STP Support | Keep Calm & Carry On

The email I received stating I had secured a place on the STP was a euphoric moment, throughout the summer I was so excited for September. I knew I wanted to be a clinical scientist; all through my academic studies I never felt I had found what I wanted to do (does anybody?!) but, when I read about the STP, it sounded perfect and I was so motivated to get there. It took me a few attempts to gain a place and so when I did, I really did value it.

As a reserved person with not a lot of confidence, I was apprehensive about starting a role in a department that I was unfamiliar with, but within the first week- I absolutely loved it and the people I would be working with, and I pretty much knew straight away I had made the right decision. I would say I overthink, I worry, I put everything into everything I do which sometimes is a positive and sometimes a negative, and so my sheer determination to succeed at this programme didn’t surprise me (I am sure most of us are the same or we wouldn’t be here!). As such, I have always being over anxious, but it has never really consumed me; I’ve always managed to find the positives somehow and achieve.

Feeling Consumed…

I noticed a change in myself probably as I started to enter the second year of the programme, instead of being consumed with enjoyment and love for the subject/role I had chosen- the doubts started to appear:

What level of knowledge do I need to be at? Is my training the same as everyone else’s? Do they know more than me? What do people think of me? Have I made a good impression? Oh, and then if I haven’t made a good impression, does that mean I am not going to secure a job here? Am I wasting my time? And now, where on earth do I find the motivation to continue to make myself feel this way?

I am part of a cohort of one of the smaller, less recognised disciplines. I am sure all STPs from any discipline will recognise this; there are the large disciplines with ~20 per year group and when you inevitably start the ‘NHS job search’ you soon think, ‘oh, where on earth is my discipline? Maybe I should have looked it up before I applied, have I massively shot myself in the foot?’ It is very difficult
not to compare yourself to others in this situation; I am surrounded by STPs in my workplace who have a clear-cut career plan because their roles are so established, and find it hard not to feel inadequate and lost.

I would say these thoughts went round and round in my head and as time went by, they totally consumed me to the point where I wasn’t even sure what I enjoyed anymore.

Oddly, I have always found studying/getting on with my own work quite relaxing. It always felt like a safe place as that is what I was always good at. Then, with all of these overwhelming feelings, I couldn’t even concentrate in my own company anymore and that was when I really started to panic. The looming OneFile target % is going up and up, the weeks are ticking by (which if you are like me, you will have worked out how many competencies realistically you should try to achieve in a week/monthly block!), and then the university pressures creep up when you least expect it! It is a vicious cycle and ultimately all I achieved out of these pressures was nothing but a stress headache and the feeling of a constant panic attack! I had one big panic attack around about the summer just before I started my third year and that really frightened me, I requested a GP consultation and when asked what was causing these feelings, I dodged the obvious elephant in my own head because I
didn’t want to admit that it was happening! But the truth was; I definitely was suffering from anxiety because of the pressures and uncertainties that I was facing.

I felt this was my lowest point and I had two options- keep calm and carry on, or quit. I carried on!

I think when I look at the bigger picture, I have probably always had underlying anxiety, but this is the first time it has ever felt out of control. I have learned and managed to control it better, which I think enabled me to keep going. From my point of view, I don’t think the trigger was the situation I was in; more the pressure I was putting on myself and the constant negative bias I had in my mind. So when I look at things sensibly, there are lots of things that have happened throughout this process where I think ‘wow, you should be really proud of yourself’ and that’s something I think we probably all don’t tell ourselves enough throughout this process.

What I found useful:

  • Getting help for anxiety – I chose to help myself rather than have medication or counselling, however, I know many people who this has worked for; don’t be afraid to need and take that help. I sometimes wonder if that would have helped me and maybe I am not quite understanding what makes me feel better, but below is a list of things that I feel have helped me to cope:
  • Writing things down– I had to have a good ‘talking to myself’. I had to really remind myself of those initial feelings of joy, I had worked so hard and I was so, so passionate about this being my lifelong career. I had to remind myself of that on so many occasions. It was a balance of, ‘I know if I quit and sit at home I may feel worse than I do now- but how is it possible to feel worse?’
  • Find a distraction – I know exercise is not for everyone, I am quite an avid gym-goer, and this massively helps me; it as an hour of my day where I just didn’t have to ‘think’. Anything that enables you to just think about something different, whether that is reading, crafts, sports, baking, cooking etc. I imagine all of it helps! It is also important to note that often in interviews you are asked about other interests- so it is good to have these! Initially I felt guilty for spending an hour or two doing something non-STP related, you feel guilty when there is a mountain of work- but DO NOT feel guilty, this ultimately will help you be more productive and positive-minded when actually doing the work.
  • Social Media/Apps– Social media often gets a lot of stick, but Twitter was actually a very useful place for me, individuals from all healthcare professions often post positive and negative news about their own experiences; this can definitely help to find perspective and know that you are not alone. There are networks out there for helping STPs specifically (like this blog!), but I believe twitter/social media could 100% be a way of sharing negative and positive STP experiences and should be encouraged. There are lots of apps that are also great, for me personally- ‘Calm’ I really enjoy and also mindfulness exercises, sometimes just having a second to breathe believe it or not, massively takes a weight off your shoulders.
  • Take a compliment– when people at work say ‘well done, keep going’– listen to them! When I actually looked at the positive feedback I had received, I realised how tough I was being on myself; we should actively encourage positive feedback amongst STPs!
  • Speaking to other STPs– I can’t think of many of my friends that I have made through this process, who haven’t felt the way I have described at some point; but what we all share, is that we are motivated to get through it- and that is a nice feeling to be around!
  • Accessing support– each Trust will be different, but there is a student support at my own Trust. We were actively encouraged to share how we are feeling, I think going forward it is a great idea to encourage support networks within Trusts; I know there are lots of STPs within my Trust that I haven’t even met, as this role becomes more and more established- why should we not meet and try to overcome any difficulties faced together?
  • Finally, don’t suffer in silence– there seems to be a demeanour that because you want to make a good impression at your workplace, you shouldn’t be allowed to be seen as ‘weak’. This is wrong. Personally, I spoke to my training officer and tried to come up with ways to get through it- do this. Don’t suffer in silence, and also speak to other people in the workplace- we are all human and other people may be feeling a similar way just from a different perspective. One thing I have learned is it is totally normal to feel this way. For me I did speak to a GP- this should also actively be encouraged, there will be something out there that can help you- it’s taking the first step to finding that thing, which can be the hardest.

Although I have chosen to remain anonymous, I really hope this blog post resonates with and helps a lot of people- I am almost at the end of the STP and feeling incredibly optimistic about my future career and I am regaining a love for my subject! There is light at the end of the tunnel, stick with it…

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