The struggle of being productive in a world without mercy is persistent, ongoing, and pervasive. When we start out on a journey of education, most - if not all of us - believe that we have some idea of what we are in for. And once again, most - if not all of us - underestimate the reality of the challenge ahead. So, what do you do when you get to a point where you realize the magnitude of what you have taken on? Whether it is three or six months in, or during the first week, what do you do when reality hits you?
You may often find yourself up to your eyeballs in readings, paperwork, seminars, lectures, office hours, family life, work, and somehow writing for deadlines that never quite go away. These demands never seem to stop, but you will have to once you encounter something that you may not have met before - your limit.
The tension from all of those stressors and demands will build-up, and then one day, things may change for the worse. With that many plates in the air, spinning faster, and the pressure rising - eventually one may fall. You might hear a clatter and a smash, and who knows?... maybe it will be the start of a chain reaction, one plate after the other may fall like dominos: a growing crescendo of disaster. Or, perhaps it will be followed by an echoing silence and you may start to feel like a failure and wonder if you have let yourself down. Who knows, maybe this is it for you. The falling plate(s) represent being burned-out, a point of complete exhaustion that can be experienced in all domains of life, including physical, cognitive, social, and emotional domains. While burnout is not an inevitable part of life, it is accompanied by persistent and in some cases overwhelming negative emotions.
So, what happens when you are burned-out? Different people experience burnout differently. You may wallow. Take perhaps a day, a week, or a month off. Maybe longer. While taking the time that you need, you might delve into mental health support groups and consume all the healing content that you can find. Self-care may become your mantra while you comfort yourself, because if you do not heal from being burned-out, how can you possibly return to the pressures of life? Maybe your commitment to self-care is genuine and you notice that the overwhelming negative emotions will leave you alone if you directly address them. You may also find yourself using burnout and self-care rituals as excuses to procrastinate “for a good reason”, but in the back of your mind you know that all of those deadlines have not *actually* gone away… so, you eventually poke your head out of your cocoon and crawl out from underneath the cloud of confusion that is burnout. It is time to start again.
What should you do now? What is your strategy for a more manageable approach to all of your deadlines and tasks? As someone who has experienced burnout and is still picking up the pieces years later, I recommend avoiding it in the first place by regularly reflecting on your experiences and how they are affecting you, but here are some tips on how to overcome burnout and prevent it:
Pace yourself. Plan. Be aware of your capacity and be realistic about what you can handle. Do not ever schedule yourself at 100% of your capacity. Go for something smaller. Perhaps 60%, which is more than half, but allows you the freedom to adapt to your threshold. You do not need to be ‘on’ all the time, but you also cannot be ‘off’ all the time either. You cannot spend all of your time procrastinating and masquerading your procrastination as self-care - it does not work and it will not help.
Find coping strategies that work for you. Various mental health organizations, academic literature, and mental health professionals provide credible and evidence-based resources in support of mental health, that can help you cope with exam stress and the pressures of student life. Reach out to others and, most importantly, express your feelings and thoughts about what you are going through.
Find someone or something that will keep you accountable. For example, try starting out with small, achievable goals, and make increasingly larger goals over time so that you can eventually get back to where you would like to be.
We often put far too much pressure on ourselves to be the best possible version of ourselves. The truth is, you are under no obligation to be the same person today, that you were before you experienced burnout. Your experiences shape you and that is okay. The yardstick that you once measured yourself with can be modified, or even replaced. For example, people can find the transition between degrees and different levels of academic rigour challenging; its difficulties may become clearer when you are looking back on your experiences. Your life has probably changed. The demands on you are different - and even if all external factors remain the same, you yourself may be different. That is okay. The best way to handle burnout is to prevent it, but if you are already there, a good approach to coping with burnout is honesty. Start from where you are at. Give yourself a bit of time. Offer yourself the kindness that you would offer a friend, and then slowly, at your own pace, get back up and carry on. If you did it before, you can do it again.
How do YOU approach burnout?
Let us know in the comments below!