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Burned out in college? Here’s how you can recover

Mercer students study in Tarver Library’s 24 hour study floor.
Mercer students study in Tarver Library’s 24 hour study floor.

Last semester, I skipped more classes than I could count. I spent days on end in bed, feeling utterly drained, incapable of moving a muscle in the direction of my school work. I’d never felt a mental block that severe. My brain fog was impenetrable and my typical highly-motivated demeanor was nowhere to be found. I isolated myself socially, too. Friends asked me almost daily what was wrong: was I depressed? Was my anxiety flaring up? Did I just hate them? 

For a while, I wasn’t sure what was going on. I conceded that I might be depressed, and honestly, I might have been. But near the end of the semester I realized what was really wrong: I was burned out. 

This May, the World Health Organization added burnout to the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases. They define burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and leads to energy depletion, feeling detached from or excessively negative towards obligations and underperforming at work.

Other symptoms of burnout include irritability, fatigue, depression, overwhelm, anxiety and avoiding work or social settings

That’s exactly what I was experiencing, and it makes sense now that I think about it. I was balancing multiple jobs and a very heavy course load, and I hadn’t taken a break from the grind in as long as I could remember. I’ve had two internships each summer since I graduated high school and at least two classes on top of that since I started college. I take as many hours as I can every semester and at least one job, and I know I’m far from the only one with a schedule like that.

I’m also nowhere near alone in experiencing burnout. Millennials have been called the “burnout generation” because they report higher rates than anyone else due to heavy workloads, long hours and low wages. The 8-hour workday has made exhaustion the “norm for nearly all workers,” however. The American Institute of Stress in New York estimates that job stress costs the United States $300 billion in sick time, long-term disability and excessive job turnover: current data show that nearly 50% of burnt-out employees switch jobs.

Burnout specifically refers to stress in an occupational context, according to the WHO, but it could just as easily be applied to college. More than half of college students reported that their level of stress negatively affected their college experience, and 85% said they felt overwhelmed.

Disagreements at work or in classes, long hours spent doing the same thing, extended periods of stress, feeling as though you’re the only one capable of fixing problems and spending time around folks who are also burned out can all exacerbate or contribute to burnout. The University of Virginia maintains that “college burnout” develops thanks to high expectations, social isolation, sleep deprivation, pressure to fit in and the transition from one period of life to another — all common aspects of college life.

It’s not just an energy-sapping syndrome, either; it has direct, harmful impacts on your brain and physical and mental health. Participants in burnout studies showed enlarged amygdalae and thinning of their frontal cortex, both of which happen naturally with age but faster in folks experiencing burnout than those who aren’t. Burnout also contributes to insomnia, reduced cognitive function, blood disorders and even coronary heart disease, according to the American Psychological Association.

Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, reported collapsing from exhaustion after experiencing burnout in her role at work just a few years after launching the business.

“I hit my head on my desk, broke my cheekbone, got four stitches on my right eye,” Huffington said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. On her blog, she described waking up in a pool of blood and knowing she needed to make a change. “I was very lucky I didn’t lose my eye.”

Huffington left her namesake publication and started a new one, Thrive Global, focused on work-life balance. She has since become an advocate for putting health first in the workplace, especially for women and young people, who are most likely of anyone to feel pressured into taking on extra work to impress their colleagues and bosses and prove their worth. Her advice? Setting boundaries, getting proper sleep and changing our relationship with technology.

Technology has helped increase unrealistic expectations of how productive a human can and should be at work. We’ve got a constant barrage of emails to answer, phone calls to make, papers to write, printers to finagle and assignments to turn in by 11:59 p.m. Since remote work is so easy now, there’s also an increased pressure to respond immediately and work from home on the weekends or after hours.

Something as simple as setting your phone to “Do Not Disturb” between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. will alleviate some of the stress associated with this pressure to work. Let your boss know that you have to take that step for your own sake; that’ll also help you get enough sleep.

You could also use your phone to help with your symptoms if you’re already burnt out. Apps like Calm can help you learn meditation strategies, and light yoga or physical activity apps like Daily Yoga, Pocket Yoga and 5 Minute Yoga can help, too.

Setting boundaries looks different offline. If saying “no” is a problem for you in the workplace, consider rephrasing it: when you’re asked to pick up another project mid-work, say something like, “I’d be happy to, but I’m in the middle of this right now. I can do one today and one tomorrow; which one is the priority?” Just because you can do it all, doesn’t mean you should.

You may also need to have some hard conversations with folks who consistently take advantage of your time. An email letting them know you feel they’ve relied too heavily on your work ethic to a point that it’s affecting your mental health is sometimes all it takes. However, if that doesn’t seem to do the trick, you may need to be prepared to find another job if possible; it’s more important to search for a job that values you than to stick with one that drains you.

If your burnout is more due to college than to work, there’s not as much room to negotiate workload and deadlines. However, you can strive to balance your time in a way that honors you as an individual just as much, if not more, than it honors you as a student. Make sure you’re plugged into something outside of academia, like a student organization, creative pastime or cathartic physical outlet that inspires and grounds you. 

When it comes to studying, do something to break up the monotony; take your homework to a new location, switch up the times you work versus the time you socialize, reevaluate what you’re committed to and how much time they drain from you and don’t be afraid to reach out for help from friends, teachers or counselors. Anyone who can help you with time management will be a helpful resource for organizing your life and reclaiming your motivation. 

For me, getting back on track after burning out involved seriously cutting down on my number of commitments. I left my sorority, quit one of my editing jobs and withdrew from a class that wasn’t critical for either of my majors. From there, I was able to restructure my week and build time for myself into my schedule. I’ve gotten back into journaling, spending time with friends off-campus, reading for pleasure and studying the tarot.

Burnout is real, and it can have serious consequences mentally, physically and emotionally. If you feel trapped in the cycle of demotivation, don’t give up — there are steps you can take to reset, refresh and find your joy again.

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