You’ve worked hard for years to get into residency. Interviews, externships, exams. You were accepted into your top choice program. Six months later, you realize you are unhappy, unsettled and dissatisfied. What do you do?
Spend time identifying the real cause of your feelings. Your unhappiness may have nothing to do with your actual residency. Maybe your new responsibilities don’t allow you time to call your mom everyday. Or maybe that new apartment you chose in a city you knew nothing about gave you an unintentional, difficult two-hour commute. Little changes in your routine can have a big impact on your psyche. Recognize that outside factors may be affecting the way you view your training.
If you are having a hard time pinpointing exactly why you are upset, consider asking a close friend what you seem to be struggling with the most. Your BFF may be able to tell you that you seemed happier when you went for a jog every day or that you complain about the lack of a social life, but still spend every weekend memorizing statistics. Rely on the insight of those who know you best to help identify a lifestyle habit that you can change.
On your road to residency bliss, challenge yourself to avoid blanket statements like “I just hate this.” Being mindful of your self-talk encourages other ways to acknowledge and express your feelings. It may take a while to figure out exactly which words to use to communicate how you accurately feel, but taking the time to do so can help.
2. Make a SMART plan for survival
Once you have successfully identified your biggest stressors, come up with a physically and psychologically healthy plan of action. Easier said than done, right? Consider picking one element of struggle and creating a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based) goal. Hold yourself accountable, or bring that BFF back into the picture to help you stay on track. See if your mood improves when you focus a little less on being a perfect resident and a little more on being your perfect You.
What’s the best thing about residency? It is a temporary means to a very rewarding end. If goal-setting is too structured for your taste, consider celebrating daily or weekly victories. Giving yourself something positive to look forward to not only helps the time pass, but it gives you a sense of accomplishment and pride. Just finished a week on-call? High-fives all around. Countdowns are also a great way to stay focused on a positive end goal. Pick numerous events over shorter periods of time to keep your spirits up. Your app reminding you there are 2 years, 364 days and 23 hours until you graduate is probably not the affirmation you need.
3. Engage others.
If you’ve exhausted your life-hacking resources and still feel discouraged, communicate openly with trusted family or friends. Keeping your sadness inside will not make it go away, and may lead to even more difficulty coping with a tough situation. Confide in a co-resident or a trusted faculty member. Make the active choice to let someone know where your head is before your training or relationships take a direct hit. Your residency has life preservers, mechanisms through which you can receive support; and they won’t consider you weak for seeking them out.
Finally, remember, you can always reach out to ASDA alumni for support and guidance. While I personally hope that each of you finds your dream option after graduation, the truth is some of you may not. Keep your head up and try these strategies to get through and be better for it.
~ Chrissy Hammer, DMD, MA
About Christine Hammer
Dr. Hammer is currently Chief Resident of Pediatric Dentistry at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. A graduate of Midwestern-Arizona, Dr. Hammer is Chair of the Maryland State Dental Association New Dentist Committee. She was ASDA District 10 Trustee, Co-Chair of the 2013 ASDA National Leadership Conference and is actively involved in the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.