05 May 2021
Exam season equilibrium - Navigating exam stress and maintaining balance
13 May 2021 | Calum McIntyre
Fourth year veterinary student and President of the Association of Veterinary Students (AVS), Calum McIntyre takes a deep dive into some of the factors that can impact vet students at times of high stress, the ‘vet or nothing’ mindset, and the power of self-awareness.
Weary, strained eyes, sipping cold coffee dregs and cramming those last few lectures in the late hours. It probably sounds all too familiar. It is no doubt exam season can be a fraught time for vet students. But amidst a global pandemic, anxieties have been magnified.
How do we cope with previously existing stresses while juggling worries such as our health, (heightened) financial constraints and seclusion? With the loss of hobbies and previously simple things, it may not be surprising that a recent survey found that 63% of students felt their mental health had declined over lockdown. (Students' views on the impact of Coronavirus on their higher education experience in 2021, 2021) In this light, it is even more important to prioritise taking care of ourselves.
Finding the right balance
It can certainly be a struggle to maintain balance and remain self-aware amid exam season. However, avoiding ‘revision tunnel vision’ is important (something I have fallen astray of on occasion). Emotional intelligence and a self-awareness to maintain a balance that fits you are crucial - and not just for wellbeing. A 2013 study showed higher academic achievement in medical students with increased emotional intelligence. (Chew, Zain and Hassan, 2013) Moreover, emotional intelligence can help avoid detrimental overwork not only as students but also in clinical settings, avoiding potentially dangerous ramifications. Overworked medical residents evidenced performance deficits similar to peers performing the same tasks with a moderate blood alcohol level, while overwork also increased surgical error rate and reduced patient safety. (Robeznieks, A, 2005) (Pfaff, 2004)
Finishing exams recently has left me wondering how we remain self-aware and find the right balance. What questions and metrics should we use to evaluate our emotional compass?
The ’vet or nothing’ mindset
For many with aspirations from a young age, the steadfastness to ‘become’ a vet is resolute. This early commitment has been referred to as the 'vet or nothing' mindset and its impact is visible before and throughout studies as well as post-graduation. (Allister, 2019) In tangible reach of said aspirations, do we push ourselves too much by asking, 'how badly do I want this' while setting ever more ambitious goals in pursuit of childhood dreams? Additionally, what toll does this take? How close to our limits do we push ourselves by simply aiming to get through? My main worry is the precedent this sets.
With the ‘Vet or nothing’ mindset, becoming a vet becomes the focus of our identity. Exams are perceived as a challenge to our aspirations and setbacks a reflection of our competence and character. The smallest hurdles are magnified. Not only does this mindset impact individuals, but shared motivators and values core to veterinary identity are experienced across groups. The intertwined nature of personal and professional identities is best highlighted by R. Allister in the ‘The Veterinary Transition Study’; “Being a vet was a key part of who participants felt they were, to the extent that many other aspects of their lives were affected by it. Mental health factors were enmeshed with this identity, and aspects of behaviour driven by identity and shared culture acted both for, and against, individual mental health.” (Allister, 2019)
With the above in mind, should we instead be asking, ‘How much am I having to sacrifice?’. In the same study, R. Allister also indicated the adverse effect personal sacrifices, such as giving up interests, hobbies or delaying relationships for studies have on mental health. Abandonment of positive mental health influences due to studies was cited, by participants, amongst the most common negative impacts on mental health. (Allister, 2019)
Moreover, with exam season looming it’s worth noting that there are strong ties between performance and good wellbeing practices. Medical students who distanced themselves from positive wellness activities before exams saw declined academic performance. Reducing wellbeing activities may be detrimental to achievement, instead, by introducing and maintaining positive ‘wellness interventions’ we may be able to boost our performance. (Slade and Kies, 2015) (Allister, 2019)
Personally, I feel we need to individually reframe our perspective and change how we self-evaluate our wellbeing. In reframing our metrics of self-evaluation, in becoming more self-aware, we can better manage our wellbeing and optimise our performance. This self-evaluation will be distinct to each individual. My own will be very different to that of others, guided by distinct motivations and stressors. But, perhaps in taking time to evaluate how our behaviours and motivations affect our emotional state, we can also foster group change.
It’s easier said than done. I’ve had moments of doubt throughout the degree, with peers facing similar blips too. Nonetheless, like many of my peers with experiences of testing times at university, sharing a different perspective can help. Exploring the studies I have mentioned and entering related conversations have really helped me.
It’s also crucial we're aware of support networks and should also use them when appropriate. Having just finished my exams, knowing support is available if needed has been invaluable. Whether it’s peers, university, Vetlife or any other, it’s important to make sure you leave the door open. AVS will also continue to offer our support with welfare related activities and events. Any one of our amazing committee are here to help, please feel free to contact us.
So, if you find yourself staring at the screen, rutting over the fine details this exam season perhaps ask, ‘Am I stuck in ‘vet or nothing’ mode - what am I giving up?’. If the answer to this question is ‘too much’, perhaps pause, reflect and re-align with your emotional compass to re-prioritise, focusing on what’s best for you.
Thanks must go to Dr. Rosie Allister for signposting to resources in writing this blog.
Allister, R., 2019. Veterinary Transition Study - investigating the transition from veterinary student to practising veterinary surgeon: prospective cohort study. [online] Dx.doi.org. Available at: <http://dx.doi.org/10.7488/era/551> [Accessed 15 April 2021].
Chew, B., Zain, A. and Hassan, F., 2013. Emotional intelligence and academic performance in first and final year medical students: a cross-sectional study. BMC Medical Education, [online] 13(1). Available at: <https://bmcmededuc.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1472-6920-13-44> [Accessed 18 April 2021].
Hepi.ac.uk. 2021. Students’ views on the impact of Coronavirus on their higher education experience in 2021. [online] Available at: <https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/HEPI-Policy-Note-29-Students-views-on-the-impact-of-Coronavirus-on-their-higher-education-experience-in-2021-26_03_21.pdf> [Accessed 29 March 2021].
Pfaff, H., 2004. Surgical safety and overwork. British Journal of Surgery, [online] 91(12), pp.1533-1535. Available at: <https://academic.oup.com/bjs/article/91/12/1533/6151160> [Accessed 18 April 2021].
Robeznieks, A. 'Overwork is like overindulgence; Long hours can have boozelike effect on medical residents, JAMA study finds' (2005) Modern Physician, 9(4), 18, available: https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A137285461/AONE?u=ed_itw&sid=AONE&xid=4084ab72 [accessed 18 Apr 2021].
Slade, A. and Kies, S., 2015. The relationship between academic performance and recreation use among first-year medical students. Medical Education Online, [online] 20(1), p.25105. Available at: <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3402/meo.v20.25105> [Accessed 18 April 2021].
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