Life on a Tightrope: An Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis of Narratives of Coping with Academic Stress among Filipino Medical Students


Background – Life in a medical school is stressful for just about every medical student. Academic stress in small doses heightens the energy and awareness, giving one that mood most refer to as “pumped up” or “wired”. When the incremental progression of stress brought about by health and emotional factors compounded by social and financial problems, overwhelmingly surpasses one’s ability to cope, it leads to feelings of being “burnt out” or “stressed out”. It can have a negative impact on a medical student’s cognitive and psychological functioning resulting in poor academic performance. Each person has his or her own unique way of dealing with it; some may outwit pressure without a bad outcome, while others just simply succumb to it.

Purpose – A vast majority of research on academic stress is centered on its contributing factors and how they affect other aspects of students’ lives. Coping mechanisms and effective ways in dealing with stress have also been delved into, but none have dwelt on a study of the medical students' lived experience of academic stress. There was no study found in literature which examined and collectively characterized the different phases that medical students go through in coping with academic stress, hence the impetus to undertake this study. Anchored on the Transactional Model of coping with stress, this study was undertaken to answer the central question: How do Filipino medical students collectively characterize the phases they undergo in coping with the stresses in medical school?

Design – The methodological underpinnings of this study are based on phenomenology. The objective of Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) is to understand how a particular phenomenon is constituted from the participant’s perspective. It offers researchers the opportunity to learn from the insights of experts – the research participants themselves. The respondents’ insights were gathered through narratives culled through a guided semi-structured questionnaire patterned after social networking sites, allowing the respondents to liberally exploit their voices and thoughts. Narrative accounts gathered focused on the medical student’s daily activities, matters that precipitate anxiety, their views on stress, and methods of coping. Through cool and warm analyses, the narratives were ultimately subjected to phenomenological reduction.

Findings – Fascinatingly, after subjecting the narratives to a thorough and comprehensive phenomenological analysis, six emergent themes surfaced which collectively characterized the phases our respondent medical students underwent in coping with academic stress: Self-effacement Phase (Sensing inner trepidation), Self-awareness Phase (Settling in new surroundings), Self-weariness Phase (Struggling through stress) Self-attentiveness Phase (Staying focused to survive), Self-equilibrium Phase (Sustaining a state of symmetry), and Self-mastery Phase (Striving towards sovereignty and satisfaction). The “Tightrope” is a representation that lucidly embodies these six themes.

Conclusion – Our respondents have experienced substantial challenges in medicine: they surmounted their inner trepidation; settled and acclimatized to their new surroundings; gained the courage to outwit stress and struggles; fought to strive, survive and stay focused; learned to maintain a state of balance and symmetry; and finally lived up to a sense of sovereignty and self-satisfaction. It is just a matter of perspective and attitude that demarcates a victor from a slacker.

Keywords: Medical students, Stress, Coping, Filipino

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