May 22, 2020

Teaching Stress Management and Coping Strategies to Students in the Health Professions

by Ganiat Animashawun, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Resident G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center, Jackson, MS

Stress can be perceived in different ways. Stress is a complex bio-behavioral, psycho-social response to a stressor.1 Stress can be both negative and positive.2 Negative stress is labeled as distress, whereas positive stress is called eustress.3 People may assume that all stress is bad, but stress can actually be a positive thing. A stressor can be real or perceived prompted by something in the external environment or internally generated.1 A “real” stressor is produced from an actual event. For example, if a student fails an exam that is a real stressor. A perceived stressor would be when the student thinks “I did horrible. I failed my exam.”  It hasn’t actually happened (yet). External or environmental stressors are things that are out of one’s control. For example, “there are tornado warnings so I will not be able to drive to the school to take my exam.” Internal stressors are based on the way you evaluate yourself or based on your beliefs.  A panic attack before an exam due to negative self-talk is an example of an internal stressor.2 Seeking an advanced degree can stressful – and these stressors are both real and perceived, external and internal. Wanting to be successful in school and making sure that one has a job post-graduation adds more pressure. While some stress can positively drive performance, excessive stress can negatively impact a student’s learning.4 Therefore, stress management and coping strategies should routinely be taught in health professions educational programs.

The correlation between stress and learning is multifaceted. There are different factors that influence or cause a person to be more susceptible to feelings of stress. Coping style, personality type, genetic vulnerability, and social support are all factors.2 When a student is confronted with a problem, the first step is to identify the source of the problem and then determine what resources are available to address the problem.2 If a student is unable to find the resources necessary to cope with the problem, it often results in stress.3

A cohort study entitled Patterns of Stress, Coping and Health-Related Quality of Life in Doctor of Pharmacy Students: A Five Year Cohort Study focused on evaluating perceived stress, coping strategies, and health-related quality of life (HRQOL) in pharmacy students. One hundred forty-five pharmacy students at the University of California San Diego, Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences (SSPPS) participated in the study. The researchers measured stress and HRQOL using 3 tools: the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), Brief COPE, and Short Form-36. Surveys were administered to the students three times a year over five years. The study found that there was a significant increase (worsening) PSS scores and an increase in students’ maladaptive coping behaviors over time. This corresponded, not surprisingly, with worsening scores on the mental health domain of the health-related quality of life instrument. Thus, the research found a significant increase in perceived stress, increased maladaptive coping, and worsening in mental health across the three pre-clinical curriculum years.4  To address this problem, the school implemented strategies for reducing stress and provided coping skills training sessions for the students as well as a peer-to-peer tutoring program.  Moreover, they initiated a curricular review.4

To better cope with stress, a student must learn how to take control of the triggers that may cause stress. At the University of Massachusetts Medical School, they have a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) curriculum that has been extensively studied and replicated around the world. MBSR guides the students on how to practice, integrate, and apply mindfulness every day.6 The primary purpose of the MBSR is to create a structured pathway to increase well-being and alleviate stressors. MBSR can be added and incorporated during early course work in the first year of the curriculum. MBSR is typically taught over 8-weeks with 10 sessions training students to engage in mindfulness meditation and mindful yoga. Even if MBSR course isn’t practical, all students should be introduced to mindfulness. It seems simple but developing mindful habits is actually very difficult. To be truly mindful, students must be able to reflect on all of their actions and be aware of how everything internally and externally can affect their minds and lead to stress.

In a MBSR program, students learn about stress, habitual, automatic behavioral, physical, emotional, and cognitive patterns. In addition the students learn to analyze how they approach and tackle the demands in their everyday life.6  Students learn how to recognize their perceptions of a potentially stressful event and then how to creatively respond. Students learn how they can control the way they react or respond. Once the students learn how to condition and focus on the way they respond to stress then they can use the strategies they’ve learned to address future stressful events and thoughts. The MBSR program provides many examples of how to complete each task.6 Studies have shown that participants who have completed a MBSR program experience a 35% reduction in the number of somatic symptoms and a 40% reduction in psychological symptoms.7 Furthermore, MBSR has been shown to significantly improve health-related quality of life7.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) should be routinely taught to first-year health professions students. The earlier the students are exposed to mindfulness practices, the sooner they will able to use those tools to manage stress. Teaching students how to productively managing stressors might vary well lead to improved learning outcomes and reduce drop-out rates.

  1. Schneiderman N, Ironson G, Siegel SD. Stress and health: psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants Ann Rev Clin Psych 2005; 1: 607-28.
  2. Salleh MR. Life event, stress and illness. Malays J Med Sci 2008; 15: 9-18.
  3. Votta J and Benau E. Predictors of stress in Doctor of Pharmacy students: Results from a nationwide survey. Curr Pharm Teach Learn 2013; 5: 365-72.
  4. Hirsch JD, Nemlekar P, Phuong P, Hollenbach KA, Lee KC, Adler DS, and Morello CM. Patterns of Stress, Coping and Health-Related Quality of Life in Doctor of Pharmacy Students: A Five Year Cohort Study. Am J Pharm Educ [Internet]. (2019).
  5. Silvester JA, Cosme S, Brigham TP. Adverse impact of pharmacy resident stress during trainingAm J Health-Syst Pharm 2017; 74: 553–554.
  6. Kabat-Zinn J, Saki F. Santorelli, Florence Meleo-Meyer, Lynn Koerbel, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Authorized Curriculum Guide. [Internet]. (2007).
  7. Kabat-Zinn J. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Research Summary.[Internet]. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada; 1992 Dec.

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