Building a support system inside your residency

By Kristen Fuller, MD
Published April 6, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • While it’s important to have friends outside of work, it’s equally crucial to build a support system within your residency program.

  • Spot signs of toxic people and avoid getting too close with them as you build your circle.

  • Reach out for help and support when you need it.

Residency can feel overwhelming and isolating. You may have more bad days than good ones; some days you may feel you’re not cut out for this. The learning curve is steep, the hours are long and brutal, and dealing with sick and dying patients—and their families—can be emotionally overwhelming.

Unfortunately, residency burnout is a reality. Therefore, adopting strong, healthy support systems outside of medicine is imperative to your emotional and mental health, which can enormously benefit you as an individual and resident. 

Find your support system

Starting a new job at a new hospital (and most likely moving to a new area) means leaving your old friends behind and creating relationships with new individuals you can grow with and rely on. It is, of course, natural to bond with your resident class and make new friends inside your program. 

"If you see someone struggling, offer support."

Kristin Fuller, MD

Forming a solid support system outside of medicine is essential, but it’s also important to bond with your co-workers, as you’ll be spending countless hours working alongside them. 

Seek out individuals in your program and hospital you’d like to emulate in your career. Developing healthy relationships with other residents early on can help you feel connected and have a sense of belonging. Forming new relationships with other residents means you’ll look out for one another. 

If you see someone struggling, offer support. Buy them coffee, ask them to go for a walk outside, or let them know you’re thinking of them. You would want the same little acts of kindness coming your way when you’re down in the trenches. 

On the other hand, when someone in your residency program does something nice or brightens your day, let them know. There is often so much criticism and negativity in residency, so simple acts of kindness and words of encouragement can lift someone’s mood. 

Related: You're wrong! Dealing with not (yet) knowing the answers

Avoid toxic relationships

Avoiding toxic relationships is just as important as building healthy relationships. Individuals who tear you down, make you feel small, use you, compete with you in unhealthy ways, or display jealousy, narcissism and selfishness can be detrimental to your mental health—especially during such a stressful and vulnerable time. 

It’s vital to recognize any toxicity and leave it behind while taking time and space to find and build healthy relationships with individuals who support you. 

After spending time with someone new, reflect on how they made you feel. This is a sure way to find out if they are someone who can support you during your residency. 

Helpful, reflective questions include:

  • Do these individuals make you feel your clinical skills and medical knowledge are not up to par? 

  • Do they pick holes in your clinical decision-making instead of supporting your progress?

  • Do they stop for a lunch break, even for 10 minutes, or are they compulsively working? 

  • Is there a competition to see who can work the most hours, have the most procedures and thrive on the least amount of sleep?

  • Do these people talk about other topics besides work?

  • Do they make you smile, laugh and feel relaxed, or do they make you feel inadequate and bad about yourself? 

  • Ask yourself, “Are these the best people for me at this time in my career and life?”

Friends on the outside

It’s easy to get sucked into only having friends within your hospital and residency program. Although it is essential to have strong social connections “on the inside,” it’s equally important to have strong social connections outside of residency. 

While it may seem difficult, having a life outside of residency can have a drastic positive influence on your overall well-being.

It’s important to meet different people, learn new things, take your mind off of medicine and stay balanced. 

Outside support systems can help you escape the demands of residency and develop new, interesting hobbies. Joining a gym or running club, going to church, attending trivia night, or attending instructor-led hobbies like cooking or art classes are all great ways to meet new people outside of medicine. You’ll also develop hobbies and passions to add a healthy balance to your busy life. 

Taking care of yourself outside the hospital is crucial for your mental and physical health. This means practicing the following:

  • Spend time outdoors

  • Set aside time for regular physical exercise

  • Keep a clean, tranquil, comfortable living environment

  • Adopt hobbies outside of the hospital

  • Eat nutritious foods and drink plenty of water

  • Adopt a healthy sleep routine

  • Take time for yourself, even 10 minutes each day.

Keeping in touch with friends, family and close connections you made throughout many years of school is also essential. Many of them were your support system through the long, challenging journey of getting into residency. 

"One of my biggest regrets during residency is that I didn’t communicate with loved ones from home as much as I should have."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Staying in touch with long-distance relationships takes time, energy and work. It’s challenging when you are in residency, but don’t forget to rely on these important people. 

One of my biggest regrets during residency is that I didn’t communicate with loved ones from home as much as I should have. I didn’t ask them for help because I felt I was too busy and stressed. Another regret is not meeting more friends outside of medicine. 

Although I had a strong network of friends in my residency program, I regret not branching out and meeting more people outside of medicine. Because of this, whenever my colleagues and I got together, we only talked about work and medicine and hospital-related gossip— not a healthy social outlet.

Related: The importance of women supporting women in residency and beyond

Accept help when offered

Communicate with these people regularly, as they cannot read your mind. If you have a good day, tell them and celebrate with them. If you have a bad day, tell them and let them be there for you.

For example, if someone wants to bring dinner, help with grocery shopping or change the oil in your car—let them. Working in medicine most likely means we are independent and determined individuals, but it’s okay to allow our support systems to help. It’s also okay to ask for help with errands if we are tight on time.

What this means for you

Residency can be a hard life. Building a circle of friends within your program, as well as outside of work, will help you thrive during this challenging time. Be selective about those you befriend. Keep the channels of communication open to ensure you get the support you need.

Read Next: How can medical residents strike the best work-life balance?
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