As medical students, we are handed many books and are told to read them — and memorize them, usually. In addition to the technical, fact-filled and scientific books we are given, medical students would probably benefit from being handed a self-help book or two. It is interesting that medical students, a group intent on making our lives about caring for others, so often fail to care for ourselves. The difficulty with medical students is that a standard self-help book could not possibly encompass the complexity of our lives; it is no secret that medical students deal with a broad spectrum of concerns and issues. As such, books about processing these complex issues and learning to take care of one’s self in the midst of school must be equally complex and nuanced and to say what we need to hear.
This complexity is why Dr. Jeremy Spiegel’s book “The Mindful Medical Student” succeeds in delivering helpful advice to medical students. Not only is the author a psychiatrist trained in analyzing human behavior, but he is an MD and as such has been through the rigors of medical school himself. His observations clearly represent an array of perspectives, as he admittedly draws on several spiritual traditions and humanistic ideals to write the book. Mindfulness, for example, is a concept taken from Zen Buddhism and is incorporated into the book’s title. The blending of traditions and principles in the book allows him to deliver strong advice in a simple message.
Spiegel addresses many different themes throughout the book that medical students will find variably useful. The book is divided into sections that offer ideas for staying focused, caring for one’s self, and reflecting on difficult circumstances. I found his advice in three specific areas — acting out, balancing relationships, and reflection — to be especially useful.
First, his chapter “Tuning In to Acting Out” highlighted the importance of remaining a human in the midst of a challenging environment. He first defines acting out as “reacting to circumstances in lieu of experiencing … or reflecting on the presenting situation.” He discusses several ways that medical students often “act out” — avoidance, withdrawal and lying. By calling this behavior out, Dr. Spiegel invites an open discussion of why students act out and how to combat it. I imagine this framework will be helpful as the rigors of medical school increase.
Second, his advice on balancing relationships was helpful to me. He uses a triangular diagram to demonstrate different relationships medical students can have, and how each are important to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. One facet of relationships that he focuses on is using classmates for support, which I found especially pertinent in the current model of medical education. The use of teamwork, group assignments and interpersonal communication are essential for medical students (because they are essential for doctors) and as such, teamwork is a point of emphasis in most medical schools. “The Mindful Medical Student” successfully puts this principle into the context of caring for one’s self.
Lastly, a theme that I found throughout the book is that of reflection. This is especially prevalent in the chapter on “Combating Emotional Shutdown” but makes other appearances as well. Spiegel talks about reflection as an important way to work through difficult encounters, long and grueling days, and stress in general. He talks about various ways that students can practice reflection, the most important of which is to simply pay attention to one’s feelings. I didn’t agree with all of the practices Spiegel discusses, but I did agree with the principle, and self-reflection is mostly about what works for the individual anyway. If this is something you struggle with, though, you will find his advice on it as a helpful starting point.
In summary, “The Mindful Medical Student” is an easy read and a fairly short book. The author demonstrates his expertise in many different areas and as such gives advice that medical students will find helpful. I recommend reading this book early in your medical education, as the principles contained within are fundamental and will help set up a successful medical school career.
Prints, Pages, and Pagers aims to look closely at the lives of medical students and doctors, real or fiction, whose lives and experiences are told in novels, short stories, poetry, or any kind of writing. These book reviews are an opportunity for medical students to learn from the many fascinating stories produced by the field of medicine, and maybe to read something other than a textbook.