Burn Out: What Is It and How Do I Stop It?

If you’re like me, every morning you get up before the sun rises and go to either class or work or some volunteer function you promised you’d help with months ago. In between those, you try to study and get all your work done, and keep the apartment clean and fridge stocked and keep your friends happy, too. You apologize a lot for the commitments you weren’t able to keep, the plans you won’t make, and everything in between. And if you’re like me, eventually it’ll all become too much. The warnings from your friends and family will echo in your head:

“Don’t wear yourself out too quickly.”

“You’re doing too much. Slow down.”

But it’s too late to heed them… you are burnt out. Thankfully, there are several ways to understand what’s happened and find your way back to a productive happy.

What is burn out?

According to the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Healthcare (IQWiG) in Germany, “A stressful lifestyle can put people under extreme pressure, to the point that they feel exhausted, empty, burned out, and unable to cope.” They link it to depression and anxiety, but the jury is still out as to whether burn out is a true illness. IQWiG describes some of the symptoms of burn out: “exhaustion, cynicism and a sense of hopelessness about work, distancing yourself from others, and reduced productivity.”

In other words, burn out is a feeling of mental (and possibly physical) exhaustion linked to constantly being under pressure because of work, school, and other circumstances. The reality is that we can only push our bodies and minds so hard— and once we pass this point, the stress can manifest itself in several ways, the most common of which are feeling depressed and anxious to the point that you are no longer able to be productive.

What happens once I’ve “burnt out?”

In theory, the best remedy to burn out is to eliminate the stressor, but that’s not always feasible because school and work won’t usually wait for you. So, what can you do?

Self-care is so important, and it’s often one of the first things to fall by the wayside when things get hectic. Finding a way to balance responsibilities with self-care is crucial. I like to block out space in my planner for me time. It can be anything from taking a walk or going to the gym to having lunch with a friend or taking a shower or reading a book: it doesn’t matter. Taking time to focus on you means that you are taking time to step away from the stressor while still being productive.

Self-care can be as simple as getting yourself out of bed in the morning and eating a real breakfast before going to the library instead of ridiculous amounts of coffee and vending machine snacks. It can be buying a new water bottle, bringing it with you, and remembering to drink water during the day. It can be setting an alarm every hour to get up and walk around or as a reminder to stop working and eat. Self-care can be calling your family or watching a movie with friends.

Sleep is also a key component to mental wellness because many of us do too much and sleep too little. Make a feasible to-do list and mark things as “must do today,” “would be nice to do today,” and “can probably wait.” It is easy to get so caught up in finishing EVERYTHING that you postpone sleep until you physically can’t wait any longer, which likely causes you to oversleep or be super tired in the morning. By setting a list of things that you absolutely have to do, you hone in on important assignments instead of just trying to check things off an ever-growing list. Once those items are complete, move onto the “would be nice” list until about an hour before a reasonable bed time. Spend that hour before bed relaxing. Then, turn the lights off and go to sleep: you can work much more efficiently and clearly if you’re well-rested, AND your brain will thank you.

Sometimes, we push ourselves past our limits without realizing it. Learning to recognize your body’s warning signs will let you make adjustments to your schedule to prevent reaching burn out. Burn out can break your focus for days at a time. Don’t be afraid to take a step back and catch your breath. You’ve got this.

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