoming a great physician.

    Hayley OsenAssistant Professor, UCLA

    Put Ego Aside and Ask for Help

    Being overwhelmed is more common than you'd imagine in medical school, and that's totally okay! When I was rotating through the emergency department, I had multiple situations where I felt overwhelmed. What's important in those times (and there will be many) is to put your ego or possible shame aside and ask for help. Ask for help from peers, residents, and faculty. You aren't the first one to be overwhelmed, and you certainly won't be the last. Put patient care first!

    Ahmed Alshaikhsalama
    Ahmed AlshaikhsalamaThird Year Medical Student

    Abandon 'Know-It-All' Mentality

    In undergrad, we were given lectures, slides, and an exam that roughly mirrored the didactic content with which we were provided. Sure, in the space of a couple of weeks at the end of every semester, we’d be asked to recall—and more importantly, reason through and apply to new problems—material from easily over a couple hundred lectures dispersed across five or more courses. But, despite the high-volume load, the concept remained the same: we were presented with material and tested on that material. You could walk away with a near-perfect, if not perfect, score, and have the feeling that you have complete mastery over that field.

    In reality, this, of course, was not the case. One would at best have complete mastery over the material they were presented with, and this reality has been made ever so apparent during my medical studies, particularly upon reaching the clerkship phase of my medical training. There are no standardized lectures and slides followed by questions asked of us that strictly correspond to that material. Anything and everything is fair game when you step foot into clinical practice, and a patient presents with complaints, signs, and symptoms. I may be biased, but perhaps this is most evident with medical students, who are at the earliest stages of their medical training and rotating through discrete specialties every few weeks. I think it’s normal to feel unprepared or overwhelmed at least a few times under such conditions.

    Abandon the undergrad mentality: that you do know it all, or even can know it all. You do not, and you cannot. Realize your own gap in knowledge, accept it, and take every opportunity you can to bridge that gap little by little every day. It was only upon implementing this approach that I became more at peace with many otherwise stress-inducing clinical scenarios, and more highly motivated to ensure I would find myself in such scenarios as infrequently as possible going forward.

    I understand it’s probably difficult for medical students to accept the feeling of inadequacy, since we’re more often used to the feeling of knowing what’s expected of us, or at least having the perception that we know what’s expected of us. But to those that are finding it particularly difficult to accept this feeling, perhaps even because they believe they do in fact know it all, I’ll leave a few words of Chinese wisdom from the great philosopher Confucius.

    'He who knows all the answers has not been asked all the questions.'

    Demitri Evangeliou
    Demitri EvangeliouBSc, McGill University Medical Student

    View Challenges as Growth Opportunities

    As a medical student, encountering situations where I felt unprepared or overwhelmed was inevitable. Initially, I struggled with self-doubt and harsh self-criticism, mistakenly believing that I should already possess all the answers. However, I soon realized that medical education is a journey of continuous learning and growth, not a test of immediate expertise. I learned to shift my perspective, viewing each challenge as an opportunity for development rather than a reflection of incompetence. Instead of dwelling on my mistakes, I embraced them as valuable learning experiences, recognizing that making errors is an integral part of the learning process. By actively engaging with my resident and attending team, I sought guidance and feedback, fostering an environment of collaboration and support. During rounds, I actively participated by asking questions and offering insights, even when uncertain, as this facilitated constructive dialogue and enhanced my understanding. Ultimately, I learned that resilience, humility, and a willingness to learn from mistakes are essential qualities for growth as a medical professional.

    Elisha Peterson MD MEd FAAP FASA
    Elisha Peterson MD MEd FAAP FASAAnesthesiologist and Pain Medicine Physician, Elisha Peterson MD PLLC

    Leverage Preparation, Mindfulness, and Teamwork

    During my medical education and residency, I faced several moments where I felt unprepared or overwhelmed—a common sentiment among medical students and new doctors. One particular instance that stands out occurred during my obstetrics/gynecology rotation. I was scheduled to assist in a complex, minimally invasive surgery for the first time. Despite my theoretical knowledge, the practical application in such a high-stakes environment was daunting.

    I remember feeling a mixture of anxiety and excitement as the day approached. To combat my nervousness, I spent extra hours reviewing surgical techniques, familiarizing myself with the specific equipment we would be using, and revisiting the patient's medical history to understand the full context of the surgery. This preparation was crucial, but still, stepping into the operating room, the weight of responsibility was palpable.

    What I learned from this experience was the value of thorough preparation and the importance of leaning on the knowledge and support of my team. My mentor at the time, a seasoned surgeon, emphasized the concept of surgical mindfulness, which means being fully present and focused during surgery, anticipating the next steps, and staying calm under pressure. This approach not only helped me navigate through that initial overwhelming situation but has also shaped my approach to complex medical procedures throughout my career. It illustrated to me that while feeling overwhelmed is part of the journey, preparation, mindfulness, and teamwork are key elements in overcoming these challenges.

    Matthew Casavant
    Matthew CasavantPhysician & Owner, South Lake OB/GYN

    Value Flexibility and Communication

    In medical school, I was unexpectedly assigned to assist with a surgical procedure for which I hadn't prepared, which tested my adaptability and communication skills. I informed the surgeon of the situation and quickly familiarized myself with the essential steps of the procedure. This incident taught me the crucial role of flexibility and effective communication under pressure. It highlighted the need for a broad preparatory approach in surgical training to confidently handle sudden changes and have backup plans, a lesson that has proven invaluable throughout my surgical career.

    David Hill, MD
    David Hill, MDPlastic Surgeon & Medical Director, Fulcrum Aesthetics & Surgery