PNWU Health Blog

Enjoying the Journey: How One Simple Choice Reduced My Anxiety and Brightened My Horizons

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As I emerged from the campus building, a gentle breeze whisked the smell of anatomy lab from my formaldehyde-laden scrubs to my nostrils. Roughly twelve hours had passed since I had last been outside and I was drained.

I could feel the exhaustion throughout my whole being. My eyelids were heavy. My body felt weak. My brain had consumed enough information for one day. Honestly, I felt like it had consumed enough information for a year. But I didn’t have time to focus on that! I couldn’t! I had more to accomplish!

I needed to rush home, check my mail, take a speedy shower, cook a quick meal, send a couple of rapid texts to my loved ones (to reassure them that I was, indeed, still alive), prepare my lunch for the next day… the to-do list felt endless!

And what was waiting for me when I finally checked off every item? When I finished all of this juggling and rushing around?

Studying.

Four exams and numerous quizzes were staring at me from the following week. I had to prepare.

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Medical school has a way of keeping you continuously busy while making you constantly feel exponentially behind. They call it “drinking from a firehose.” I won’t be thirsty anytime soon.

Completing all things while in medical school, to be put quite frank, is impossible. However, as a medical student, I attempt to. I am advised to sustain a healthy lifestyle, continue nourishing my relationships, participate in extracurricular activities, maintain good grades, be happy and, if all else fails, always reach out for help. Pacific Northwest University, the medical school I attend, offers many resources to help me be successful in these tasks. I’m achieving all I can. I mean, I practically eat, sleep, and live medical school. There isn’t any more I could do, right?

Like a thief in the night, depression slowly creeps up on you.

One day, everything is fine. The next, you can’t get out of bed.

The excitement you once felt for the activities you used to enjoy wanes. Your motivation fades. Nothing in life seems worthwhile. You try to force yourself to get up and be active, but all you want to do is lie in bed. The pressures you handled before seem unbearable.

This is not the life you wanted; the life you dreamed of. This isn’t what they told you would happen when you signed up to train for the most rewarding job in the world. But, here you are; this is how you feel.

And you’re not alone.

Roughly 21% of all medical students suffer from depression. Many components contribute to these statistics, but a main factor is not taking the time to personally care for our well-being on this beautiful journey.

Why aren’t we doing this?

Are our type-A personalities so driven that we can’t force ourselves to take a few minutes daily to do something that will benefit us later? Are we so consumed with our tasks that we forget that we matter, too? 

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The first part of getting help is understanding the problem. Then, the necessary steps toward becoming fulfilled and productive student-doctors can be taken. The mindful habits we create will not only assist us now, but will also be beneficial to our future patients’ health and success. You can’t pour from an empty cup. We have a tendency to forget that. 

Mental Health America offers ten proven tools to help you feel stronger and more hopeful, which include physical activity, adequate sleep, peer connection and creating joy and satisfaction.

Life is ever-so-rewarding. We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to what happens to us. If you feel like life is getting you down, reach out! Find a classmate, a loved one, a counselor or someone you trust. Someone is always willing to listen.

Your life matters.

You matter.

Accepting that fact, however, often takes a conscious effort.

As I emerged from my twelve hour day in the campus building -- my clothes still clinging to the scent of formaldehyde -- I stepped off the curb and made the choice to not let anxiety creep into my mind. Instead, I decided to appreciate the moment given to me.

I gazed across the western sky as the sun set on the Yakima horizon. I admired the wisped clouds through the paint-brushed palette of the skyline and released my mind. As I slowly walked home, I focused on the brisk air reaching the depths of my lungs with each inhalation. I took my time as I prepared my meal and opted for a bubbly soak instead of a hurried shower. Instead of a short text, I called my loved ones and expressed my gratitude for their support. I studied, but didn’t complete all the schoolwork I had wanted to.

I knew that I would not be able to do this every day, but as I snuggled into bed and closed my eyes, my mind and body thanked me. I know my future-self and future patients did, too. 

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As I emerged from my twelve hour day in the campus building -- my clothes still clinging to the scent of formaldehyde -- I stepped off the curb and made the choice to not let anxiety creep into my mind. Instead, I decided to appreciate the moment given to me.

I gazed across the western sky as the sun set on the Yakima horizon. I admired the wisped clouds through the paint-brushed palette of the skyline and released my mind. As I slowly walked home, I focused on the brisk air reaching the depths of my lungs with each inhalation. I took my time as I prepared my meal and opted for a bubbly soak instead of a hurried shower. Instead of a short text, I called my loved ones and expressed my gratitude for their support. I studied, but didn’t complete all the schoolwork I had wanted to. 

I knew that I would not be able to do this every day, but as I snuggled into bed and closed my eyes, my mind and body thanked me. I know my future-self and future patients did, too. 

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Barbara Steward
Osteopathic Medical Student - 1st Year (OMS1)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences

PNWU Note: Any student struggling with depression or seeking counseling is encourage to schedule for a confidential on-campus counseling appointment with Taylor Klein, MS Mental Health Counselor, Paul Schneider, PhD Clinical Psychologist or Joy Staley, PhD Clinical Psychologist. Drs. Schneider and Staley, and Taylor Klein are available to meet with students up to two consecutive times to support them in their immediate need. If more assistance is needed they will refer students to a more long-term solution.


Take a Hike

#stressawarenessmonth #physicalactivitymonth

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It can be painful to watch someone you love negatively impact their health and increase their chances of heart failure. We’ve been told over and over again that the easiest way to avoid heart failure is to combine a healthy diet with physical exercise. If you’re anything like me, however, it’s not difficult to think of a friend or loved one who gets home from work every day, eats a big dinner, climbs onto the couch, watches television, grabs an unhealthy snack and then goes to bed.

If we know better, why do we still continue this vicious cycle? How can we break the chain without damaging our relationships or offending those we love? How do we disrupt an unhealthy nightly cycle and encourage those we love to exercise when that big bag of chips is staring at them from the cabinet? According to the American Heart Association’s “Heart Failure Lifestyle Sheets,” the solution may be five simple words away: “Let’s go for a walk!”

According to the American Heart Association, 1 in 5 adults over the age of 40 will develop heart failure. [1]

The major risk factors for heart failure are:

Most of these are or have modifiable risk factors and, again, we’ve been told repeatedly that there’s an easy fix: healthy diet and increased physical activity. Although simple on the surface, in reality, it is very difficult for many in the at-risk population to initiate and sustain these lifestyle changes. The changes, however, don’t have to feel big to have big results.

The four risk factors that are easiest to change are:

  1. coronary artery disease,
  2. hypertension,
  3. obesity, and
  4. diabetes (adult onset)

Let’s toss our imaginations into the soft cushions of our living room couches and imagine an all-too-common nightly cycle…

Your favorite show is on and a big bag of chips is resting on your lap as you sink deeper into your sofa. Your eyes are locked on the screen as your hand slides in and out of the bag, carrying handfuls of salty, crispy, deliciously addictive chips.

High sodium (salt). High fat. High calorie.

Delicious. Addictive.

Unfortunately, with every handful you’re negatively affecting all four risk factors. A high sodium diet is linked to hypertension, as increased amounts of salt cause the body to hold onto more water and raise one’s blood pressure. [3] High fat diets are associated with blood cholesterol levels. Excess blood cholesterol can clog arteries, which can cause or worsen atherosclerosis. Lastly is the issue of caloric intake. As a loved one’s body-mass index grows, his/her desire to get out and be active diminishes. Obesity can lead to prediabetes as well as full-blown diabetes.

It is often said that the first step is the hardest; the longer someone stays on the couch, the truer that statement becomes. It is important to help those we love take the first steps to healthier lifestyles and help cultivate their desire to change.

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Physical activity can help the heart beat more efficiently, lower blood pressure and increase fitness levels. It can increase metabolism and decrease the risk of diabetes and obesity. There is another aspect of physical activity, however, that is also important to keep in mind: simply put, it creates distance between your loved ones and their snacks.

I often translate the old saying, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” to “idle stomachs are obesity’s plaything.”

It’s far too easy for us to reach for the things we want, especially when they’re just a few steps away. My loved one, for example, has often said, “I know the snacks are there. It’s always in the back of my mind and I will get them if I want them.” Reaching for the things we want, especially those in an unhealthy nightly routing, is often too easy. When distance is created, however, grabbing an unhealthy snack becomes less mindless.

Eliminating a bad habit is hard enough. It’s made even more difficult if we can’t find something to replace it with; not only to distract us, but to motivate us.

My loved one decides to eat healthier and stop for about a day. We get rid of the unhealthy snacks and we won’t buy more but, around the third day, the resistance to unhealthy snacking is met with anger. 

It becomes a battle of wills instead of a team effort for health. This is NOT a successful approach.

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I recommend not dragging someone unwillingly out of his/her nightly routine, no matter how strong your desire to do so may be. If the emotion that becomes connected to physical activity, such as a nightly walk, is anger and/or resentment, desirable habits will not continue. We can be most successful when driven by the love and desire we have to spend more time with our healthy loved ones.

Although we can be a motivator, long-lasting change must come from within. The American Heart Association encourages individuals at risk for heart failure to use the buddy system to promote and sustain increased physical activity. [2] I’ve often wanted to do more than simply “be the buddy.” It can be difficult to motivate without being overbearing. I’ve believe the most effective technique is inclusion mixed, oddly enough, with a bit of guilt.

Knowing a relative with a history of heart disease has led to the selfish thought that I now have a positive “family history of heart disease.” This can be an excuse to get off the couch and away from snacks to reduce risk. While around my loved one, I try to explain this concern and invite them to come along for a walk.

It is important to establish and maintain a routine. Try to exercise at the same time every night. If possible, change the activity to keep things fresh – swimming, biking, or hiking can be exciting alternatives. Learning a new sport or game can increase the motivation to continue exercising. [2]

Again, the first step out the door is the hardest. Additionally, that first step is not the way to get others to continue to exercise and improve their lifestyles. It can, however, be a start. Ultimately, our loved ones are responsible to take charge of and improve their own health. With enough love and encouragement, however, we can be vital supporters in their change towards a healthier lifestyle.

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Christopher Fernandez
Osteopathic Medical Student - 1st Year (OMS1)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences

References:
[1] "Understand Your Risk for Heart Failure." American Heart Association, 2015. Web. 24 Mar. 2017. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HeartFailure/CausesAndRisksForHeartFailure/Understand-Your-Risk-for-Heart-Failure_UCM_477645_Article.jsp#.WNYS__krLIU
[2"How Can Physical Activity Become A Way of Life?" American Heart Association, 2015. Web. 24 Mar. 2017. http://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@hcm/documents/downloadable/ucm_300470.pdf
[3] "Why Should I Limit Sodium?" American Heart Association, 2015. Web. 24 Mar. 2017. http://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@hcm/documents/downloadable/ucm_300625.pdf


 

How a Broken Finger Nearly Derailed the 2011 U.S. Army Reserve National Scholar Athlete of the Year

#stressawarenessmonth #physicalactivitymonth 

A broken finger is all it took to change my stress level. One broken finger and suddenly I was in a staring contest with depression. I had never been caught in a downward spiral quite like this one. Until this event, I had a pretty good grip on medical school. So, how did a single broken finger have such a drastic impact?

I’ve been an athlete all my life. From T-ball to collegiate rowing, a year hasn’t gone by when I wasn’t active in sports. During the seasons that I wasn’t competing, I was in the gym.

Constantly active. Constantly focused.

It is a lifestyle I’d grown accustomed to. You could even say I was dependent upon it.

As time went on, I began to see a correlation between my athletic successes and my academic successes. Being a good athlete made me want to be a better student and vice versa. When I was given the 2011 U.S. Army Reserve National Scholar Athlete Award, I knew for sure that these things go hand in hand.

When I got to medical school orientation, I was met by lectures discussing the stress of medical school and the increased likelihood of succumbing to stressdepression, and anxiety. Though aware of these issues, I had never showed any signs of these problems.

“I’ll be fine,” I said to myself. And I was.

I was a happy guy willing to learn. I was inspired by the people around me. School was challenging and demanding, but I was navigating it well. I was in the gym five days a week. I was feeling good. I knew that, as long as I stayed active, my successes in the classroom would continue to come. Then, one Friday afternoon, everything changed.

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Broken left ring finger.

Just a finger, right? It can’t be that bad, right? I thought so too. I skipped the gym for a week and tried to let it rest. This is when my symptoms set in:

  1. I became more lethargic.
  2. I didn’t have a whole lot of motivation to complete my daily routine of studying.
  3. I felt the stress of school bearing down on me.

Another week of no exercise passed and I slipped further into this dark episode. Getting out of bed in the morning was a daily struggle. Waking up every morning, I found myself wrestling with the same question: “Is it even worth going today?”

I spent so much of my energy trying to put on a happy face so nobody would notice. Because of this, I had nothing left to give when it came to school. My grades started to slip. I was performing my worst since I got to this school.

And the strangest part of it all? I did not seem to care.

Another week passed of no exercise and I was arguably the most irritable I have ever been. After four weeks without exercise I essentially lost myself.

I couldn’t fix it. It was a vicious circle.

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The longer I stayed out of the gym, the worse I became and the harder I felt it was to go back.

I knew there was some connection between mental and physical health. I had been benefiting from that very connection for years. It wasn’t until this year that I was on the detrimental end of the spectrum: a victim of poor mental health and waning physical health.

Spring break arrived (thank God) and I went home for a visit. My brother-in-law has always been a close confidant of mine. He is a gym owner, personal trainer and a great motivator. He saw that I was acting different and sat me down to talk about what was going on. Following our talk he told me to get changed.

We were going to the gym.

Though my finger limited what I was able to do, I received the best workout I’d had in a long time. I left the gym a new man. It was such a strange feeling. Four weeks of dreary existence suddenly erased by a one-hour workout.

I felt re-energized. Re-centered. Refocused. 

The gym was the obvious solution all along. It would have been very easy to go in and run on the treadmill or ride the bike. You don’t even need your finger for those things!

So why did it take four weeks and a talk with my brother-in-law to get me to go?

The real issue wasn’t as little as a broken finger. When the problems started to arise, I became blind to the utility of the gym and unmotivated to go. There were assignments to complete and exams to study for. I wasn’t going to waste the little energy I had in the gym. This is flawed logic and I am going to work my hardest to make sure it never happens again.

Medical school can be a dark and difficult time. I believe we can combat that darkness with physical fitness. If we exercise daily, we will keep our bodies healthy and our minds clear.

A week without exercise is all it took for me to become lost in the dark depths of medical school. Normally, an injury like that wouldn’t have phased me. In this environment, with so many other things knocking on the door, it became a huge set back. This was a tremendous learning experience for me.

For one, it reminded me that there is a clear and unmistakable connection between the mind and the body. They must be in harmony if you wish to live a balanced life. Secondly, it taught me that I need to address these issues at the forefront. I cannot let any obstacle get in the way of my fitness. I find solace during a good workout. This is a lifestyle I must dedicate myself to. I want to make sure that nobody else falls victim to a situation like mine.

I think my experiences will enhance my ability to recognize and approach people battling stress and anxiety. I now have a deeper understanding and appreciation of these problems and will be able to treat future patients both delicately and competently. For now, my goal is to start a program where I offer my services and expertise in the gym to individuals looking for an escape from medical school.

Obviously, the gym is not a cure for a mental imbalance. It is, however, a great resource to alleviate anxiety and reduce stress. I hope to help people find their way to a happy and healthy lifestyle while we navigate this winding road of medical school.

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Preston DeHan
Osteopathic Medical Student - 1st Year (OMS1)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences


 

"My Dog Saved My Mental Health"

Since April is National Stress Awareness Month and Pets are Wonderful Month, I thought it would be great to combine the two topics: mental health and dogs. 

Starting out in a new town, new school, or a new job is never easy. For me, starting medical school, it felt next to impossible to move away from everything I knew all at once.

My family was far away, continuing with their own lives. My friends were all busy and out of arms-reach. My job already had replaced me, and my parents had converted my old bedroom into an unfamiliar guestroom. When I got back to my “new home” after my first day of medical school I sat on my new couch. Exhausted, I felt the tears start to fill my eyes. Then, something familiar leapt up next to me: my pug, Mei Yi. She sat on my lap, licked the tears from my cheeks, and softly whimpered as she curled up into a very-familiar ball of love on my scrub-covered legs. Looking back at my first week, I am not entirely sure I would have survived if it were not for my 13-pound, snorting, wrinkled friend.

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Animals do not have to be professionally trained to be comforting, and they do not have to speak English to be a listening ear.  Pets can provide significant levels of stress reduction in humans. According to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, while performing a study on stress levels in humans both with and without pets, it was found that pet owners have significantly lower levels of stress at baseline, as well as lower levels of responses to stress. “The study revealed that pet owners had, on average, a significantly lower baseline heart rate and blood pressure than other participants, reacted less on stress tests, and returned to baseline levels more quickly” (AJVMA, 2002). Aside from reducing stress, furry family members also can help humans battle depression and loss. A professor of veterinary medicine at Missouri University performed a study on pets and happiness, stating, “Our preliminary results indicate that levels of serotonin, a hormone in humans that helps fight depression, rise dramatically after interaction with live animals, specifically dogs” (R. Johnson, 2004).

My grandmother lost her husband to cancer after being married to him for almost fifty years. Her fluffy orange cocker spaniel/poodle mix did not make the loss easier, but she did help with the loneliness and grieving. I asked her about this, and she told me, “I would always curl up by him (her husband) while we were sleeping.  When I lost him, I felt the loss as I slept alone. However, my little dog, Punkin, began curling up at my side, right where he was missing from.” As she spoke about Punkin, she used descriptions such as “she lights up when she sees me”, “she goes bananas when I ask her if she wants to take a walk”, and “when I come home she is so happy to see me, she practically does somersaults”. It is not hard for me to see that her canine pal has helped her maintain joy and peace since the loss of her husband.

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I know that my small dog not only helps me with stress relief and preventing sadness, but she also helps me stay physically healthy by urging me to take her on a daily walk, rain or shine. When I felt like watching Netflix instead of going to the gym, my little furry friend would sit patiently by the door, asking me for a walk. She kept me active. She'd hop at the door, run in circles, and then patiently wait for me to clip on her favorite leash.

According to Dr. Reeves, a professor of epidemiology from Michigan State University, dog owners “exercised about 30 minutes a week more than people who didn’t have dogs” on average (M. Reeves, 2011). How can dog walking improve overall physical health? According to the American Heart Association, dog owners have been shown to have lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as a greater chance of surviving a heart attack, when compared with people without a dog (AHA, 2015).

Our furry companions provide us with daily joy, comfort, familiarity, unconditional companionship and affection. Dogs help relieve stress on the days we two-legged mammals want to scream, help us wipe our eyes when we are alone and depressed, help us get up and move when we feel like being couch-potatoes, and they may even help us battle heart disease. Dogs may be “man’s best friend” but, to me, my dog is my “guardian angel”.

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Rachel Boneski
Osteopathic Medical Student - 1st Year (OMS1)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences

 

For More Information:

Cody, J., and Reeves, M. “Dog Walkers More Likely to Reach Exercise Benchmarks.” MSU Today. March 10, 2011.
“Interacting and Petting Animals Creates a Hormonal Response in Humans that Can Help Fight Depression”. Medical Life Sciences News. May 14, 2004.
O’Rorke, Kate. “Pets, Spouses Compete for Title of Best Stress Reliever: Pets Win.” Journal of American Veterinary Medicine Association News. Oct. 15, 2002.
“Owning a Pet May Protect You from Heart Disease”. American Heart Association. Aug. 7, 2015.