Advice to medical students: Fill your heads while opening your hearts

Posted in GUMC Stories

August 11, 2016—Nancy Harazduk, MEd, MSW, knows the trajectory well.  On August 3, approximately 200 medical students were officially greeted at Georgetown University Medical School and the class of 2020 commenced with great optimism and expectations.  When classes start, the stress begins to build. Before long, more than a few students start to feel lost, lonely and isolated — everyone else is smarter than they are.

By the second semester, about 40 percent of the freshmen class are ready to take the help so freely and graciously offered by Harazduk and her 12 physician/researcher facilitators.  Harazduk, director of the Mind Body Medicine Program, has built a second semester freshman elective course that has few rivals in medical education.   


When she created the program 15 years ago, it was unheard of. No one offered credit for a course whose objectives were to enhance the students’ self-awareness, increase their self-care skills, and to teach stress reduction tools to help them throughout medical school and in life.

Harazduk meets with no more than 10 students — as does each teacher/facilitator in the program — for two hours a week.  Each session begins with an opening meditation and then the students have a “check in” — one of the most important parts of the course.

“This is healing and transformative for many of the students, because what it does is create a safe place for students to share what is going on in their lives, and they learn they are not the only ones who are struggling to adjust to medical school,” she says.

Family of students

“One of the things I have found is that these students are in a state of constant anxiety. They feel like they are the only ones having issues — that everyone else is doing great and they are not able to adjust and fit in,” Harazduk says. “Once we are in a group like this, they are able to discuss what is really true for them. They see that everyone else in the group is in the same place. The isolation dissipates, the anxiety decreases. It is really remarkable to observe.”

There are three key elements to the check-in, she adds. Confidentiality is number one. “Whatever we say never leaves the room. Then what happens in this safe space is that the students feel like a family. When you share your vulnerabilities and your insights with each other, you become intimately connected and begin to care deeply for each other’s well being.

“Many of the students support each other throughout their lives,” Harazduk says. “They practice all over the world but some still meet on the Internet once a month. These students are being authentic and that doesn’t happen often outside of the course.”

Be present

The second rule is to establish more compassion than competition. “Competition causes empathy to decrease,” Harazduk says.

The final rule is to “mutually respect each other and listen without judgment. No analyzing and no advice giving. If someone tells me the way I should do something I am not going to want to tell that person much more,” she says.

“We like to take people out of their heads and into their hearts. Knowledge is an important aspect to medical education, of course.  But it is not balanced,” Harazduk says. “ Students need to access  the  intuitive wisdom of the  heart,  as well. The combination of both — knowledge and inner wisdom — creates a remarkable physician.”

In each session, beyond the class opening meditation and a check-in, the facilitators teach a new skill such as mindfulness and guided imagery, autogenic training, biofeedback, journaling, drawing and movement to be used for the rest of their learning careers and beyond.

 “The common theme to all the exercises is to teach students to be present in the moment and not to worry about the past or the future,” Harazduk says. “That is key to stress reduction — focus your attention on the present moment.”

Renee Twombly 
GUMC Communications