Avoiding School Burnout

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion. It is generally caused by prolonged stress. It is a feeling of being overwhelmed, unable to meet demands that are constantly coming, like being hit by unrelenting waves in the ocean.

It is certainly a problem for students.   In 2014, the American Psychological Association reported that about one-third of American college students had difficulty functioning at some point in the previous 12 months.   This was from a survey by the National College Health Assessment of 125,000 students.   Half had some sort of anxiety.   A recent Medscape article reported an “alarming” rate of burnout in medical students (Davenport, March 6, 2018).

With burnout, motivation and interest decline.   Additionally, it is characterized by extreme exhaustion, depression, negative feelings about self, and loss of focus and attention.   Productivity declines greatly.   It can also be a feeling of boredom, but in addition to feeling weary, feeling anxious.  These feelings are fueled when what we do goes uncared for, unnoticed or unrewarded.

With the beginning of this school year here, I am seeing more cases of burnout than I can recall seeing in my career.   I have observed growing distress in school-aged kids since social media and smart phone access proliferated around 10 years ago.

Additionally, with the current political turmoil in this country, kids seem more stressed than ever. Because of this, I would like to offer a quick guide for dealing with burnout.

First and foremost, consider working with a therapist or counselor. You can try using school resources, calling the Colorado Psychiatric and Psychological Societies for referrals, asking friends if they know of good people or starting the search online.   This is especially relevant if you suspect a depressive disorder or anxiety disorder.

With burnout comes procrastination (and with procrastination comes burnout).   There is a nice trick to use to deal with this. Think of your future self in terms of small chunks of time such as 30 minutes or an hour. Instead of thinking, “I can’t wait until May”, force yourself to think, “How do I want to feel in one hour”. Generally in focusing on that, it is easier to sit down and start a task that may feel meaningless, boring or unrewarding.

In addition, learn to break down larger projects into smaller assignments. This can increase a sense of reward or accomplishment. One example of doing this would be to take a 20 math problem assignment and make it a series of four different 5 problem assignments to finish at different times.   Another would to be to take a 10 page assignment and make it five 2 page assignments.  It is also best to start with your more complicated work, leave the easiest stuff for last.

When in doubt about how to do something or you are struggling learning something, ask for help. Don’t suffer silently.   It is not a weakness or a bad thing to say “I don’t know” if you don’t know. A better way to say it would be “I don’t know yet, but I will work on it.”

Use a visual calendar with the things you want to get done that day and enjoy watching yourself cross those off as you accomplish them.

You can also focus on less procrastination in honor of better health. Procrastination causes stress and stress can cause illness.   This is a win/win for you.   A feeling of health in-and-of itself combats burnout.

Focus on your health. A common and unfortunate reaction we tend to have to stress is to not take as good care of ourselves. Under stress, many of us will tend to use alcohol or marijuana, not exercise, comfort eat, avoid necessary tasks, and socially isolate.   These things will only elevate the feelings of stress.   Human beings tend to gravitate to these things because we are all programmed to find the quickest way to feel better when stressed.

To prevent burnout it is important to exercise. At a minimum, go on a brisk walk every day, no smart phones, no plugging in.   Playing team sports is great for this, but also going to the gym, riding a bike, scootering, dancing, etc. Whatever you enjoy that gets you moving helps. Yoga is another physical activity that does wonders for the relaxation of your body and mind.

Staying active like this should also help you sleep better at night. Good sleep helps greatly to manage stress.   Go to bed at a consistent time every night that lets you get 8 hours of sleep. Yes, this is very hard to do with the demands of extracurricular work, social outreach, family needs, and academics, but it helps so much.   Turn off all screens, all electronics an hour before you want to be asleep.

Take care of your body. Think about what you are putting in your body. Drugs and alcohol can be attractive in stressful times.   This is because they give a very temporary relief. The problem is that once they start to wear off and especially the next day, the sense of stress or burnout is worse. This can lead to using more and that is a road you do not want to be going down.

Make healthy dietary choices.   I am no nutrition expert, but I simplify the strategy of healthy eating. I like to follow the advice of food author Michael Pollan who wrote, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”.

Socially, have fun when there is time. Reach out to your friends and see people that elevate you and that you elevate.   Make sure you are sober when you do that. Have good boundaries; say no when you need to, and also be assertive. That is telling people how you feel and what you need. Make sure you do not overload yourself or overextend yourself.

There is much more to boundaries and assertiveness, but that is a separate topic. Trust me that good boundaries and assertiveness are amazing in helping manage stress and burnout.

Deep breathing and mindfulness are strategies you can use constantly throughout the day to manage stress. Every time you think of it, stop, check in with your surroundings, your body and your mind and be present. Sit up with good posture, breathe in and out slowly, focusing on your breathing and body. Do it in sets of three and do it as much as you want.   There was a study last year showing that deep “diaphragmatic” breathing decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and resulted in better attention and better affect (Front Psychol.2017; 8:874).

All of this can be achieved with good self-regulation.   Self-regulation predicts academic success and leads to effective stress management. It will prevent burnout.

Good luck with this academic year!

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