I’ve said it once (many times, actually) and I’ll say it again: academia can be a really shitty place when it comes to your mental health. Yes, your academic adventures can result in a variety of extremely rewarding experiences–there’s no doubt about that–but when your forced to survive this high-stress environment that expects you to juggle heavy workloads, long hours and high expectations on top of the rest of your adult life… Let’s just say that even the most dedicated students can start succumbing to the pressure.
Therefore, it’s hardly any surprise that mental illness is on the rise in academia. In fact, if you simply google “mental health grad school” you can come up with a plethora of different blogs, comics and news articles talking about this very topic. Hell, the most popular article on this blog, Anxiety in (Grad) School, is found 99% of the time by someone typing some combination of the words “grad school”, “depression” and “anxiety” in their search bar. And that, my friends, is kind of a scary thought.
Another scary thought is that one of the most common mental health issues on a university campus is also probably one of the most overlooked: burnout. Even as a society, burnout is one of those things that we just kind of shrug off. It has become synonymous with being maybe a little more tired or unmotivated than usual–a bad week that can be fixed by taking the weekend off. (That is, if you don’t have a looming deadline over your head. ;D)
But burnout is much more than just one crappy, unproductive week. It’s a state of prolonged stress that if left alone can have negative consequences on both your health and on your psyche.
It all starts with a couple of negative, cynical thoughts about work and a dash of head-in-your-hands frustration. It continues with feelings of dread when you hear the sound of your alarm clock because you simply can’t stand the thought of going back to school and feeling stuck, as you have been for the past few weeks. You feel exhausted, drained, and tired before you even start the day and you might have even begun manifesting physical problems such as stomach pains and headaches. More than anything, you feel unmotivated and in the worse case senario, might even consider quitting outright because it just doesn’t seem worth it anymore. The enthusiasm you once had for academia is gone, leaving you angry and maybe even on a constant verge of tears.
Even worse, as this progresses, the amount of work you can get done dwindles. And in an environment where you are essentially defined by how much work you can manage to get done in a day, you start to panic. You feel anxious. And you begin to skip breaks because you feel almost undeserving of them. And the cycle continues. You feel become even more unmotivated, get even less work done, yet try your hardest to push through the mental exhaustion and get some work done. Eventually, if you continue this pattern, your reduced energy combined with your lack of productivity leads you to start locking yourself away from friends and family. After all, they’ll either just impede on the little work you might manage to get done or you fear they’ll be disappointed in you for not be able to handle a few simple tasks…
That an accurate description of what Burnout is, according to my research. And, it is also a completely accurate description of how this whole semester felt for me. I experienced probably the worst case of burnout I have ever felt in my life. All because of a nasty combination of unchecked and unmanaged stress, mixed with anxiety, imposter syndrome, and other shenanigans occurring in my personal life.
I was at the point where I was scared I was falling into a depression. Luckily, that is not the case.
But, I’m burnt out–beyond crispy. I’ve essentially become one of those burnt bread crumbs that get stuck in the deep crevices of your toaster. And the most hilarious thing in this whole situation is the word burnout never even crossed my mind the whole time I was going through this. It took me becoming a sobbing mess at my counsellor’s office to even remember the word burnout existed (mostly because she told me outright, “Krystal, you’re burnt out”). Prior to that I kept telling myself that I’m just in a rough spot. This is a normal part of grad school. If I can just work a little longer or read just one more paper or get through a few more weeks, maybe I’ll figure things out and everything will get better.
I assure you, these kind of feelings are not normal.
And if you’re wondering if this is how the next five or so years are going to be, it doesn’t have to. Yes, surviving academia can sometimes require a lot of sacrifice. Sleepless nights. Putting off all those “adult milestones”. Compromising in your relationships. But, as much as we might like to pretend students are workaholic robots, we’re not. We’re human. With feelings and emotions and an entire life outside of academia that doesn’t stop just because we have a deadline coming up. So, regardless of the pressure we may have from outside sources or even from ourselves, we need to remember that burnout can turn into a serious issue. After all, there’s a fine line between burnout and depression.
So, what can we do to prevent burnout from getting too out of hand and slide towards that slippery slope of depression. Well, as usual, I’m working on that myself and as all things related to mental health, some days are hit or miss. But I have been given some handy tips to pass on that I feel are all very are important. Here’s hoping that we all get out of school with at least some of the sanity we had coming in. 🙂
Now on to the tips!
Do a Systems Check
Very early on in the school year, I came across the podcast, Millennial. It talks about what you’d expect: a Millennial navigating their 20s. And, for the record, I’m a huge fan of this podcast and highly recommend it to any one in this age range. But before I start raving about the entire series, one episode in particular has a special place in my heart: Episode 23 – Systems Check.
The episode starts of with a story about a teacher who loved his job. He came in with high hopes and so much passion. But over time he just kept taking on more and more responsibilities–feeling more and more pressure–until he finally couldn’t handle it anymore. And one day, despite his love for teaching, he quit. No warning. Nothing. He just walked out and left the job he that once brought him so much joy.
Now, this may seem like a sad episode, but I assure you that it’s a beautiful piece that I recommend anyone dealing with burnout to go listen to it. But, without giving away the ending, one of the take home messages from this episode that has stuck with me since the is the idea of taking the time to do a “systems check.” That is, taking the time every few weeks or even once a month to sit by yourself for a moment of self-reflection. Taking a second to ask yourself if you’re happy? Is your life balanced? Do you love what you do? And, if you find yourself saying no to any of these questions, it’s time to ask yourself, why? And what can be changed to keep you right on track? Because the key to keeping a healthy mental state is self-awareness. When you can identify your triggers or low moments, you can more easily do something about them.
Set Some Strict Boundaries
Now this very vague piece of advice is relevant for a lot of things, but I’ll focus on two that I think are particularly important. The first is setting a boundary between home and work. Looking back (because hindsight is 20/20), the times when my anxiety begins peaks and I can pinpoint the early onset of burnout symptoms is when my home didn’t really feel like home anymore. It wasn’t a place where I was able to rest and recharge. It was just another place where work and all the problems that came with it continued to follow me.
Now, I’m not delirious enough to say that work will never follow you home. That’s not really how this works, with deadlines and all that. But setting aside some time–at the very least an hour–for you to unwind before bed is extremely important and creates a temporal separation between your frustrations at work and the comfort of home; a moment for your brain to switch away from flight or fight mode.
The second boundary I’m referring to is to set boundaries between your personal and work lives–essentially learning to say no a little bit more. Because it’s easy to say that you’ll take on another project or apply to one more fellowship/scholarship when your boss asks. And it’s easy to say you’ll skip out on your hobbies today/this week/this month for the sake of getting more work done. But it’s important to remember that taking breaks and doing things you enjoy is important to. So keep that balance and learn to say no.
Take Advantage of Support Systems
I mentioned above that I didn’t even realize that what I was dealing with was burnout until I became a sobbing, snotty mess in my therapist’s office. And that was after becoming a sobbing snotty mess on the phone with my mom and an outright brat with my boyfriend. Honestly, I probably made a lot of people worried snout me… Regardless, I feel like a lot of the feelings and emotion I went through could have been partially avoided if I would have reached out for help earlier. I felt that to fix my problem, I had to isolate myself to get more work done and to avoid feeling of judgement from my peers. However, the solution to my problem was in the exact opposite direction.
When I was feeling stuck on my project, I probably could have talked to my boss sooner. After all, when I finally did talk to him, he helped me feel a little more confident, and pointed me in a direction that helped me better understand what I needed to do next. When I was feeling clueless about the science about my research, I probably could have talked to some senior grad students in my lab. At the very least, they might be able to share stories of when they were in my shoes and how they got out of that funk. And when I was feeling stressed and anxious and like I was drowning in work, I probably could have expressed my concerns to my friends and family earlier–before the sobbing mess state–and gotten a much needed reminder that I have a wonderful support system who will always be proud of me, regardless of what happens with school.
So, it’s highly recommended that you reach out to those your close too. Don’t just suffer in silence. And, even if you feel that maybe they won’t understand, another option is to make an appointment with a school counselor/therapist. At least in the US, most universities provide at least a few free sessions. Counsellors are truly great resource, yet highly under-appreciated and under-utilized.
Be Easy on Yourself
I felt that if I didn’t pass my class or get the results I needed in my research that essentially the world–my world–would end. I have no idea why I think this way, but I feel that this sentiment is not an uncommon one. Maybe, it’s a nasty case of perfectionism or control issues. Maybe it’s just a manifestation of our fear of failure. But will the world really end if you mess up in lab or screw yourself over on a test? Not really.
Be easy on yourself and now your limits. You can only push yourself so much before you hit your breaking point, and once your there it is a much harder journey to try and get back to some resemblance of what’s “normal.” So, if it takes a little bit longer to get back in the groove of things, that’s okay. And if you feel you need to take a leave of absence to try and recover, that’s okay too. You know your body and you know what you can handle. The deadlines and to do lists can wait. Besides, just think of how much more you’ll be able to accomplish when you’re functioning at 100%.
I really hope you’ve found this helpful in some way. If you’re on the brink of burnout or have gone through it before, I want you to know that it will get better and eventually you’ll find your way out of that low point. Also, if you’re reading this and have dealt with burnout before, please share your experiences in the comment section below. I’d love to hear from you and know if/how you recovered. Lastly, if you think you know someone who might be able to benefit from this, use the buttons below to share this post! I would really appreciate it! 🙂
- Millennial Podcast Ep 23: Systems Check
- Grad School Burnout – Mild or Severe Depression, Anxiety and Stress Symptoms in Graduate Students
- Dark Thoughts: Why Mental Illness is on the Rise in Academia
- Depression: What is burnout syndrome?
- Surviving Grad School: Tips for preventing graduate school burnout
- Stress and Burnout in Graduate School: Recognizing, Preventing, and Recovering