The end is almost near. By this time next week I will officially be done with all of the course work for my Doctorate of Physical Therapy and have a nice 2 week break until graduation. It is surreal writing that down on paper (well on a laptop). Of course PT school has taught me how the body works, how our joints move, and how we need to advocate for our profession, but it also drastically improved my time management, forced me into becoming a morning person, and pushed me towards understanding mental health.
Typically once people get to know me they feel like I have it all together or am managing stress well. I constantly reach out to others to see if there are other ways that I can be involved. The majority of my time in PT school I held a part-time job on top of a full-time academic course load. All of this while helping out our physical therapy student association and trying to keep a social life/my girlfriend happy. I never really believed in anxiety or mental health too much when I was in undergrad, honestly I don’t think I was stressed nearly enough. I have been lucky throughout my life of not having some of the hardships others have; my parents have been married for 25 years, we never had to worry about where our next meal would come from, and generally I was decent in school and at making friends. I thought life was challenging at times but overall I had been rather lucky.
Then started PT school; unless you have been through a rigorous graduate level program you may not be able to relate but I will try to explain what it can be like. You spend 3-6hours studying after having class all day to prep for an exam that could potentially control whether or not you get to pursue your desired career…and you are doing that off and on for at least 2 years straight with only minimal breaks. The first year it is tough but you knew what you were asking for when you signed up so typically it goes pretty smooth. Of course you’re freaking out about exams, but you are reviewing a lot of things from undergrad and just getting a superficial knowledge. Second year is the real bear. This is where you are starting to be required to deeply think about clinical situations and no matter how much time you spend studying, you may just not get a concept.
Even though you are spending countless hours learning about how important exercise and proper nutrition are, typically once that stress hits, your diet and workout routine are the first to go. Now that you have deprived yourself of sleep and are running on caffeine and comfort food you are expected to sit down and think at a doctoral level for 2-3 hours to take an exam. When you review the exam you realize you didn’t score all that well so you start to question everything. Am I smart enough? Why am I not getting this? I put in so many hours of studying how did I miss that question? Thus you begin to instill self-doubt into this already stressful situation. You likely are no longer taking time to just relax because you know that the next exam is coming.
This is when I started noticing almost constant headaches, feelings of self-doubt, and generally feeling crappy and constantly almost sick. The first month or so I thought it was just a cold or something but then I noticed that it always seemed to be worse near exams. I first thought it was something with my diet so I ate cleaner and noticed a little improvement but I still was not back to my baseline of before PT school. I guess the best way to explain my feeling during exam week was hungover, though I hadn’t drank anything besides water and coffee. I had a mental fog, insomnia and difficulty focusing throughout the day.
I was tired of these symptoms so I actually went to the MD to rule out anything too sinister. I knew how the body worked but I didn’t want to believe that everything I was feeling was caused by anxiety/stress, how could my exam week cause me to be physically ill… well let me tell you, it did. What confirmed this for me was during one of our breaks, all of my symptoms went away. I had been having constant headaches and that hungover feeling for the last two weeks (two weeks of exam hell) and now I was relaxing with my girlfriend taking a mental break and I felt great! I was working out again, cooking/eating healthy and things were rolling just like before PT school. That’s when I knew that I needed to make my mental health a priority.
I started meditating daily, taking time to self-reflect and getting up early to go workout. The main reason I started getting up before 5 am is because there are no excuses for being lazy/distracted that early in the morning. Social media isn’t updating constantly, there are no emails to answer, no one is texting you, it is just you and your thoughts (and some free weights). This was by far the biggest thing that PT school taught me. While I had gone through two a days and had crazy workout programs, I had never been challenged in the classroom consistently for 2 straight years. I learned through some self-exploration that a great way to deal with my back pain was to actually lift more frequently, resting and thinking about everything that was going on made it worse. My headaches got better when I sat in a quiet room and meditated. My insomnia went away as I made sleep more of a priority and practiced proper sleep habits.
I know my anxiety isn’t nearly as bad as others and my coping strategies may not work for everyone, however if you are feeling off, having back pain, not sleeping well, try to self-reflect a little bit. Find out if the root cause of your problem is a constant high level of stress. Take the time every day to do something for yourself, whether that is reading a bible, praying to the iron gods of the gym, going for a walk outside when it isn’t snowing in April, or watching your favorite TV show. If you are constantly on go, your mind will eventually catch up with you.
Thanks for taking the time to read through this and hopefully if you’re going through a challenging time you can relate and realize you’re not in it alone. No one can feel what you feel, but everyone has their own separate challenges they are dealing with. Physical health and mental health go hand in hand so if you are taking some time to workout, spend a little time self-reflecting and you will notice your workouts get better and you will start noticing the little wins more and more.
Happy Friday my friends – until next week!
I am a new graduate DPT and am interested in personal growth and becoming a connector within my profession.