If you’ve found yourself having a pessimistic outlook on life, being detached from your work, feeling emotionally and physically exhausted, and lacking inspiration and creativity, you may be experiencing burnout.
What’s that? Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It happens when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. When you burn out, you can’t find meaning in your work anymore, which causes frustration and leads you to lash out at others or isolate yourself.
This fall semester, as the pandemic raged across the world, our day-to-day lives as students continued to be upended by public health restrictions. Long-time online learning is having an unprecedented impact on students’ mental health. In June of 2020, young adults reported the highest levels of symptoms of anxiety and depression — 62.9 percent reported either or both — in a survey released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In these adverse circumstances, the rate at which students are experiencing burnout is bound to skyrocket. Thankfully, those who have gone through burnout — accomplished, dedicated, and talented students and leaders just like you — are ready to share what has helped them recover, so you can get better too. In a nutshell: you’ll have to go easy on yourself.
Sarah Lopez, a sophomore at Boston University working on publishing her own book about activism in the spring, recently experienced burnout.
“It started with the thought that I am only worth what I accomplish,” Lopez says. “I was forcing so many extreme expectations on myself that I was exhausted from even doing small self-maintenance things like showering and brushing my teeth.”
Natalie Held is a senior at Boston University who founded the feminist online shop Blessed Be The Brains and serves as the Director of Communications for Boston City Councilor At-Large Julia Mejia. She found herself tired and unmotivated by the time finals came around this fall.
“It was really debilitating and was hard to do things I normally loved to do for fun or be creative,” Held says.
Hessann Farooqi, a junior at Boston University spending most of his time working in the school’s student government, struggled to find meaning in his schoolwork this fall.
“In light of the pandemic and the million other things happening in the world, it can be easy to feel like studying for an economics exam is futile,” he says. “I felt like the timeline of education was disconnected from the urgency of issues today.”
If this sounds like you, you’re most likely experiencing burnout. The first step is to recognize it; the second is to treat it.
- Don’t ignore the situation
It’s difficult to admit to ourselves that we’re struggling, but avoidance won’t do you any good. You can’t go long ignoring your mind and body. Recognize the issue at hand and don’t be hard on yourself for having a challenging time.
You may feel that you’re not allowed to pause because your workload is not comparable to that of others, but the truth is that everyone has a different amount of responsibility they can handle.
“Don’t compare the number of things you’re juggling to others when you begin to burn out,” Lopez says. “You aren’t being overdramatic; you aren’t lazy. You are tired. And you deserve rest.”
Lopez warns that burnout will only get worse if you keep pushing yourself forward.
“I gave myself a six-year ankle problem because I played a week of soccer on an ankle that I didn’t recognize was injured,” she says. “Imagine what operating while burnt out can do to you.”
- Seek help
Asking for help can be intimidating, but it is crucial to lean on others if you want to get better. Speak to a therapist about any past trauma that may be getting in the way of your healing. Ask an academic adviser for strategies to tackle your work more efficiently. Go to your friends to plan some fun activities. Turn to your family for support and reassurance. You’re not alone in this, but people can only help if they know what’s going on.
“Especially if your burnout is the result of larger mental health issues, it’s important to get professional help,” Farooqi says. “This often is really scary and uncomfortable, not to mention logistically and financially difficult. But true help will ensure you can meaningfully overcome your problems, instead of papering over them.”
Lopez initially struggled to reach out for help, as she thought that the problem stemmed from a personal lack of ability.
“You feel as if you’re less than others,” she says. “You ask yourself, ‘Why am I burned out when everyone else seems to be handling their responsibilities just fine? Am I just weak? Is there something wrong with me?’ And what worried me the most is that the answer would be yes. That thought held me back from reaching out to other people when I should’ve.”
Eventually, talking about what she was experiencing led Lopez to find that juggling it all is hard for the people around her too.
“Those questions tend to get a little quieter when you share with a friend and they begin to express what they’re dealing with also,” she says. “You learn that they don’t have it all together as you think.”
- Lighten your workload
We’re often encouraged to take on more work than we can handle in college. Taking five classes or being a leader in multiple clubs will earn you praise and opportunities. It can be tempting to give into hustle culture, especially if you don’t already feel confident about your abilities and worth.
But you need to set aside time for yourself to decompress and reduce stress. Drop time-consuming commitments that don’t fulfill you anymore. If it’s just another box in your overwhelming Google Calendar, let it go. That club you signed up for whose meetings bore you? Out of the way. And don’t take on any additional work or projects! This is the time to practice saying “no, thank you,” and move on without guilt.
“The answer to burnout is to do less,” Farooqi says. “This may be contrary to the culture of constant productivity in our society. But it’s always better to do a few things well, rather than a lot of things poorly.”
- Meditate, eat healthy, get sleep, and take breaks
Whenever you find yourself unable to focus, avoid squeezing in an extra 30 minutes of work. Instead, take a short break that moves you away from the computer. Stretch your body, take a walk outside, dance to your favorite song, and make yourself some tea or a delicious, healthy snack. Do something that fulfills your inner child and let your mind wander. You were not put on this planet to tackle a never-ending to-do list. Taking time to dream is crucial to stop feeling like an aimless robot.
“Pockets of self-care throughout the day and week help,” Held says. “I always make it a habit to do at least one thing a day for myself.”
Download meditation apps or find tips to get started online. Meditating can help you feel more at home in your body and learn to appreciate the feeling of being, rather than simply doing. When studying from home, take advantage of the opportunity you have to cook in between classes. Baking your favorite food can be a great stress-relieving activity while making a healthy smoothie can give you the fresh energy boost you need mid-afternoon. Finally, sleep seven to nine hours a night to recover from any past fatigue and give yourself the energy you need to get through every day.
- Create reasonable goals and prioritize tasks
Making a list of things you need to do on a timeline and setting manageable goals for what you know you can — and will — accomplish each day is helpful.
“It can be tempting, especially in the lead-up to final exams, to set ambitious goals to thoroughly review every single chapter of the semester in every single class,” Farooqi says. “However, constantly setting goals, failing to meet them, then feeling bad about it is a recipe for continued burnout, not improvement.”
Know what to work on first and in which order by setting up task priorities, which can be either time- or urgency-based. There are many task management systems for you to try out.
- Limit your time on devices
Find a way to stay away from devices that require you to be attentive and alert at all times. To avoid getting distracted by upsetting news or stressful reminders, turn off notifications or your devices altogether when you’re trying to focus on school or work. And put your phone on “do not disturb” when you want to get cozy and relax at night. No email notifications should disrupt your favorite Netflix show. You can also uninstall all apps on your phone that let you scroll forever, like Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
- Make friends with your classmates so that school is more fun
Some professors will assign you to “course buddies” at the beginning of the semester and ask you to keep in touch with them as you work through assignments. Others may not, and it’s up to you to make the first move.
When on Zoom, use the chat function or take advantage of breakout rooms to ask someone who looks approachable and friendly. Ask for their number or social media and offer to study together. You can host Zoom study sessions and grab a coffee on campus (socially distanced, of course) to tackle stressful projects together and make virtual or hybrid learning less taxing.
- Rediscover your hobbies
How long has it been since you did something just for fun — something that doesn’t also serve as a resume-builder? It’s time to reinvest in any hobbies you might have set aside for the sake of increased productivity. Whether you love blogging, taking photos, hiking, or painting, get back to it! It could be just an hour or two every week, which may sound like a lot, but isn’t actually that much when you consider the time you spend scrolling on social media to avoid taking long breaks.
Léa Namouni is a sophomore at Boston University serving as co-president of the school’s French Club. When she experienced burnout, she decided to focus on dance and art.
“Remember, we aren’t robots,” Namouni says. “To be high-achieving and successful students, we need to know how to take care of ourselves, and that starts with paying attention to our mental health.”
- Delegate and share tasks with others
Whether at work or at home, outsource as many things as possible. If you’re taking another semester of classes from your childhood home, enlist the help of your siblings and parents to do grocery shopping or chores together. If you’re in a club leadership position, ask your teammates and friends for support and evaluate whether there are tasks that can be reassigned to others.
Lopez says that being reminded to take care of herself made it easier for her to recover from burnout.
“Turning to others to help me do the things I don’t have the energy to do was super helpful in feeling less overwhelmed,” she explains. “Eating lunch with people and having others set reminders for me to hold me accountable…ensured I was still taking care of my physical body despite not having the energy for it.”
- Find meaning in your work again
Try to find meaning in your work. Farooqi recommends remembering why you chose your major or career path. He says thinking about how your coursework and activities can help you achieve your life goals can make assignments more fulfilling.
“For me, economics and the law are tools to help people,” he says. “Reminding myself of this underlying purpose is helpful for staying motivated, as I can see an individual essay or exam as a piece of a larger picture.”
Those requirements for your minor in Spanish may be boring at times, but they’ll help you communicate with locals once you get a chance to travel to Spanish-speaking countries. That job as a barista gets draining, but you’re the one making someone’s day that much better by preparing the drink that’ll get them through it all. Ask yourself why you got started and where you want to go to get more enthusiastic about the journey.
The most important reminder for dealing with burnout is that it takes time to build yourself up again. Be patient with yourself, and don’t give up on your happiness.