Recognizing and Addressing Burnout

Lacking motivation? Irritable? Frustrated? Unable to focus?

The last few years have been rough for many students (and adults!). 

Over the past few months, we’ve received more requests to support middle school students, high school students, and college freshman and sophomores with executive functioning skills, including organization, planning, prioritization, task initiation and completion. 

We’ve also heard from a number of college freshmen who want to transfer schools. High school students also share how navigating school social dynamics seems tougher, especially if they returned to in-person schooling after being online for an extended period of time.

Teenagers and young adults have always navigated a complex set of expectations and responsibilities. And now, many are experiencing heavy exhaustion caused by various forms of prolonged stress. It can be difficult to stay motivated when various schooling changes (remote, hybrid, in-person) prevented many students from building crucial skills around self-regulation, socialization, and organization. 

It’s understandable for students to feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the changes of the past few years. At the same time, students could also be experiencing something else: burnout.

Recognizing the Signs

Most definitions of “burnout” include symptoms like deep exhaustion, low motivation, and feelings of frustration. For students, causes of burnout include stressful school environments, social isolation, economic pressures, personal loss, and more. When left unchecked, burnout can lead to a range of symptoms, including anxiety, depression, and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Yale cognitive scientist Laurie Santos has taught one of the most popular classes in the world: The Science of Well-Being.  In a recent New York Times interview, Dr. Santos emphasized how students and adults can prevent burnout by recognizing early signs, including:  

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Depersonalization
  • Getting annoyed more easily
  • Assuming that others have bad intentions 
  • Feeling ineffective 
  • Trouble falling/staying asleep
  • Inability to enjoy oneself

Identifying these signs early can prevent longer-term struggles. Dr. Santos recommends checking in with ourselves and our loved ones regularly to spot signs of overwhelm. At the same time, recognition alone is not enough to alleviate burnout: real change can only result from decisive action. 

Alleviating Burnout
Relieving burnout doesn’t happen overnight. Any response should involve ample time to rest and efforts to improve one’s work-life balance. 

Some strategies to find relief:

  • A crucial question: are you doing the best you can with what you’ve got right now? Step back from unrealistic expectations, and draw boundaries between work and free time.
  • Return to community: Burnout can happen when we are cut off from sources of support. Finding ways to get back in touch with one’s core communities can help, as can finding new communities of support.
  • Self-compassion: “Powering through” burnout doesn’t work. Kindness to self — by taking breaks, allocating time for hobbies, or enjoying simple pleasures — can be crucial for establishing well-being.
  • Diet and exercise: Our moods can depend on the food we eat. Eating regular meals can make a world of difference throughout the day. Moving throughout the day can help replenish energy levels and lessen feelings of burnout.
  • Mindfulness: Mindful practices such as meditation, yoga, and journaling can provide a sense of calm and control, especially when part of a daily routine.

Sleep Smarter
A recent article published in the Wall Street Journal emphasizes that specific habits we build around bedtimes, nighttime, and mornings can be just as important as the number of hours we sleep. To fight insomnia, improve sleep quality, and increase energy levels throughout the day, students can use the following tips:

  • Consistency: The number one way to improve sleep hygiene is to keep a regular bedtime and a regular wake-up time (yes, including weekends!). This aids our circadian rhythms, which help our bodies and minds know when it’s time to rest.
  • Beds are for sleeping: Avoid using phones in bed, doing homework in the bedroom, etc.
  • Avoid tossing and turning: When it takes a long time to fall asleep, it’s better to get out of bed and do something calm for 10-20 minutes (reading, listening to music, but no screens!)
  • Bedtime routines: In the hour or so before bed, avoid screens, exercise, and caffeine. Calmer, non screen-related activities are more compatible with winding down at the end of a long day.

We know that everyone has unique ways of dealing with stress, and we’d love to hear about any additional burnout-prevention strategies!