Dear Alice,

I've never been very good at managing my time, getting homework done, or staying organized. Yet, I learned to work around this and get things done rather successfully. However, recently, I haven't been able to do ANYTHING. I can't get school work done. It's starting to impact my grades. I think this might be a result of a stressful junior year combined with a stressful summer job. I worked 50 hours a week at an understaffed Boys and Girls Club. There might be something about taking care of children — many with serious family/home issues — that really drained me. I only had about a week of summer vacation where I wasn't either working or at home with pneumonia. I went from a rough summer into a difficult senior year. Now, I feel like I need a break to collect myself, but I know I won't get that break until I graduate. What can I do? I don't think I need new organizational strategies, I've picked those up over the years, but then again if I knew what I needed I guess I wouldn't be asking!

Thanks,
Burning out

Dear Burning out,

Wow, you've had a busy year! Even though you don't have a scheduled school break to look forward to, you can look to take mini-breaks during each day by incorporating some healthy lifestyle behaviors to reduce your feelings of stress. It’s also great that you’re paying attention to your body and how you feel, taking time to note if you may be experiencing signs of burnout. Balancing everything life throws at you can be tough, but taking the time to maintain a healthy lifestyle and recognize where you may be struggling can be a good first step to feeling better.

The experience you acknowledged in your question, burnout, occurs when a person experiences excessive amounts of stress over a long period of time. Rather than feeling overly stimulated, this stress can cause people to lose interest in their activities, feel as though they may not care as much about their work anymore, and feel hopeless about their circumstances changing. Burnout can happen gradually, so it may not be apparent that this is even happening to a person. However, when someone acknowledges that they may be on their way to burnout or that they’re currently burnt out, there are a number of ways they can reduce these feelings:

  • Socialize with others. Making time to hang out with people who inspire positive feelings can help you fight those feelings of burnout. This social support can make handling other stressors in your life feel more manageable. If you'd rather do more structured activities, you may reap similar benefits from being involved in intramural sports, clubs, enjoyable jobs, or any activity in which you find meaning and interest. Any social connectedness is helpful.
  • Manage your priorities. This can be a time to figure out what in your life is working for you and what isn’t working as well. Taking some time to set some boundaries for yourself so you don’t feel as overwhelmed, taking breaks, and finding time to relax can help you find an opportunity to learn more about your true interests and goals.
  • Focus on physical activity. Being physically active can help reduce feelings of stress. Even something as simple as taking a walk for ten minutes can help improve your mood. Doing activities that move both your arms and your legs can help to increase relaxation of your mind and body. Additionally, focusing on what your body is doing during the activity, rather than your thoughts, can help increase those feelings of stress relief.
  • Eating a balanced diet. The foods you consume can have an impact on how you feel during the day. Focusing on eating a balanced diet of lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can help ensure you’re getting the nutrients that keep your body running smoothly.
  • Get some zzzs. Most adults function best when they get between seven to nine hours of sleep a night. More or less sleep may make people feel less alert and more irritable. Not getting enough sleep can also make feelings of burnout feel worse. Maintaining a routine sleep schedule (i.e., waking up and going to bed around the same times each day), reducing caffeine consumption, and limiting electronic use before sleep are just a few measures that could be helpful for improving sleep.
  • Take a break. While you may not have any breaks in your semester planned, taking some time away from your electronics and your work for some time can be helpful to prevent your thoughts from wandering to everything that's causing you to feel stressed and overwhelmed. Additionally, if able, taking a few days off may be a needed break to relieve some of those feelings of burnout. Taking a weekend to get away from work may prove to be a helpful respite. If taking a few days isn’t possible, setting aside even a day or even a few hours may be a reprieve.
  • Try mindfulness. Trying to incorporate some mindfulness into your routine may help fight those feelings of stress. By focusing on your breath and what you’re feeling in your body, you may be able to reduce some of the stress you’re experiencing.

Although you may feel like you won’t get a break soon, building in time for yourself can help to reduce those feelings of burnout. By incorporating some of these techniques into your life, hopefully you’ll be able to feel motivated again. If you're still struggling to feel like yourself, you may want to see what types of support may be available on campus, be it support groups, time management resources, or a mental health professional among others, as they can provide additional information and resources to help you.

Alice!

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