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Identifying Burnout: When to Slow Down Before You Crash

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Northeastern chapter.

“Make sure you’re making progress on your final projects, you don’t want to get behind” professors sing as if the midterm you just took didn’t take years off of your life.

You haven’t slept in what feels like years and you’re barely able to keep your eyelids open in class. You’re stressed out, burnt out, essentially a zombie. But with classes picking up, somehow already careening toward the end of the semester, you feel like you can’t drop anything or take a well-deserved break. If you don’t slow down, however, you’re going to crash. So, how do you keep up with deadlines and responsibilities and also prevent full-on burnout? 

Recognizing the beginnings of burnout can protect you from working yourself to the bone by giving you signals of when to slow down. Burnout, according to the WHO, is categorized by exhaustion, increased negativity and reduced efficacy. But all of us are tired, hate some classes and can’t focus on anything for longer than 15 seconds anyway, so we need to look out for specific signs indicative of a downward spiral. 

Difficulty Sleeping

All day you’ve been practically sleepwalking to class, dreaming of getting in bed that night. Finally, you collapse into bed, close your eyes and can’t stop thinking. You had been passing out in class all day, unable to pry through the sleepy brain fog to do any of your assignments. But suddenly, you’re wide awake. Your body’s exhausted, but your mind won’t shut up. Chronic stress produces chemicals and hormones that interfere with those associated with a regular sleep schedule leaving you drained all day and wide awake at night. 

What to do:

When you feel yourself falling asleep, let yourself take a nap if possible. That assignment you were planning on doing between classes will still be there in a couple of hours. Sneak in a couple of extra hours of sleep during the day knowing you might spend excessive time trying to fall asleep that night. 

Changes in Eating Habits

Stress hormones also affect appetite meaning you might eat more or less than usual and may crave different foods. You might not be hungry all day and forget to eat (which doesn’t help with your physical exhaustion) or plow through your fridge whenever you can. Maybe all you can bring yourself to eat are “comfort foods” that diet culture is making you feel guilty for craving. 

What to do:

Similar to sleep, get what you can. If you can only stomach plain toast, buy yourself another loaf. You don’t need to add more stress to your plate by thinking about nutrition or how much/little you’re eating. What matters to keep your body functioning is getting enough fuel, regardless of what it is. You can’t work with a worn-out body and tackle your mountain of assignments without having something to power you through. 

If you’re struggling to remember to eat throughout the day, carry snacks with you and designate times when you’ll eat them ahead of time. Finished a class? Eat a granola bar. Just got back to your place? Grab a meal from the freezer. It’s 3:13 pm? Eat!

Headaches and Stomachaches

This ties in with eating and sleeping habits and other issues sometimes making it difficult to tell if it’s a symptom of burnout or something else. A Swedish study found that 67% of people with exhaustion disorder reported indigestion or nausea, and 65% reported headaches. If your normal breakfast is suddenly making your stomach hurt or you wake up with a headache, these might be indicative of burnout rather than another issue. 

What to do:

Stick to your normal eating habits as much as possible to avoid the added stressor of trying to cut out foods until you find the culprit of your stomach issues. For headaches: try to get enough sleep and water, and carry aspirin with you. 

Difficulty Focusing + Being Overly Critical

You go to chip at the mountain of assignments swirling in your brain but can’t seem to start anything. You beat yourself up for not having the discipline to get off your phone or do “one simple thing.” But when you have 500 little things scrawled on your to-do list with more joining by the hour, you get into a cycle of trying to start, not being able to, yelling at yourself for not starting, and still not starting.

What to do:

Focus on the most important or closest deadlines and break each task up into a stupid number of pieces. If you have a paper on frogs for example, instead of putting “write frog paper” on your to-do list, you can break it up like this:

  • Research basics of ___ species of frog
  • Research ____ species of frog’s habitat
  • Research predators and prey
  • Write introduction
    • What is a frog?
    • Overview of ___ species
  • Write first paragraph – habitat
    • Climate
    • Vegetation
    • Countries

It might seem trivial to split up a task into so many pieces, but it’s much easier to get through “write sentence about frog sleeping habits” than “write paper.” You’ll be able to get through lots of smaller, manageable tasks, physically checking lots of things off of a list and allowing you to see your progress which gives you a boost of confidence in your ability to complete tasks and be productive. Seeing your progress on paper, even if it’s just a paragraph, helps to quiet your inner cynic screaming that you’re not being productive. 

When things are really piling up, find a conference room in the library or ISEC, preferably with a big whiteboard, and write down a list of all of the things you need to do, how long each thing will probably take and how long everything will take in total. Six hours of work is a lot easier to conceptualize than this thing and this thing and this thing and thisthingandthisthingandthisthing. Make a schedule for yourself including breaks and even time stamps if you want. Like breaking up your tasks, allotting time to complete tasks makes them easier to start, and you’ll be able to see physical progress in your work. 

As college students, we usually have little time to relax and refocus, much less a whole self-care day. These tips don’t address the source of burnout, but, unfortunately, a lot of us can’t let go of any of our stressors. Assignments will continue to be assigned, rent will still be due, time between now and finals will still pass regardless of whether we’re stressed or not. The above tips may help you identify when you’ve got too much on your plate and what to do to wade through all of it. 

Ava Knight

Northeastern '25

Data science and behavioral neuroscience major from Seattle, WA, loves running, cooking, and true crime!