Balancing School, Life, and Managing Stress

Updated: Aug 6


Hello everyone! My name is Chanel and I’m a 3rd-year dental student at UCLA. Now, you’re all probably glancing through the many faces of Michael Scott thinking to yourself, there’s no way I can pick only one! They’re all me! All of them! *Cries in stress* Fear not my friends, they’re all me too! Stress is an inevitable part of life and we’ve all experienced some form of it.


Managing the stressors in our lives and finding balance is something many of us strive to do, however, it is also one of the hardest feats to accomplish. But why is that? I believe the answer is different for everyone. We are all unique individuals with different needs. The way we go about accomplishing tasks varies from person to person so unfortunately there is no single solution that will work for everyone. Going forth, I can only speak from my own experience, but I hope these tips will provide you with some insight on how to combat the stress you may be experiencing in your own lives as you continue on your path into the field of dentistry.


The Road Ahead

As a pre-dental student, the path to success is quite rigorous. There is a large amount of pressure placed on you regarding academics, extracurricular and volunteer activities, shadowing hours, DAT scores, etc. With so many variables to keep track of, the process can easily become overwhelming. You may feel like there isn’t enough time to finish everything you need to at the standard you wish to do it at while also trying to keep your soul alive by maintaining some sort of personal life. So, to make up that time, we may end up sacrificing aspects of our lives that have a positive impact on our physical and mental health, such as sleep, hobbies, physical activity and so much more. It can start slowly at first, I know for me it did. I didn’t realize I was taking more time off from the gym to shadow and volunteer or I’d skip it without a second thought to rest instead. I started staying up later to study and eventually just got used to not sleeping those beloved 8 hours and instead settling for 5 or 6. It can be very easy to spread yourself too thin when everything you have to do seems like the utmost priority. When that happens, you can start to forget that your own health should be prioritized as well. Think about it, how can you accomplish all those wonderful goals if your mind, body, and soul aren’t in the state to handle it? Is it possible? For some people, definitely. But we’re going to do our best to tackle this journey together without running ourselves into the ground. Because you are not a robot or a machine, you are a human. A human with emotions and needs that also need to be taken care of. So, let’s get started, shall we?


Find Your Center

We hear the term “balanced” a lot, but what does that even mean when it comes to applying it to our own lives? To me, being balanced is a feeling. The sweet spot right between stress and relaxation. We all know what each of those two extremes feel like which gives us the ability to choose at which point along that scale you feel the most centered and steady that will allow you to handle the curveballs and stressors life throws at you.


That point is different for everyone and as you go through your journey, you’ll find that state that allows you to be the most productive both mentally and physically. Once we know the feeling we’re aiming for, drop a mental anchor. Get to know that feeling well because, in times of stress, that is where we’re going to be aiming to get back to. That is your center. So, how do we get there? This part takes a bit of soul searching and testing out what works for you but find something meaningful and important that grounds you. Something that makes you happy and feels like it is a part of you. This can be a hobby, an activity you enjoy doing, etc. For me, it was the gym. I’ve been in sports all my life and it eventually became an integral part of who I am. The physical exertion and going through the motions of training and weightlifting serve the purpose of shifting my focus from whatever I am stressing about, to an activity that is important to me that I have no tense feelings toward. Your chosen activity is meant to disrupt the sporadic thoughts your mind has created and allow you to channel and release that tense energy little by little. It’s easy to start overthinking and hyper-focusing on the stresses that add up, so finding something that can break that cycle, even for a short time can give you the window of clarity you need to come back and re-evaluate the situation.


Broaden Your Toolbox

One of the hardest things about being a student is that we take our job home with us in the form of assignments, lab work, readings, etc. Juggling all of these plus your extracurricular activities can feel like a 24/7 job at times. It’s important to have multiple relaxation tactics to choose from that can help disengage you from the stressor and allow an opportunity to bring you back closer to center.

Here are some other relaxation techniques that I use:


1. Take Breaks. This seems like a very simplistic and obvious answer, but you’d be surprised how we sometimes force ourselves to keep going just to get something done and over with. A small break can work wonders when you feel yourself becoming overworked.

2. Let go of things you can’t control. There are things that you can control and things completely out of your control. Don’t be afraid to let go of the things that you can’t that can cause unnecessary worry. I believe that everything happens for a reason, so have some faith in yourself that it will all work out in the end.

3. Take a self-care day. Whether you decide to binge watch Netflix, hang out with your friends, go get a massage, or something else, do something that will rejuvenate you. I’ll go more into this a little later on.

4. Write out your thoughts. I tend to overthink at times, and I’ve realized that transferring them from my head to paper or even to the notes app on my phone helps relieve some of that tense energy that I’m feeling. Sometimes, as I’m writing it all out, I’ll come up with a solution to my problem without intending to. It’s almost like talking out your problem with yourself.

5. Talk to people. Sometimes we tend to blow up a problem in our heads by going over it again and again which can make it seem worse than it is. Having a second opinion or person you trust to talk to can make a huge difference in seeing an issue from a different perspective.

6. Visit family/loved ones. If you live on campus/near campus and away from family, I’ve found it helps to get out of the school bubble and visit home for a more familiar atmosphere.

7. Explore locally. Going out for a walk or taking a friend to go explore a new food scene nearby can offer a quick change of scenery and environment that can help combat mental fatigue.

8. Plan something fun for an upcoming break. I love visiting national parks, and I’ve realized that planning mini trips to take during the school breaks or even a weekend getaway is a great way to have something to look forward to while you’re working hard during the school year.


Manage Your Time

Managing your time can have a huge impact on stress relief. However, it’s much easier said than done. Our energy levels vary day to day which makes some days more productive than others, but that is okay! It happens. The great thing about managing your time is that it frees up space to allow you the opportunity to do things that you want to do outside of schoolwork. I’m still working on this myself, but here are some tips that I’ve found that have helped me manage my workload:


1. Make a list. I am a visual person, so making a list of everything I need to do helps me see the big picture. I’m able to prioritize my tasks based on the approximate time it’ll take me, due date, etc. Seeing everything you need to do and going through the process of prioritizing them gives you direction and a starting point. Personally, this helps decrease some of the anxiety and hesitancy of starting when you have a lot to do.

2. Chunk it up. Break up your work into manageable chunks. Know how you operate and have an idea of how much you can realistically get done in the amount of time you have. If you don’t finish, it’s okay! Tomorrow is a new day to continue moving forward and progressing.

3. Reward system. Implementing a reward system can also be a great motivator to not procrastinate and finish your tasks. When you have something you really want to do, such as work out, hang out with friends, play video games, watch a movie, or something meaningful to you, it can help you stay on track because you know something fun is waiting for you at the end.

4. Work with others. Sometimes when you’re having a hard time focusing it helps to be in the same room as someone who is working. There is a silent accountability that can jumpstart you to get into the working mindset. It also allows you to troubleshoot or bounce ideas off the other person if need be.

5. Be flexible. Personally, I am a hardcore planner, so I had to learn to be flexible with my schedule. Sometimes things happen unexpectedly that make your plans go up in flames but it’s okay! Because you, my friends, are like a phoenix! You rise from those ashes like the fabulous souls you are! Being able to adapt is a necessary skill that will serve you well in dental school. Do your best to control the things that you can control, but don’t stress over the things that you can’t.

6. Have a cut off time. Implementing this was very helpful to me. Having a cut off time where you stop doing schoolwork gives you a deadline and a small sense of urgency to keep you moving forward. It allows you to have a little bit of time for yourself to wind down before you call it a night. Having some time carved out for yourself before you sleep can help minimize revenge bedtime procrastination. For those of you who haven’t heard of this, it’s when you procrastinate on sleeping in response to stress or a lack of free time earlier in the day. I used to stay up late at night after I studied all day to scroll through social media or watch YouTube videos because that was the first time that day that I had time to myself and I wanted to prolong it. By carving out that time for yourself, it can minimize the chance of that happening and you also get more sleep! It’s a win-win!


You Are a Priority

Let me repeat this because I want to engrain this into your brains. YOU ARE A PRIORITY. We tend to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to reach a certain standard that we’ve set. While this is an admirable trait because it pushes us to grow, it is also very easy to unconsciously sacrifice parts of our health and happiness along the way. You all are working so hard to get to where you want to be, so reward yourself for that. I am a huge advocate of taking a self-care day once a week. As I said before, you are not a robot or a machine. You have emotions and needs that need to be taken care of. So don’t feel guilty taking time for yourself. I know I used to feel like I didn’t have time for a break, but the time is there, trust me. It doesn’t have to be a whole day but carve out some time for yourself to breathe and rejuvenate. Here are some tips on how to have a successful self-care day:


1. Do not think about school/the work you have to do. This is critical! The point of taking a self-care day is to get away from the work and responsibilities you have to do for a short time. I know it’s hard sometimes but try not to let those lingering thoughts of all the work you have to do creep in and disturb this precious time. Really commit to yourself and enjoy the time you’ve carved out to be a human again.

2. Do something that you enjoy. It’s easy to let our hobbies fall by the wayside when we become busy. If you’ve found that’s happened to you, don’t be afraid to pick it up again or even be spontaneous and try something new!


The Light at the End of the Tunnel

As we come to a close, I want to thank you all for sticking with me thus far. Stress will come at you in many different shapes and forms and can be a very complex feeling to counter. It can take you to dark places and if left to run rampant it can consume you. So, I’ll leave you all with an analogy. When you look at the entrance of a cave from the outside, it’s a dark hole. Now, imagine entering it, pitch black, unable to see a thing. Sounds a little unnerving, right? Like everything is closing in on you. The stressors in life can do the same. It can take you to a place where you might feel suffocated and anxious but know that you can always find your way out. Take a moment to stop, breathe, and turn around. From the darkness, there is always a light that will point you toward the exit. So, follow the line to the anchor you dropped and step back into the light where you can find your center, reassess, and continue moving forward like the strong souls that you are!

All of you are amazing, talented individuals embarking on a wonderful and exciting journey into the dental profession. You are entering an extremely rewarding field and I am so excited for you to experience everything it has to offer. Don’t forget to have fun and

enjoy the journey it takes you on. There are many lessons to be learned along the way which will shape and mold you into amazing future practitioners. I hope these tips helped and I wish you all the very best!


Chanel Calhoun


UCLA Class of 2023


What are your strategies for coping with stress? What tips would you give to someone who feels overwhelmed? Let us know if the comments below!


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