Med students, mental fitness and the concept of prevention


Myself and a colleague Maureen were fortunate this morning to get to speak to a cohort of 1st year med students on the topic of mental fitness. This included a group who connected in from the Northern Territory. Our thanks to all the student in attendance who made us feel welcome. My thanks also to Maureen who makes an excellent co-presenter 🙂

We covered the basic mental fitness model and then discussed habits/skills that these students could develop to improve their university experience. You can access the presentation as well as our mental fitness workout and ‘what areas of mental fitness could I work on?’ handout in this folder (these links eventually expire so if they have contact me to get the files).

When I teach the mental fitness model, I am typically talking from the standpoint of preventative psychology, namely, these are the things you can do to prevent being emotionally or cognitively derailed during your studies. We know that the standard med student will encounter periods of high stress and pressure and that this will test their coping strategies. We want to give them the best toolkit we can to be able to survive and thrive in that pressure.

However, prevention can be a difficult sell. You are trying to convince someone, who is otherwise going ok, to invest time and effort into activities in order to ‘stay ok’.

‘live a healthy lifestyle – get plenty of sleep, good nutrition and physical activity’

’employ evidence-based study strategies so you can maximise your learning’

‘ensure your social network remains intact so you have good supports’

If these things required no real effort, then the marketing would be easier, but all of these things require deliberate actions on the part of the individual. They require some sacrifices. They have to allocate precious mental and physical resources and time to making these things happen. If the ‘reward’ is simply to ‘remain well’, it is not a very enticing sales pitch.


Making investments of time and effort in the present moment for your future self can be strengthened/encouraged if you can connect with both or either of the following:

  1. Your worst possible future. Imagine yourself having fallen prey to every single one of your worst instincts – what kind of life would that create? What does your worst future look like? What impact would that have on the people you care most about? What would you be willing to do in the short- to medium-term to make that happen?
  2. Your best possible future. Imagine yourself reaching and exceeding your wildest dreams – the job you want, the life you want, being the best version of yourself you can be. Imagine what it would feel like to be able to turn your wishes and desires into reality. What would you be willing to do in the short- to medium-term to make that happen?

Contemplating your worst and best futures can help you connect with a future version of yourself – someone for whom you are ultimately responsible. Connecting with the possible outcomes for that person gives you a different frame through which to view your current choices. Imagine the health battles your future self will have if you neglect your body now. In contrast, imagine the financial wellbeing/security of your future self if you learn to budget, save and invest.

When thinking about prevention, we tend to focus heavily on the short-term inconveniences, and heavily discount the future benefits. It is because we can easily connect with the experience of our present self, but its much harder to connect with the experiences of our future self.

I am at an age now where I can start to see across my timeline and identify the choices I made as a young adult that benefitted my future self (i.e. who I am now) and those that set him back.

When I speak to students I am drawing on that experience, combining it with what I know from the psychology literature about good choices and lifestyle habits. I am encouraging students to start making investments in their future self.

We are all a mass of impulses. Some of them pushing us in a good direction, some of them leading us astray. Part of building mental fitness is learning to distinguish between the two and committing to actions in the present moment that push us towards our best possible future, and away from our worst possible future.

What do you do to look after your future self?

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Psychological Tools Talks given

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