How To Know If You’re Burnt-Out and What To Do About It

By Jessica Huynh, Storyteller for RU Student Life

The days are shorter, the weather’s colder, and my motivation is plummeting faster than Lena Dunham’s popularity. At least once a semester, I find myself overwhelmed by everything I’m trying to juggle. I’ll stare blankly at assignments should be working on but can’t seem to muster the energy to start, or I’ll come to lecture prepared to take notes but struggle to focus the entire time. The worst part about all of this is my apathetic attitude about it happening.

Have you ever been so stressed out by everything you mentally check out? If you answered “yes” you might be familiar with burnout — a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress.

According to a 2013 study analyzing over 30,000 Canadian university students, roughly 90% of students reported feeling overwhelmed by everything they had to do within the last year, with over 50% citing hopelessness and 63% citing loneliness as common emotions they have felt during their academic studies. Student burnout is a lot more common than you think.

“For me, I know I’m burnt-out when every little thing brings me down,” psychology student Alex Nicole noted. “Every comment someone makes or every situation that doesn’t go perfectly feels as though it went terribly, even if it objectively wasn’t a big deal. It’s like my self-esteem gets so worn away I can’t handle imperfection.”

Burnout goes beyond your typical level of stress and has serious consequences. Many students who have experienced burnout reported their mental health, work performance, and relationships suffering. Amend Psychology, a psychological service in Lexington, pointed out that an overreaction or an under-reaction to an otherwise normal concern or event is a telling sign of student burnout. Other common symptoms of burnout include feelings of hopelessness, cynicism, and detachment. This state of mind can often lead to changes in sleeping and eating habits, with some individuals over-sleeping or over-eating while others don’t sleep or eat enough.

“I dropped about 10 lbs [in just two weeks] and was falling asleep in my classes all the time,” Creative Industries student Elaina Pawelka recalled of a time she experienced burnout from juggling too much at once. “I knew I had to get my health in check and plan my schedule better.”

Some students even made the analogy of burnout feeling a lot like drowning in priorities and not being able to swim to the surface.

As Ryerson alumni J. Jang explained, “[You start] prioritizing things you don’t even care as much about to the work that’s a no-brainer priority, but you can’t seem to get your priorities straight because you’re too overwhelmed.”

Vance Tu, a Software Engineer graduate, shared similar sentiments when he summarized rather bluntly, “[Burnout] feels like you’re doing the same shit but it’s a different day. You stay up every night hoping something will change and that your actions will matter but it doesn’t, so you feel like shit all over again.”

Unsurprisingly, this level of stress causes some students to stop handing in assignments, skip classes, or produce work they’re not particularly proud of.

“It’s as if you’ve exhausted all of your efforts. You want to keep trying but no matter how much effort you put in, there comes a point where you can’t keep up anymore,” explained April Kongmanivong, a Business Development Centre Manager who pointed out that your job can also be a source of anxiety in your life.

Burnout envelops you wholly; it sucks your energy and leaves you emotionally and psychologically drained. Many students have exhibited physical symptoms because of burnout, causing them further distress.

“Burnout feels like chest pain,” Jang noted. “It feels like big, heavy pulses under your eyes and increased clumsiness. Sometimes I forget to breathe properly when I’ve been sitting [on my computer] all day. I realize I’ve only been taking shallow breaths. I kind of forget my body and lungs exist because all I’m using are my fingers to type on the keyboard and my eyes to look at the [computer] screen.”

Despite sharing similar symptoms to depression, burnout is not the same as depression. The biggest differentiation between burnout and depression is that you can usually pinpoint what is causing you distress in burnout. If you remove the stressor or change your habits, the burnt-out individual should return to their normal state. Depression, alternatively, is not as straightforward. Although burnout is not an official mood disorder like depression, it is serious and it shouldn’t be dismissed.

In a study conducted by Armita Golkar, a Ph.D. candidate at the Karolinska Institute, she discovered that burnout has long-term consequences. Those who experienced burnout had increased difficulty dealing with future stressors. The part of the brain that responds to emotions and stress is neurologically rewired. Talk about stress on stress.

If you recognize any of these symptoms exhibited in yourself or a friend, don’t ignore the light bulbs going off. Make a conscious effort to practice self-care and create a plan. Try breaking up your to-do list into smaller and manageable tasks so that the work in front of you seems less daunting. Most importantly, don’t forget to seek support from your family, friends, and professors. Having a support group is an effective way to beat burnout as it lets others know you need help to succeed.

You don’t have to deal with burnout alone. Just because you found yourself checked out doesn’t mean you can’t check back in!