Stressed? Tired? Unmotivated? Aine O’Connell gives us an insight into the lesser known, but common condition ‘Burnout’.

There’s a classic scene in the movie Mean Girls where Janis Ian describes a clique as “Burnouts”: young men and women who look tired, weird and just a little bit stupid. Well, guess what? It turns out that these adjectives are also what can happen if one is suffering from burnout – a very common but little talked about problem. It’s not a mental health issue like anxiety or depression; therefore it can’t be “treated” in the same way by a health professional. On the other side of the coin, burnout can often be as debilitating as these issues. So what to do about that?

Burnout by definition is a state of prolonged emotional, physical or mental stress that results in exhaustion that can go on for months. You may feel burned out after three successive all-nighters to finish an essay – and rightly so. It’s normal to feel stressed, tired and worked up about college. However, that can easily spiral into a problem, and that problem is burnout. It is much more harmful; tiredness that inhibits one’s ability to function, feeling overwhelmed and yet disinterested in the world around oneself. It is often linked to depression, though studies on this particular affliction are shockingly thin on the ground.

Sound familiar? Rightly so:  students are hugely at risk from burnout. Those who work too hard, who stress about working and those who don’t sleep enough…the list goes on. They are the people especially at risk; and we all know people like this. Objectively, it’s hard to be a motivated, hardworking student. Ask anyone to juggle a degree, working, socialising and extra-curricular activities and watch their face drop. Despite evidence in the media, being a student isn’t easy! What can start out as feeling out of touch from friends or feeling too tired to go to class can quickly envelop someone to the point that they can’t see the point of…well, anything.

I know this because it happens to me, on and off. Since starting college two years ago I’ve been through periods where I’ve felt utterly desolated, exhausted, and not remotely bothered to do anything. I stay inside. I don’t talk to anyone and I allow myself to get detached from the real world. Mercifully, I have a hell of a support network; a flat-mate who doesn’t mind if I stay at home all day, a boyfriend and friends who look after me and a family who will sustain me with love, hugs, and ready meals until I’m feeling better. This doesn’t happen to me often – maybe once a year, usually around exam time – but I can vouch for it being utterly horrible when it does.

So what to do if you’re reading this article and nodding in empathy? Well, the good news is that it’s easier fixed than many mental health problems. Spend a lot of time in college working on SU reports, newspaper articles or society events? Burnout means, sadly, pulling back from things that are non-necessary. Try to clear your calendar, even for a day, and treat yourself. Taking days to recharge are instrumental in clearing a burned-out head, even if it’s a day at home on Netflix.

Making time to see friends is crucial. No matter how horrible you feel, cutting yourself off won’t help – I speak from experience. Invite someone out for a coffee and have a chat about how you’re feeling – or all the Gilmore Girls you’ve been watching. Sometimes engaging with another human being is just as good as “getting it all off your chest”. While “please talk” is a fantastic manifesto, for many people it’s a case of taking baby steps. Chat to a friend and when it’s right, you can share your feelings.  Don’t stress yourself out further by forcing yourself to talk and talk though.

Looking after you is probably the most important element of treating (and avoiding) burnout. A few simple things include trying to sleep as much as you can – do you really need a fourth night out? Accept that sometimes it is okay to not get work done; today, for example, I am sitting on my sofa in my flat instead of in my college library. Why? It’s much easier on me to study from here; the stress of the library is not worth the productivity. It is so, so key to accept the difference between what you can do, and what your body can do. Learn to rest; your body will thank you.

Burnout is a difficult and dangerous thing to combat. While it may not lead to harm in the way that eating disorders or depression can, it’s very much a “gateway” to further mental health difficulties. Know your red flags; things that cause you to get overly stressed or feel “burned out”. It’s easier said than done, but worth it if it means escaping constant exhaustion and sadness. In light of USI’s mental health week, I encourage you to not only watch yourself for burnout, but also your high-powered, sleeps-for-three-hours friend and encourage them to look after their own needs as well as most of their college needs. 

Photo: Ryan Melaugh/ Flickr