I’m a 23-year-old student currently studying medicine. It’s hard work and I enjoy it, but recently I’ve been easily muddled when it comes to simple things like my timetable or topics I’m learning. I’ve also started to feel as if I’m losing my sense of self; my friends would always refer to me as an extrovert, but I can’t be bothered to socialise any more and often find myself being negative about others. I don’t recognise this confused, unenthusiastic person I’ve become – it’s ruining my years studying medicine, which have always been the focal point of my life and something I’ve enjoyed. How can I get back to being the old me and enjoy this exciting part of my life? NAME SUPPLIED
When I started being the agony aunt for Psychologies, the first question most of my friends asked was, ‘Are the letters real?’ Reading your letter, they’d be in no doubt. Your situation rings very true – to have achieved something you really wanted, yet to feel as if you’re watching yourself from the outside and don’t quite like what you see. In your future career, you will have an important role in helping other people decide how to define their experiences: ‘Mental health problems are problems that can be diagnosed by a doctor, not personal weaknesses,’ according to the website mentalhealth.org.uk.
You might be having a strong reaction to me even using the words ‘mental health problems’, but I have complete faith that your personal experience will be an enormous gift to your professional life, no matter how you label what is going on right now. You’re discovering just how hard it is to say out loud ‘there’s something not right in my head’. Indeed, you’ve chosen to write it down to a stranger, rather than ask someone in your circle face to face. Just as your future patients might ask you, you’re asking me whether this is normal, or if you need to do something to change it. I’d be inclined to say it seems normal so far, yet you still need to do something about it.
What is normal? In the words of author Elizabeth Gilbert, ‘We don’t have centuries of educated, autonomous female role models to imitate here, so nobody has given us a map.’ But it does seem like a good idea to use this as a reminder that if you don’t look after yourself, you can’t look after anyone else. At a public lecture on neuroscience and creativity, I have a quick word with the speaker, Dr Cathy Stinear, afterwards. ‘If we really appreciated how plastic the brain is, we’d be more careful with it in daily life,’ she tells me. ‘Do you mean with what we put into it?’ I ask, thinking of my coffee habit. ‘Yes,’ she answers, ‘but also we’d be more careful with the thoughts we allow ourselves to have, especially the habitual ones.’ Thoughts lead to feelings, the process becomes circular: feelings create the environment in which different thoughts are possible.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, then your brain is in the equivalent state to an overloaded computer – with that little icon that looks like a whirling beach-ball of doom. This might be what is contributing to your confusion. In 2008, the UK government brought out a paper on Mental Capital and Wellbeing. The link between wellbeing and the brainpower that we have at our disposal was deliberate and explicit. If you boost your wellbeing, you boost your brainpower.
A number of ideas have come out of this, using the ‘five-a-day’ template, but this time for mental health. I like the postcards that remind us to ‘Connect. Be Active. Take Notice. Keep Learning. Give.’ Another way to remember, with essentially the same message, is by using the acronym GREAT – Giving, Relating, Exercising, Appreciation, Trying Out.
There’s evidence that meditation is like doing push-ups for your brain, and physical changes, including better sleep patterns, can happen quite quickly. If you do nothing else, though, I’d urge you to connect, no matter how daunting it may feel. Find someone you can trust and talk to honestly.
It will be immensely reassuring when your future patients realise that you, in turn, are one of those people who can be trusted. You won’t have to say so for them to know. In the 1987 film The Untouchables, Robert De Niro insisted on wearing the same style of underwear that Al Capone, the character he was playing, wore, even though it’s never seen on camera. If you choose, the way you deal with this experience can be your invisible underwear, giving you warmth and confidence.
I would say, however, don’t keep it a secret from everybody. Being able to name accurately what’s going on is a necessary part of changing it. Sometimes hearing or reading other people’s stories helps us to recognise our own. That’s why pages like this exist.
Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email firstname.lastname@example.org, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line
- Read bis.gov.uk/foresight/our-work/projects/published-projects/mental-capital-and-wellbeing
- Take action at neweconomics.org/publications/entry/five-ways-to-well-being-postcards
- Learn how to do a simple daily activity that’s good for your mind with mindapples.org