It finally happened.
I sat in on my first midterm of my fourth year in university and went blank. This isn’t the first time I’ve gone blank on a test, but it’s the first time I didn’t care.
I watched the students around me scribbling furiously, watched them bite their nails, watched the clock tick the minutes away. I jotted down my answers, barely even thinking them through, and handed the test in.
I knew I bombed the test. I knew I’d receive a terrible mark. I knew my parents and professors would be asking what on earth happened. So… I went home and watched TV.
Burnout is a common problem in stressed-out students and adults. Many health websites define burnout as mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion.
But burnout is not stress itself.
Stress causes overreactions, hyperactivity, and a sense of urgency. Burnout is almost the opposite. You no longer feel motivated to do the activities you usually want to do. You become detached from others and lose all your energy. You don’t want to get up in the morning, your emotions are blunted, and you lack interest in the consequences of your inaction. You could start suffering from insomnia and chronic headaches. You may even start crying for reasons that never caused you to cry before.
I expressed many of these symptoms. My marks fell, I shrunk away from friends and classmates, and I put the minimum amount of effort into homework and studying.
My concentration also diminished and strayed. Many of us lose focus during lectures, especially boring ones, but burnout makes it nearly impossible to focus even if you force yourself to. You will find yourself daydreaming or looking up TV episodes on YouTube, and before you know it a two-hour lecture passes by.
Burnout is caused by intense, long-term stress. For instance, studying until 4 a.m. one or two nights will not cause burnout, but doing so for many weeks or months can definitely contribute to it. Long-lasting emotional stresses, such as abusive relationships or family deaths, can also cause burnout.
More subtle problems can also lead to burnout. If you find yourself in a daily situation that irritates or angers you, but you feel powerless to stop it, these suppressed feelings can fester inside you for many weeks or months. You may also feel that you’re leading a life that does not produce the rewards you were hoping for. If not addressed, these emotions eventually express themselves through burnout.
Burnout is most common among high-stress professions, like general practitioners. But no one is immune. Working mothers, single parents, and graduate students can also feel the symptoms.
Burnout cannot be treated with medication. Many doctors may prescribe antidepressants or sleeping pills, but burnout is rather, as one health site calls it, “a problem of the soul”.
The first step to recovery is admitting you suffer from burnout. For me, this took months. I went through a state of denial, thinking I was weak and forcing myself to work even harder. When you (or someone you know) address the problem, the subconscious feelings come to the surface. Often, you will immediately feel a little better.
The second step is finding out what caused the burnout. You cannot just look into the past couple of weeks, but into the past couple of months or even years. Look for situations that caused long-term negativity. Did you spend your summer working, studying, or dealing with troubling family issues? Did you take on too challenging a course load last year? Did you deal with a person that constantly treats you negatively, as with insulting, bullying, or arguing?
Once you pinpoint the source of the problem, you can work to fix it. Take a lighter course load, take fewer hours at work, and separate yourself from people who cause you stress.
Get involved in relaxing or stimulating physical activities. When I admitted that I suffered from burnout, I immediately joined free yoga classes at the RAWC at UTM. I also began daily half-hour meditations at home. I got together more often with friends on the weekend or after school, and started exercising more frequently.
Meditation should be done in an area where you cannot be disturbed. Leave your cell phone in another room, lock the door to keep your dog or siblings out, and request that no one bother you while you meditate. There are different meditation techniques, many of which can be found online, and our psychology department offers meditation classes throughout the year. Meditation helps you learn to regain your focus, shut out mental distractions, and de-stress.
Yoga also relaxes the mind and body, forcing you to focus on tricky balances and stretches instead of worries, and allows you to temporarily forget about your stress. At UTM, yoga classes are paid for through our tuition. These classes are free for to drop in on at any time, as long as you show your student card. They usually run for one hour.