9 Proven Ways to Relieve Stress and Prevent Burnout in Residency

Almost everyone encounters stress on a regular basis. 

We all experience it differently, and we all have different levels of stress tolerance. 

The responsibility that comes with being a resident doctor (or any busy professional) can often be quite overwhelming. 

According to AMA, over 50% of physicians experience at least one sign of burnout.

I'm sure other fields have similarly shocking statistics.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, I want you to give these tactics a try.

These are some of the strategies that I have used to relieve stress during the toughest times.



1. Create a Routine

Humans are creatures of habit. 

We like it when certain aspects of our lives are predictable and routine. If you are a resident doctor, your work life can be anything but predictable.  

Sometimes the thrill of unexpected events can be exciting, but deep down, our natural instinct is to have stability.

The uncertainty surrounding the events of the day can be a large source of stress if it doesn't go as you'd expect. 

Fortunately, you don't have to look towards your work/career to find stability.

Having a post-work routine filled with activities that you enjoy can provide significant stress relief.

Perhaps your routine can include

  • Having warm tea while you listen to your favorite music,
  • Or taking a hot shower followed by watching your favorite TV show,
  • Or spending 45 minutes listening to an audiobook or an interesting podcasts right before bed.

The possibilities are endless. 

You can also add stress relief activities into this routine.... such as points 2-7.


2. Go Outside Often

Every chance you get, you should be outdoors rather than indoors.

When you work long hours of the day, there is little incentive to spend any time outdoors.

Most of us rush home to just get on with the rest of the day. 

There is a calming sense to being around nature. You'll be shocked at how relaxing a 10 minute walk can be. 

On your off days, take a longer walk, up to 30 minutes.

Make it a habit to go to a park nearby once a week during the summer months. Being around nature and seeing a lot of green can do wonders for stress relief.

Walking can help declutter your mind and also release endorphins from the increase in activity. Walking has numerous other benefits which we outline at The Powerful Benefits of Walking.

Walk with someone else to increase the benefits even further.



3. Make a List of Memorable Patient Interactions or Events

If you work 60-90 hours a week, it's easy to become disenchanted with how busy you are.

The lack of free time and inability to control your schedule is often cited as a huge source of stress and unhappiness.

However, your work can be a source of stress relief, if you keep a list of memorable experiences.

If you are a doctor, you probably remember a handful of patients that you had amazing experiences with.  

Experiences where you made a big, positive impact on the patient and it was reciprocated to you.

If you aren't a doctor, I'm sure that there are people who you have had a tremendous influence on. Maybe it's a close friend, a coworker, a client, or even a family member.

Keeping a list of the people you care most about and the great experiences you've had can provide happiness and stress relief to your life.

Review this list periodically to get an uplift to an otherwise stressful day.


4. Laugh Often

Laughter is truly medicine. Just think about how good a time you had when you last laughed really hard.

Perhaps it was a comedy, an unexpected event, or perhaps just a really good joke a friend made.

Laughter increases oxygen intake and releases endorphins and Dopamine, the feel good hormone.

Laughing will almost always change your mood right away. 

Try and find some humor in stressful situations. Watch a rerun of your favorite sitcom. Enjoy an occasional funny cat/dog video on YouTube 



5. Exercise

This list wouldn't be complete if I didn't include exercise.

Taking care of your body physically has a synergistic effect on your mind.

It's fascinating how closely linked the mind and body are. Doing any kind of exercise, especially ones that you enjoy, such as lifting, cardio, jogging, and yoga can provide a great deal of stress relief.

Physical activity increases blood flow to your muscles and brain, again releasing endorphins and activating the dopamine pleasure/reward system.

The American Psychological Association  has found numerous links between mental health and exercise. 

I personally attribute Exercise as the biggest factor in keeping my stress levels down in medical school, residency and in life.

Hands down.

Don't know where to begin? Check out our Exercise Resources here.


6. Don't Neglect Sleep

Lack of sleep is correlated with a multitude of health effects including stress exacerbation.

When we force ourselves to stay awake for prolonged periods of time without paying back our sleep debt, our body remains in a sympathetic fight or flight mode.

This raises our levels of cortisol, aka the stress hormone and it leads to mental impairment.

How many times have you heard the advice "sleep on it" when you are undecided about an important decision.

Sleep allows you to de-stress and gather your thoughts effectively.

Check out our series on sleep starting with The Unparalleled Benefits of Improving Sleep Quality to learn effective ways to improve sleep quality.



7. Foster 1-2 relationships 

Humans are social creatures. We crave interactions.

The negative effects of pure isolation seen in prisoners who are sent to solitary confinment are well documented.

Even if you consider yourself to be introverted, you probably still maintain interaction with others through social media, email or text messaging.  

When you work 60-90 hours a week, it's even more difficult to maintain relationships.

You simply do not have the time to know what's going on in the lives of all your friends and family.

Nonetheless, you should make an effort to foster 1 or 2 relationships with the people you care most about.

Knowing that there are vast complex things going on in the lives of people outside of work can be very relieving. 

There's more to life than your job/career. There's an entire world out there.

In addition, these loved ones can be there for you when you need additional support to get through tough times. Do your best to maintain a strong relationship with at least 1 - 2 people.


8. Learn to Say No

By that same token, it is important to understand your boundaries. When you are buried deep in your work, taking on additional tasks can significantly increase unneeded stress.

I personally have struggled to say no before to the detriment of my well being.

As Im sure you are realizing, it is important that you look out for yourself first, because no one else will.

By making sure that you are well taken care of, then you can give your all to the activities that you do say yes to, the ones that truly matter to you.


I love this quote by Bruce Lee.


Stop doing unnecessary things and focus on the stuff that has meaning to you.


9. Celebrate Every Small Success 

In today’s age, its easy to focus on the negatives.  You could receive 10 compliments in one day, and they might all get forgotten by one unexpected criticism.

The human mind tends to magnify mistakes and focus primarily on the things that didn’t go well.  Unfortunately, we cannot always control mistakes or negative events.

This is why it is important to celebrate every small success. 

It doesn’t have to be any major event, but a small acknowledgement to yourself that you accomplished something.

Don’t forget life is full of peaks and troughs, and only YOU know your current situation.  Only YOU know your successes and your triumphs and what you had to sacrifice to get there.  

Acknowledge yourself once in a while, it can be quite stress relieving.



So there you have it.  If you can consistently use at least 3 of these stratgies in your life, you should notice big improvements in your stress levels.

Burnout is real thing. Take care of yourself so that you can best take care of others.

What do you think of our list? What have you done in the past for stress relief?

Share these tips with anyone who may be struggling today.




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Alex & Brittany Robles are the founders of The White Coat Trainer, a site dedicated to improving the health and wellness of busy individuals. Learn more about them here and connect with them on instagram and Twitter. Feel free to send them a message here