How to Approach Burnout Without Setting Yourself Back
The term “burnout” has become increasingly popular in recent years with growing discussions around mental health in terms of work and school-related stress. It is very common for university students to experience burnout after months or even just a few weeks of intense workloads and busy schedules. Although burnout is being increasingly recognized by those experiencing it, there are many symptoms that students may not realize are directly related to this stress. On top of that, burnout is easier to diagnose than it is to avoid or heal, although certainly not impossible.
To begin, what exactly is burnout? Burnout is the result of prolonged periods of stress and exhaustion, which culminate in a series of symptoms including lethargy, cynicism, reduced productivity, depression, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and more. It has physical and mental effects and can drastically decrease one’s quality of life.
Unfortunately, students are at a very high risk of experiencing burnout. Studies done by universities in Australia found that a significantly higher number of students reported extremely high stress levels compared to that of the general population (Loi & Pryce). It is no surprise when one considers the pressures of good grades, the frequent assignments and tests, the busy days with classes, and studying on top of other necessary errands like cooking, cleaning, grocery-shopping, work, and more.
Plus, the effects of burnout can lead to more stress, thus exacerbating the situation even further. Burnout can lead to cynicism, poor confidence, and exhaustion, making it literally harder to do your work when experiencing this kind of stress.
With that being said, how can students avoid burnout or at least reduce its effects? A study done at the University of New England, Australia found a positive correlation between mindful self-care and high emotional intelligence, and diminished burnout. Emotional intelligence is the knowledge and ability to recognize one’s own mental state and understanding the best ways to invigorate it (Loi & Pryce). Mindful self-care, on the other hand, refers to more than just facemasks and drinking lots of water, as is commonly preached online, although it includes these small acts as well. Mindful self-care refers to completing tasks and activities with the intention of promoting one’s physical and mental health (Loi & Pryce). This includes eating healthy, getting exercise, getting adequate sleep, being compassionate, and maintaining positive social relationships. In summation, mindful self-care is prioritizing your own health and wellness, and it is an effective way to combat burnout.
As a student, I recognize that taking the time for self-care can feel impossible. Between school, work, and basic needs, finding time and energy to eat well or exercise is incredibly difficult. However, the guilty feeling that comes with sleeping in or taking a day off to relax is working against your wellbeing. Compassion and kindness towards yourself in times of hardship is self-care, and recognizing that a day off is actually good is a large step toward improving your mental wellbeing.
Many sources preach that the way to reduce burnout is to exercise regularly, cook and eat whole foods, get eight hours of sleep, and to drink lots of water. As true as this is, getting to the point in life where we have the energy for all these activities takes time and compassion. Mindset also has a large impact on wellbeing. It may be easier to read a bit of a self-help book each day, to focus on just drinking more water, or to simply start off by walking to class rather than bussing. These little moments will grow over time.
I’ve found that taking a few hours off to light a candle and watch a movie will actually make me feel calm enough to get more work done later. Sleeping-in may feel like wasting the day, but instead, approach it as a much-needed rest and fuel-up, which your mind and body deserves. It might be costlier but ordering food that will give you more nutrients than another microwaved Hot-Pocket is also a form of self-care. When getting started on a journey toward wellness, self-compassion is the first step. I find that reframing the way I view my day can have a large impact on the way I feel at the end of it, and being kind to myself is the best place to begin. It is much easier to start an assignment once I am rested, fed, and feeling confident.
Jumping right into a new schedule is going to end in heartbreak and guilt, and thus more stress. Instead, implement little changes and recognize that this is you moving forward. Celebrate every step forward because they are worthy of celebration!
“Burnout.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/basics/burnout
Loi, Natasha M., and Nyree Pryce. “The Role of Mindful Self-Care in the Relationship Between Emotional Intelligence and Burnout in University Students.” The Journal of Psychology, vol. 156, no. 4, 2022, pp. 295–309, https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2022.2045887.