Disclaimer: The authors are not medical professionals. This piece presents their subjective experience concerning the burnout phenomenon and seeks to be of informative value. If the readers are concerned about their personal well-being or that of others, they are encouraged to seek specialised help.
We all have been very stressed at some point. Sometimes, an inexplicable feeling of constant tiredness in the face of an ever-growing to-do list takes over. Even worse, a job or project that you vehemently love and could never get tired of has become a drain on energy and emotion. Why not call it a day and come back fresh tomorrow? But tomorrow is not any better. Against all common sense, this emotional package comes wrapped up in the most unfitting possible foil – a fear of stopping. Welcome to burn-out. Burn-out does not discriminate by gender and age, let alone profession. However, it appears to especially target high-achieving individuals. Bonded over reciprocal admiration for each other and unconditional friendship, we are two fresh graduates who have experienced burn-out in the past few years. We have decided to share our individual stories, that are more similar than it seems at first sight and how burn-out crept into our lives, how we overcame it and how we aim to prevent it in the future.
When did you realise you were burning yourselves out? What were the initial signs and symptoms that something was not right?
Cristina: I have always been a perfectionist. Coming from a non-scientific, foreign background (specialising in arts and humanities at high school), deciding to do a science degree at a foreign university was a daunting challenge. In order to justify my family’s investment in studying abroad and aiming to solve the existential crisis of my future career path, I put an unhealthy amount of time into my degree (peaking 10-12 hour days, 7 days per week). Combined with a lack of physical activity (I was never a sports person) and being passionate enough about my degree to claim it as my sole hobby, university work crept into all aspects of my life, including social life, meal and sleep times. Prolonged time periods under this routine led to a difficulty in focusing on coursework and managing deadlines and exam preparation. Unaware of the burn-out phenomenon at the time, I put my decreased productivity down to being lazy and disorganised. Counterintuitive to such symptoms, I continued working under the same routine … which was like a death trap. Not only did I become increasingly tired and ill from the lack of proper sleep and food, but also isolated from people. Having no one to talk to about my struggles and help me find a solution, I lost my self-esteem and became severely anxious and depressed – viewing myself as a failure even in the face of academic success. Everything culminated into a burst of self-harm thoughts. This, fortunately, made me seek out help for the very first time.
Soumya: My causes are diametrically opposite to Cristina’s. Working insanely long hours was never an issue for me – sports, volunteering, leading student societies and getting good grades – you name it and I had it, and I was living my best life! I had always been outgoing and the novelty of being an international student wanting to squeeze the best out of every moment proliferated it all into high-achieving performance and the appreciation from others motivated me even more – by the end of my penultimate year I had two internships, a full-time job, numerous awards and countless other things in my kitty. Finally, when I thought I should feel at peace with myself for having it all, I actually felt quite the opposite – agitated and restless. What I thought of as simple boredom, which should have disappeared on starting my final year a couple of weeks later, in fact, exacerbated. I started to look for more new things to get involved in. This wasn’t it – I started taking everything personally and minor inconveniences turned into major annoyances. I felt perpetually exhausted, mistaken as procrastination. I only realised the graveness of the situation when I felt absolutely powerless and devastated from a snide remark from a stressed-out colleague – my reaction to it was far out of proportion when I normally would have laughed it off. This morphed into frequent bouts of anxiety which was extremely unsettling as I had never experienced a thing like this before. Usually upbeat, I had turned into an often-gloomy cynic all of a sudden. I started to question if I really ever enjoyed what I was doing, which was obviously not true, otherwise I would not have been so driven for 3 long years. I hadn’t lost any motivation but my body and mind had completely frozen and my memory, which happened to be my best asset, was suffering terribly. It was time to do something urgently.
What helped you realise that it was burnout?
Cristina: While I have been suffering from anxiety my whole life, this felt entirely different. I was obviously anxious about meeting my deadlines and performing well in my assignments. However, unlike bouts of anxiety, my motivation to work was severely hampered physically. I felt too weak even to walk or stay awake during the day. It was only when I undertook some blood test that came back flagged that I realised I have anaemia (iron deficiency). It made sense that the combination of my improper diet and overworking led to this state. While googling my symptoms, I came across the ‘burn-out’ term and was somewhat relieved to know what I was going through was more commonplace than I had thought. Speaking with the university counselling service also clarified the existence of this phenomenon.
Soumya: I knew many of the symptoms I was experiencing were common to depression, but it was not depression as I neither had thoughts of self-harm nor lacked any hope or motivation. It wasn’t just stress either – because I now had much less to stress me out – just my dissertation and coursework which was far less than having to juggle job applications and studies at the same time. Obviously, dissertation and coursework can be stressful enough, still wouldn’t have caused *that* kind of a reaction for me, normally. A full eight hours of sleep didn’t help either, I was starting to feel mentally paralysed and physically exhausted – even brushing my teeth seemed like a mammoth task on many days! This lasted for a couple of months so I started to hunt for resources online and the NHS and several medical and mental health charity websites had compiled resources about burnout – that is where I started to notice the exact similarities with possible causes.
What solutions did you find to combat burn-out?
Cristina: As noted in my previous answer, becoming proactive about what was happening to my body and mind was crucial in combating the situation. Speaking with the GP and the university counselling service not only helped pinpoint my condition but also provided rightful evidence of adverse circumstances for the university to take into consideration – I was granted coursework extensions and was allowed to defer an exam. Moreover, speaking with staff in my department and college also helped me understand that my current state did not mean I was a failure – after all, I wouldn’t have been admitted there if they hadn’t seen my potential, they said. This advice was also reinforced by my family and close friends – regular phone calls and catch-ups over rigorously timetabled meal times in the college cafeteria ensured I was back on track. Despite suffering of burn-out a while after myself, Soumya was extremely empathetic and, notably, she accompanied me to the hospital at the peak of my mental health crisis stage of burn-out. Furthermore, I should not discredit myself from trying either – I also had a desire to overcome perfectionism and better look after myself. As a result, I still managed to get good results despite not working as hard as in the past, while balancing it with a regular sleeping and eating schedule, as well as trying out a sport (badminton).
Soumya: I had to minutely observe and reverse-engineer my responses to triggers in different situations and take note of recurring symptoms. I had turned averse to the thought of spending time with some of my friends who I had known for several months, even years. I pondered over what about them was so off-putting and realised that I felt drained out even after a small interaction. I obviously understand job and admission applications and graduation is incredibly stressful, or some people may simply be at a point in life where they do not really know what they want. I empathize with them, however, that did not mean I had to deal with that temperament all the time – negativity is indeed contagious. I established strict personal boundaries and started engaging myself in more positive interactions with like-minded, happy people. That alone had a massive positive effect on me in no time. It is essential to put on your own oxygen mask first – after all, how can you expect to exude positivity when you are depleted yourself!
This, however, was not the sole reason – it took me a while to realise that I had made my achievements and my work the entirety of my identity, and the more I amassed and felt accomplished, the more I wanted to do, but I had limitations with my time and of course my body and mind. It was like I was addicted to working and succeeding! I had to teach myself that it is nice to take pride in my work, but my health and relationships were equally indispensable. In fact, good health and healthy relationships fuelled me with more energy to perform well. Having a fully booked calendar isn’t a trophy and doesn’t translate to productivity. Fortunately, I recognised the issue well in time and took the right steps, which helped me take control of my situation over the next six months and I finished university with great results.
How can you ensure that this does not happen again?
Cristina: While having a stubborn personality, plenty of advice from my mentors, peers, but also online inspired me to take a more balanced approach to work and life. Setting goals early and creating a reasonable timeline to accomplish them is crucial in this sense – you don’t have to work every hour of the day! However, you must equally not beat yourself up if you can’t meet all expectations – there is no such thing as perfection no matter how ambitious you are. It is very important to alternate work with hobbies and relaxation. Inevitably, there will be times when one is under pressure (i.e. to meet a deadline). When this happens, a support network in which people mutually listen to each other does wonders! Bear in mind that you have to set boundaries too – listening to the same things you’re going through for long periods of time can itself lead to burn-out! Furthermore, always seek help from your supervisors/employers when you’re down – they are humans too and should normally be understanding (if they don’t, you deserve much better!). Finally, medical professionals are the go-to support if your state does not improve – remember, you are a good human being and your productivity does not define you!
Soumya: Burnout is not something that magically disappears upon taking a treatment. It calls for lifestyle changes. I am learning to differentiate between passion and an unhealthy obsession for work and optimising opportunities that come my way – there are no deadlines for experiencing all what I want and I will have many of similar opportunities if I am not able to accommodate them at a given time. Having personal boundaries is indispensable and I have purposely started to create limits on how much time I can spend on a task or with a person in a given duration of time unless urgent. I have become very particular about the kind of people I spend my time with. I would suggest identifying few family members and friends who genuinely care for you, have a positive temperament in general, can check on you regularly and can offer constructive advice when needed. Spend more time with people like these – substitute texting with phone calls, video calls and meeting in person wherever possible – it helps establish closer connection. I do not have to spend time beyond what’s necessary with anyone with whom I feel perpetually exhausted or on edge. It is also important to overcome your fear of missing out – no matter how much you wish to stay on top of things there will be some things left behind or delayed which is absolutely fine – you have all the time in the world to learn and experience new things.
This piece, co-authored by Cristina Balaban (Twitter: @cristina_blbn) and Soumya Singh (Twitter: @singhuist1 ) was originally published in an online magazine called Scientists are Humans. You can read it here.