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Burnout is defined in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is also characterized by three distinct traits, including feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job and reduced professional efficacy. While initially thought to occur only in the workplace, burnout has become incredibly prevalent in education, especially in rigorous higher education programs. So, what should someone do when burnout sets in? I have accumulated several tips over the years for helping to cope with burnout, so if you have been struggling, this article is for you.

Recognize that you are feeling burnt out.

In higher-stress academic programs, I have noticed the unfortunate trend of the normalization of burnout and poor mental health. There is a certain degree of stress that can be helpful, as it can help to maintain motivation for studying; however, chronic, severe stress is never normal. Our bodies are not made to endure this type of stress long-term and the physical effects of chronic stress can impact our ability to function. This brings me to my first point: it is most important that you recognize when you are feeling overwhelmed instead of brushing it off. Once you recognize these feelings of burnout, it will be much easier to address it.

Take time to incorporate things that you enjoy into your daily routine.

It can be challenging to take time for yourself when you are overwhelmed with deadlines, assignments and exams. That being said, your mental health should always come first. Doing the things you enjoy should always be a priority (yes, even on your busy days). I have found it helpful to dedicate at least one hour every day to something that I truly enjoy, with no distractions. By making this routine non-negotiable, I know that there will never be a day that I do not take care of my own mental health. It also allows me to have something to look forward to even when I have to spend long hours studying that day. Doing something you enjoy does not need to be complicated either. Some days, I will go on a swim or a run, and other days, it will be as simple as doing a face mask and watching an episode of my favorite show.

Take time to meditate every single day.

When I feel burned out, I have noticed that my mind seems to feel like it has no off switch. On top of my long list of responsibilities, the fact that my mind is racing adds to the stress I am feeling. This is why I have found meditation to be helpful for several reasons. First, it allows me to be completely present in that current moment. I have found that a lot of the reason we become burned out is that we are worried about what may happen in the future (even the worst-case scenario is unlikely to happen). By taking a step back and focusing entirely on the present, I am able to look at the future more objectively. Second, meditation allows me to force my thoughts to slow down. One of the key aspects of meditation is focusing on your breath, and while initially, your thoughts will want to keep running at full speed, with time and discipline, this feeling will eventually stop. Additionally, the practice of meditation has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the “rest and digest” system. This simple shift to slower breathing can help to lower heart rate, lower blood pressure and decrease levels of stress hormones (which can cause feelings of burnout). 

Recognize that you are worth so much more than your GPA.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand being concerned about your GPA. This is not to say that you should not give the best efforts in your endeavors. That being said, there are many more important aspects to life than your GPA. This is something that has taken me a long time to realize, especially since I entered a competitive program straight out of high school. That being said, I have realized a few things about GPA over the years. First, your GPA does not tell your own story. It doesn’t know what challenges you may have overcome during your schooling, or what barriers to success you may have had. Second, your GPA is not representative of the continuity of your life. When you think about it, every exam is just a pinpoint in your education, testing what you know at that exact moment. It does not demonstrate how much you know the day after the exam or further down the line, and it does not indicate your capacity to learn over time. Finally, your GPA does not determine your value as a human being. It does not illustrate the compassion you have for others or the aspirations and dreams you have for your life. It does not illustrate the love that your family, friends or significant other have for you. It does not illustrate all of the quirks and interests that make you, you. So, why are we giving it so much power over our lives?

If you are feeling burned out, trust me, you are not alone. While what you are feeling may be common, it is not normal. It is not something that you should have to grit and bear. Sometimes, it is necessary to take a step back and prioritize your own mental health. Finding enjoyment in life should always be a priority. If you have been struggling with burnout, these are just a few of the many tips to help, but I hope that they help you take a step in the right direction.

Hi everyone! My name is Abby, and I am currently a third year in UMKC's six year B.A./M.D. program. My hobbies include running, exploring coffee shops in the Kansas City area, and playing the piano.