Burnout and mental health

Long hours of studying, essays waiting to be written, and the changing dynamics of healthcare careers all add up to insurmountable pressure, but health students are still being told to push through their struggle with burnout. It is time to have a conversation about it.

Burnout is one of the most prevalent dimensions of distress, is defined by the National Academy of Medicine as a syndrome characterized by high emotional exhaustion, high depersonalization, and a low sense of personal accomplishment - something healthcare students are all too familiar with.

Academic burnout can be defined as a negative emotional, physical and mental reaction to prolonged study that results in exhaustion, frustration, lack of motivation and reduced ability in school. Research has shown that 50 percent of medical students experience symptoms of burnout at some point in their career. Another study shows medical students are more susceptible to burnout than their non-medical peers. Burnout can have impactful consequences to a students mental health and this can influence learning patterns and life decisions, particularly if burnout continues into residency and beyond.

To make matters worse the current pandemic has put more pressure on students. Many have been faced with a set of additional challenges that includes campus closures and a quick pivot to remote learning, leading to a sense of uncertainty about their academic futures. Most importantly, students are also facing social isolation and a loss of social support because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mandatory physical distancing measures and reductions on social gatherings have left many students feeling disconnected from their home campuses where support and services are typically available.

So what to do about it?

The first step is always to recognize if you are experiencing burnout or you are at risk of it. Some common ways you can know if you have academic burnout are:

  • Feeling exhausted no matter how much sleep you get, resulting in fatigue and insomnia.
  • Lacking motivation to attend classes or start assignments.
  • Lashing out at others and increased irritability due to frustration.
  • Lacking inspiration and creativity to bring to projects and class discussions.
  • Loss of confidence in academic abilities.
  • Incapability to meet important deadlines
  • Increased pain and tension in your body, which can be manifested as headaches, sore muscle aches, or jaw tension.
  • Higher frequency of illness due to stress and exhaustion.
  • Increase in bad habits such as overeating, staying up too late, nail biting, or any other habit you tend to acquire when you are stressed or not taking care of yourself.
  • Inability to concentrate on school work or lectures.
  • Feeling bored or uninterested in aspects of school or areas of leisure that you used to enjoy.
  • Feelings of anxiety or depression.

take charge

Once you realize your risks or you recognize in yourself symptoms of burnout you can do something about it. Here are some top tips that might sound easy but we offer forget about their importance:

  • Make Time for Enjoyable Activities: Do this not just on the weekend! Sprinkle your calendar with things you love to do throughout the week, and you’ll feel start to feel more motivated to start your school days.
  • Get Plenty of Physical Exercise: Try to exercise at least three times a week, stay hydrated and eat healthy to keep your mind and body active and healthy.
  • Get Outside: Studies have shown that time spent in nature can reduce stress levels so spend some of your free time in some greenery!
  • Make Time for Social Activities: Not only do friends and family provide you with a positive support system, but time spent in fun social environments will make you happier and give your mind a break.
  • Set Reasonable Goals: And stick to them — use a calendar and daily reminders to stay motivated to achieve deadlines.
  • Avoid Procrastination: When you are feeling stressed, putting off assignments and projects is tempting, but ultimately this will lead to sleep deprivation, frustration and end in more stress.
  • Get Better at Time Management: This is a key factor in making sure you stay on track with deadlines, avoid procrastination and end up with a more positive relationship with your studies.
  • Take a Step Back: Look at your school situation as a whole. Ask yourself, have you chosen the correct field, school or program? Is there another direction you need to take to make this better align with your career path or interests? Do you need a long break? Maybe work for a while, travel a little (if that is possible) or even think about an elective to regain interest in your field.
  • Work-Life Balance: Work-life balance is just as important for students as it is for workers. Set up your schedule for equal parts school and fun or social activities. And don’t forget to make time for just YOU.
  • DON’T STRESS OUT TO COMPLETE ALL THE ABOVE TIPS: Take it one day at a time and start incorporating some of this burnout tips into your routine, without expecting your emotional state to change radically overnight.

So in conclusion, to prevent and treat burnout you need to exercise, meditate, eat and sleep. Even when cramming for an exam, sometimes it’s better for your mind and body to get the sleep you need to perform well in than it is to stay up all night studying. Talk with your fellow students and support them as well. Don’t be afraid to say you’re exhausted or that you feel like you’re experiencing burnout. Learn about the support systems your school may already have in place. Many medical schools have developed student-wellness programs that focus on making sure medical students are taking care of themselves and are learning how to deal with the stress and pressure of becoming a healthcare professional.

If you need help don’t hesitate to look for it, remember it is vital that you take care of yourself so you can take care of others.