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TW/CW: Burnout, depression, mental health  

The term “burnout” was first coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in his 1974 book, “Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement.” He defined burnout as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.” 

Burnout can manifest in severe physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. It can also make it immensely difficult for people to deal with even simple day-to-day responsibilities and can further exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions. This often debilitating burden, if left untreated, can have many negative physical, mental, and emotional health consequences. 

Introspection, an act of self-awareness that involves looking inward to examine your thoughts and emotions, is a critical first step in identifying if you are experiencing burnout. However, if you don’t know what to look out for, it can be difficult to tell if you need help, especially because burnout doesn’t appear all at once. Freudenberger, along with fellow psychologist Gail North, identified 12 stages of burnout. Use these 12 stages as a guide and consider seeking professional help if you think you may be experiencing burnout. You are valid and deserve to feel mentally at peace in our fast-paced world.  

1. The compulsion to prove yourself 

In a society driven by hustle culture, “overachievers” and “go-getters” are rewarded for putting in the extra work and going above and beyond. Ambition is seen as a necessity for traditional success in Western culture. However, when it becomes harmful, excessive drive can often be a precursor for burnout. 

2. Pushing yourself to work harder

Excessive drive and ambition may lead you to push yourself to work harder to reach unattainable standards. Internalized capitalism can distort your self-perception and cause you to only value yourself if you are productive or contributing to the capitalist machine. A manic pace, though, can cause you to overlook the harms of burnout. 

Related: Combating Internalized Capitalism 

 3. Neglecting personal care and needs 

Human beings are not designed to run 24/7 without care. When you start to sacrifice self-care and personal health in pursuit of productivity, the effects of burnout can become visceral. And the mental and physical effects of burnout will only multiply if left untreated. 

4. Displacement of conflict  

Displacement is a defense mechanism used to redirect the negative feelings of internal burnout to another external source. Since introspection and facing the harms of burnout head-on can be daunting, you may subconsciously find a safer outlet for those negative feelings. However, that doesn’t help the real issues you’re facing. 

5. Change in values

As productivity becomes your sole priority, other values in your life may fall by the wayside. You may start withdrawing from family and friends, avoiding social activities. Even hobbies or things you did to relax may begin to feel less enjoyable. 

Related: How Hiking Has Helped With my Mid-Semester Burnout

6. Denial of emerging problems

Much like displacement, denial is a defense mechanism that helps you avoid what’s really happening. You don’t identify the real cause of your burnout, which only lets it take more control over your life. Burnout denial won’t solve anything. 

 7. Withdrawal

By this stage, the effects of your burnout are overwhelming and you might begin to withdraw from your social life and responsibilities. Suddenly texts and emails start to pile up, and day-to-day tasks like washing the dishes get put off for days or even weeks. Withdrawing from your social network can also leave you with no one to turn to when stress builds up.

8. Behavioral changes

As you withdraw from your social network and responsibilities, others will inevitably notice changes in the way you act. You might experience mood swings and lash out at your loved ones when they try to help. However, accepting their concerns can help you prevent future harm caused by burnout. 

 9. Depersonalization

Burnout is an intense internal struggle. You may feel increasingly detached from your life and like you can’t control the difficulties you’re facing. At this point, you may notice an increase in negative self-talk and a lot of internalized blame. 

Related: Why Burnout is Totally Normal

10. Inner emptiness

You may feel as if life has lost some of its value, and it may even feel pointless. This can make you feel as if you’re just going through the motions of life, not really living or enjoying it. Inner emptiness isn’t necessarily sadness but a lack of feeling altogether caused by mental exhaustion. 

11. Depression 

Burnout drives feelings of helplessness. When you don’t distance yourself from the thing causing your burnout or seek professional help, you can fall deeper into that pit of despair. Along with helplessness, other signs of depression include loss of interest, a lack of energy, feelings of worthlessness, and trouble thinking, concentrating and making decisions. Burnout may be a cause of depression but can also further exacerbate pre-existing depression and other mental health conditions. 

12. Burnout syndrome 

This is the final and most dangerous stage of burnout. This is a stage I hope you never reach; however, it is important to know what it may look like. By this point, your physical, mental, emotional, and social health are deteriorating. You might find it challenging to get out of bed, and you might be completely avoiding connecting with others. If you reach this step, I want you to know three things: 1. You are valid, worthy and loved 2. Quitting or moving on from a toxic activity is not a personal failure 3. Getting help is not something to be embarrassed about. 

Collegiettes, as college students, burnout is all too familiar for many of us. From overloading our class schedules and having to pick up one or more jobs to the compounding crises we as young people face, burnout can seep into every part of our lives. Reclaiming control from burnout starts with accepting that something is wrong, and these 12 steps can help you do just that. And remember, you are valid, worthy and loved. 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 

National Alliance on Mental Illness: 1-800-950-6264

George Mason Contributor (GMU)

George Mason University '50

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