How to stay connected with your loved ones and yourself during medical school

We are humans, and we must be fed, watered and nurtured. One of the main things that we need most is to connect and stay connected—with other people and with ourselves.


“Only a machine could do this,” I said to myself.

It was my third week of medical school, and I was looking over my schedule for the coming week. Every hour was occupied with a colored box. I felt like crying, but I didn’t have time.

“I am not a machine,” I said. “I am a human.”

It got better. Then worse, then better again. Spoiler alert: I made it through. The marathon of medical training requires a special kind of endurance, one that most of us have not encountered before we begin our training. It’s no wonder that such a mechanistic training regimen leaves increasing numbers of us fatigued in body, mind and spirit. Or worse.

We are humans, and we must be fed, watered and nurtured. One of the main things that we need most is to connect and stay connected—with other people and with ourselves.

Taking care of our spirits

For most of us, before medical school, connecting with our loved ones came naturally. It was what we did instinctively whenever we had free time—but free time is harder to come by in medical school. Some weeks it never comes. Some weeks it appears, briefly, exactly when you least expect it. Sometimes it comes so suddenly and you’re so doggone tired that you don’t even have the energy to decide what to do.

But you are human. You need to stay connected to people. And you also need to stay connected to yourself, lest you gain your DO degree but lose your inner spirit—the one that keeps you alive and awake, growing and doing the “work [of] loving the world.” (Mary Oliver)

Research on social connection and happiness has found that fostering one’s relationships is essential for wellbeing. One study also found that people were reportedly happiest when they were socializing and connecting with their loved ones.

My purpose in writing this piece is twofold.

First, I want to reaffirm what you already feel and know. You have needs—mind, body and spirit. You owe it to yourself to make sure your needs are met so you can keep doing the important work you signed up to do when you said “yes” to medical school. We need you to be well. Your patients, your colleagues, your people, you—we’ll all be better for it.

Second, I want to share with you some simple ideas of what to do with sudden down time so that the next time it comes to you, you may be better-equipped to make the most of it. So, from one medical-marathoner to another, I humbly share with you a few ideas I’ve had and things I’ve learned, whether by success or failure.

Identify those most important to you

First, identify your people. It might seem obvious, but it’s worth taking a minute to think about them and write them down. In each season of medical training, you only have so many resources for things outside the rigors of that training. You must use those scant resources wisely and stay connected to the people who fill you, as opposed to those who make you feel drained.

Draw three concentric circles. Start in the center and work outward:

  • Innermost circle (~1-3 people): Who do you most feel free to be yourself around? What relationship encourages you to become more fully yourself? (If you are partnered and have children, they will be in this circle.) Aim for high-quality connection weekly.
  • Middle circle (2-3 people): Who do you need in your life? Who needs you in theirs? (This is a good circle for non-immediate family members, etc.) Aim for every-other-weekly connection.
  • Third circle (2-3 people): Who will you still be friends with 10, 20, 50 years from now? Aim for a once-monthly connection.

Innermost circle

Schedule a weekly date with your innermost circle. My best recommendation is Friday night. It’s usually the evening that is easiest to preserve for connection. You’ve studied or been in clinic/hospital all week, and even if you have an upcoming exam, it’s usually not until Monday—two study days away. Set aside at least two hours to eat together, talk on the phone, go on a walk, relax—whatever will make you both feel connected to one another.

  • Kid swap tip: If you have young children, a weekly date with your partner can be one of the most difficult things to arrange, but one of the most important for your relationship. Try a kid swap with another couple who also have young children. One couple watches all the kids (yes, it is chaos!) while the other goes out. Then the next week, the couples switch. Make it as easy as possible on the babysitters by bringing children already fed, dressed in pajamas and ready to watch a show together.

Connecting with children

Staying connected with your kids (or other people’s kids you love): Set aside time for them. Kids need your undivided attention, even if only in short bursts.

Your relationships with them will reward you immensely for one simple reason: they are some of the only people around who really don’t care much that you’re in medical training. There is perhaps nothing so refreshing during medical school as being loved and admired by a few small humans no matter how you did on your anatomy exam.

As much as you can, prioritize whenever is their best time. It may not be most convenient for you, but it will have the most potential for you all to feel connected to one another. Common good times: bedtime, dinnertime and right after school. You can also make the most of mealtime—go around the table and share one thing you’re grateful for. Or pose a thought-provoking question: What makes you feel connected to someone?

Roommates and other friends and family members

With others, it’s a little simpler to plan a roommate/friends/family night. Go to the park, play games, watch a movie or show. During my OMS I year, my partner and our three sons watched an Avengers movie every weekend while I studied. During my OMS II year, they started the series all over again and we watched them together on Sunday with popcorn and candy. They loved being the ones to introduce me to something.

It’s also helpful to double up your time by doing other stuff you need to do with your people.

  • Exercise together.
  • Meet friends with kids at kid-friendly places, like the park or a food establishment with a place to play.
  • Clean your house, do yard work, grocery shop or run errands together.

It’s key to stay creative and open-minded. Discuss what time looks like for you and your people. Find out what is most important to each of you.

Connecting with yourself

You are mind, body, spirit. Make three lists, one for each. Then, set aside one to two hours each weekend to go over these lists and choose one thing to do.

Rest your Mind:

  • Keep a one-line-a-day or gratitude journal.
  • On social media: unsubscribe to toxic narratives.
  • Memorize a poem or mantra that you can recite to center yourself in intense moments.
  • Especially during third-year clerkships—keep a list of what you want and don’t want in your future job/specialty.
  • Read a book that is soul-nourishing—even if you can read only a chapter per month. Suggestions include: Mary Oliver’s poetry, “The Heart of the Matter” by Graham Greene and “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman.

Nurture your Body:

  • Get in a strenuous workout.
  • Go for a long walk alone, without your phone.
  • Make time to grocery shop, food prep, chop vegetables and keep fresh and healthy foods on hand.
  • Get a massage.

Awaken your Spirit:                           

  • Spend time enjoying a hobby you had before medical school.
  • Screenshot positive feedback you’ve received and things you find beautiful. Then, when you scroll through photos on your phone you’ll find a mix of encouragements, pictures and beauty.
  • Read about medicine, but not from a textbook: Some examples are “The House of God” by Samuel Shem, “The Sick Rose” by Richard Barnett and “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande.
  • Make time to connect on a deeper level with one to two other medical students. Be vulnerable and have the real conversations we all need to have and keep having: “I’m having another existential crisis …” “Is it just me or …”
  • Plan a personal retreat—an extended weekend getaway alone or with one close friend.

Remember, the goal is connection. For you and for them. Be creative and figure out what will allow that to happen mutually. What makes you feel connected to another person? What makes each person feel connected to you? Things you used to do together may need to change for this season while you’re in training. Friends and family who truly love you and want what is best for you will understand this and adapt.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

Being a mom in med school: How I make it work

Tips for conquering parenting as a husband-and-wife DO team

One comment

  1. Julie Small

    Hi Doctor, Good Morning and Happy New Year.
    Are Your Hiring a Licensed Healthcare Provider Full Time or Part Time For Your Practice Now?
    Please Let Me Know.
    Thanks, Julie Small

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