Meditation for the Medical Student

Collin York '19 and Lee Rosen, Ph.D.

Why would a medical student wish to begin a meditation practice?

Medical school is challenging in ways that might lend themselves to self-improvement through meditation. As a medical student, you face constant demands, and these demands are stressful and sometimes contradictory. You are asked to consistently demonstrate competence and mastery, and at the same time allow yourself to be in a learning process – to be a fumbling beginner. 

Meditation can help foster new strengths and sources of calm for the medical student. Medical school requires intense concentration and preparation, which can lead to insecurities and worries about the future, as a physician and in your personal life. Luckily, two simple approaches to meditation tackle these concerns head-on. The first, aptly named "concentration meditation,"is a method for developing the exact skills needed for exam preparation. The second, "mindfulness meditation" emphasizes the importance of non-judgment about ourselves and our thoughts. Both methods can be easily applied to the unique struggles one faces as a medical student and can offer practical solutions to stress and self-doubt, while improving one's aptitude for medical education. 

Examinations are ever-present and another important source of stress for students. Studying requires long periods of concentration on detailed material, in the hope of weaving together a semi-coherent whole. In concentration meditation, you practice attending to the present-moment sensation of breathing…  until your thoughts start to wander… and then you gently, with acceptance, notice your thoughts and bring your attention back to the breath. With practice, your ability to concentrate on the breath lasts longer and longer, and the ability to gently redirect attention gets better and better.

Lack of concentration on the task at hand sometimes comes when your mind wanders to anxieties about potential future outcomes. While your task in the present is to focus on a particular piece of information – a list of ECG tracings, for example – your thoughts may wander. You might go to speculation about what your exam score will be… then to doubts about passing… or to attaining the specialty you always wanted… and then perhaps to random thoughts and sounds. With a mindset informed by concentration meditation, you can notice fretful thoughts with acceptance and self-compassion, and gently bring your attention back to the material you are learning in this moment. With practice, you can get better at this process.

Here’s another thing meditation is good for: putting those fretful thoughts about the future into their proper place.  How does this work?  Meditation is a great way to study your mind.  In mindfulness meditation, you learn to watch your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Noticing and accepting a thought is a great way to begin to detach from it. For example, take this idea: “I need at least a 230 on Step 1 to have a good career and a good life.”  When we are not in a mindful state, we might over-identify with thoughts like this, without pausing to question their veracity or utility. With a mindfulness meditation practice, thoughts like this can begin to transform. We see them for what they are: desires to control the future and modulate anxiety by focusing on a specific outcome.

As a medical student, you have been trained to focus on outcomes. Before medical school, you were used to setting and achieving goals. To get into school, you must have been pretty good at achieving goals! Goal-orientation certainly has its utility, but it also presupposes that by working toward a goal, you can control the future. Being rigidly attached to goals can interfere with being fully present with your current experience. In medical school, rigid adherence to goals may outlive its usefulness. It is helpful to perceive how patterns of thinking and behavior that may have been adaptive at getting you into medical school can become mal-adaptive.

Further Information on Beginning a Meditation Practice:

Lee Rosen, Ph.D.

Lee Rosen, Ph.D.

Director of Student Wellbeing
Assistant Professor in Psychiatry