Tips for coping with uncertain times during Fellowship exam preparation
Back in 2020, as the number of coronavirus cases rose across Australia, and news channels and social media bombarded us with local and worldwide updates on number of cases and the strategies governments are putting into place to deal with the pandemic, you may remember your stress levels increased, and the level of anxiety across the community rose. There are many things we can learn from those times of uncertainty.
In uncertain or stressful times such as preparing for important Fellowship exams, feelings of worry and unease is normal and can be expected. However, it is important that we learn to manage our stress before it turns to more severe anxiety or panic.
Most people are creatures of habit. When things go as planned, we feel in control. But when life changes as it did back in 2020, it can leave us feeling that life is out of our control and unpredictable. At such times, there are a few things we can do to help us better manage these feelings.
1. Be kind to yourself
Some people are better at dealing with uncertainties than others, so don’t beat yourself up if your tolerance for unpredictability is lower than someone else you know. Remind yourself that this situation takes time to resolve, and be patient with yourself in the meantime.
2. Reflect on past successes
You’ve overcome stressful events in the past – and you survived! Give yourself credit. Reflect on what you did during those events that was helpful, and what you might like to do differently this time.
3. Limit exposure to news
When we’re stressed about something, especially world or major events, it can be hard to look away. But compulsively checking the news or social media only keeps us wound up, increasing our levels of stress. Try to limit how many times you watch or check the news, keep to reliable sources and avoid at vulnerable times of day, such as right before you go to sleep.
4. Keep things in perspective
When uncertainty strikes, it is easy to see things as worse than they really are. Get out of the habit of ruminating on negative events or what might happen, as these increase feelings of stress and anxiousness. Rather than imagining the worst-case scenario and then worrying about it, ask yourself: Am I overestimating the likelihood of a negative outcome? Am I overestimating how bad the consequences will be? Am I underestimating my ability to cope?
5. Take your own advice
Ask yourself: If a friend came to me with this worry, what would I tell him/her? Imagining your situation from the outside can often provide perspective and fresh ideas.
6. Engage in self-care
Don’t let stress derail your healthy routines. Make efforts to eat well, exercise and get enough sleep. Many people find stress release in practices such as mindfulness, yoga, and meditation. Keeping these up is important when managing stressful times. There can be comfort in daily rituals like a 10.30 am cup of tea – so continue as many of these that you can.
7. Connect to your ‘Bigger Why’ and values
While stress is often perceived as a negative experience, not all stress is bad. Some stress can be helpful, motivating us to get a task finished, or spurring us to perform well. When we’re uncertain about something that is happening in our lives, we can draw strength from connecting to our ‘bigger why’ – the purpose of our efforts can motivate us to keep going. For example, you may remember the RACGP July exams were postponed only to be cancelled in October 2020 and government rules about managing coronavirus kept changing – all causing a lot of uncertainty and added work or worry at the time. When feeling stressed or anxious, tap into why you are doing what you are doing, and why you chose this career path – does being a GP tap into your values of serving the community, being helpful and caring? Help you share your strengths to benefit others? Will it help you take better care of your family? Research shows that connecting to our sense of meaning and values can help us get through challenges – including the stress and self-doubt that often come with uncertainty – with greater resilience. One reason for this is that our sense of meaning gives context to our stress: You’re not stressed for no reason – you’re stressed as part of doing something meaningful.
8. Seek support from family and friends
As a society, we were asked to limit our physical social interactions for the better good. But we now realise social support and connectiveness is very important. Yet it can feel difficult to find time in busy lives. So, remember to continue to reach out regularly to family and friends via all means, including phone, social media, or Skype/Zoom to better enable social connections when physically connecting is difficult for whatever reason. Text a friend to check-in. Research shows that tiny positive interactions with others not only make us feel happier but also help us feel supported when we’re going through difficult or uncertain times.
9. Control what you can
Focus on the things that are within your control, even if it’s simple things like planning the weekly meals or your daily timetable. If working from home or telehealth, establish routines to give your days and weeks structure.
10. Change the way you talk to yourself
When we are stressed, we sometimes say negative or critical things repeatedly to ourselves. Unhelpful self-talk might include things like, “I can’t cope”, “I’m too busy to deal with this”, or “I’ll never get this done”. Negative self-talk can make it more difficult to manage stress. Notice your self-talk and work on using more helpful or calming self-talk, such as, “I am coping well given what I have on my plate”, “this stressful time will pass”, or “This is a stressful situation and I’ll work through it one step at a time”.
11. Ask for help
If you’re having trouble managing stress and coping with uncertainty on your own, ask for help. Psychologists are experts in helping people develop healthy ways to cope with stress. Find a psychologist in your area or check out the Australian Psychological Society website at https://www.psychology.org.au.
American Psychological Society https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-uncertainty
Australian Psychological Society (APS): https://www.psychology.org.au/for-the-public/Psychology-Topics