Burnout. It sucks. I have experienced 3 major burnout points in my life. Once during an undergraduate degree, master’s degree, and during my doctoral degree. The first two times were not as severe and happened around finals week in the final semesters of both degrees. But during my doctoral degree, it happened during year 1 and was detrimental to all areas of my life.
You would think I would learn from my past experiences, but burnout can be hard to catch, especially if you don’t have awareness on how you are feeling and what you can realistically manage in your life. It wasn’t uncommon for me to practice 4-6 hours a day, study 1-2 hours a day, attend rehearsals, play the occasional gig, pull the occasional all nighter, or work on other academic demands.
This seems like common practice for many students, but for me this experience was not sustainable and after the 3rd occurrence, I couldn’t push through anymore. The accumulation of mental and physical stress, working through chronic daily pain (this was also at a time where I was working through an injury cycle), extreme academic demands, and ignoring my rest and health led to a final burnout that made me deeply question my love for music and career path.
I found myself deeply depressed, anxious, and having no motivation to get out of bed. I tried listening to my inspirational playlist of music to relight the fire, but I couldn’t feel any emotions. I was emotionally numb.
As you can imagine, my experience not only took away the joy of music, but caused me to isolate myself from my friends and family, causing me to feel even more isolated, depressed, and confused. Academics and music is often saturated with hard workers and people who seem like they can grind out work 24/7. I had such a hard time grasping my reality when I could no longer push my body or mind to fulfill the expectations of a music student. I often found myself asking, “what is the point?” “what do I do now?” “how can I keep going on like this?”
Luckily for me, I found a light in the darkness and made a huge pivot in my life to pursue health and wellness. This led me down the path towards recovery and ultimately led to me where I am today. But not everyone is as lucky and I realize how lucky I am to come out the other side and still be pursuing music with excitement like a little kid on Christmas morning.
With that said, I am not alone in my experience. During my graduate degrees I saw friends and colleagues go through different levels of burnout and many of those colleagues dropped out, took time off from school, or switched career paths.
My hope with this blog post is to shine a perspective on someone who has experienced burnout and give the reader a deeper understanding the what, why, and how of burnout.
Now that we have the perspective out of the way, let's dive into what burnout is.
My definition of burnout is the loss of passion, the loss of centeredness, and/or the loss of fulfillment in your work or life. The accumulation of stress, without the daily implication of proper self care habits can lead to mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion. If burnout is left unmanaged, it can lead to negative, life - altering circumstances.
Let’s imagine that the road to burnout is put onto a scale from 1 - 10. 1 being high energy, care-free, and centered, while 10 being full-induced burnout. As we move closer to 10, we move further away from being our true selves - one that is centered, focused, and resonates with the person you want to be. As we move closer to 10, the more work and time it will take to dial back the scale. In other words, burnout compounds.
The Warning Signs
Onset of Stress -> Continuation of Stress -> Chronic Stress -> Burnout
There are many warning signs and symptoms of burnout that happen along the way. These aren’t in any particular order and generally, you won’t experience all of these. Mild symptoms can include:
Lack of motivation to insure proper nutrition
Lack of sleep or reduced sleep quality
Lack of wanting social interaction
Dissatisfaction of daily life
Inability to focus (compared to your normal levels)
Avoidance of decision making, I.E. procrastination
Anxiety, change in appetite, fatigue (both mental and physical)
Forgetfulness (although I have this ALL the time lol, #ADHD)
General neglect and lack of awareness of your personal needs
Grinding teeth at night (can lead to TMJ)
Headaches and heart palpitations
Severe symptoms can include:
Chronic fatigue, both mental and physical
Body becomes less resistant to pathogens, thus increasing your chances to become ill.
Social withdrawal from friends or family
Abnormal sleep schedules, for example, sleeping 12 hours at a time.
Resentfulness, apathy, cynical attitude, decreased sexual desire, or denial of problems at work or home.
Feeling threatened or panicked on a regular basis.
Feeling pressured or out of control.
Increased alcohol/drug consumption as a means of coping.
Pessimistic outlook on work and life
Obsessing over tiny details
Feeling of empty inside
Developing an “escapist” mentally.
WOW! That is an extensive list of symptoms, but not a comprehensive list. This is why awareness is key. The beauty about being human and having a consciousness is that we all experience things differently. We all have grown up in different social economical situations, experienced different life events, and have created this world through our own mind. With that said, knowing where you stand on the burnout scale is half the battle. Without awareness, how can we react accordingly?
Where you are at on the scale is going to dictate how much time and effort will need to be put in to reverse the accumulation of stress. It’s important to recognize that this takes time and sometimes you won’t have as much time as you need to overcome it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try and slowly reverse the scale.
Here are some concepts and habits that I have integrated into my life that have significantly helped me reverse the burnout scale and promote sustainability in my work life. Granted, these work for me, but may not work for you. Give them a try, take what works, and scrap what doesn’t. Remember, we are all different!
- If you are in a full-fledged burnout, look at calendar and see when you have a substantial break such as Thanksgiving break or Winter Break. Do your best to come to terms with what you are experiencing and plan accordingly to what you feel like YOU need during this time. It is okay to be burnt out with 4 weeks left in the semester, it is actually very common! Remind yourself you can do anything for four weeks and start mentally planning for your break, it will make the break that much sweeter!
- The most important factor for me was awareness. We need to be aware of how we are feeling and where we are at on the scale. Checking in with yourself on a daily basis can help you start to establish a baseline of how you feel.
The second most important factor for me was an equation ! Stress + Rest = Growth. This formula, taken from Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, serves as our formula to check our burnout scale. The further along the scale we are, the more rest we need. This also highlights that stress is important, but must be paired with intentional rest.
Here are some rest habits that I have incorporated into my daily life. Some habits include:
- Daily decompression time, especially before you go to bed. It’s very important that you relax the body and the mind after a long and demanding day. I prefer working on slow breathing, self-myofascial release, and mobility routines based around static and active stretching. I also recommend planning daily decompression time (to the best of your ability) into your schedule. This is you time. You are the most important thing in your schedule. You cannot pour from an empty cup.
- During decompression time, do your best NOT to think about anything work related. I call this turning off the "working" or "on switch." By rumination of fixating on a problem, you may be resting your body, but you will wake up the next day with less mental reserves than before. You may also risk overthinking while trying to fall asleep. Give your subconscious a change to work things through!
Some activities that help with decompression include mindless television (as long as you make the decision to be mindless), video games, journaling, a favorite hobby, exercising, meditation, breathwork, or reading a book! Do something that helps get your creative juices flowing and something that YOU love to do! Life is about living, not working.
-If you check in with yourself and find yourself at a very stressed state with no room for relaxation and recovery, ask yourself, are there any events that I can cancel or reschedule? You may have the plans to grab a few drinks with your friends on Wednesday night, but is that something you can do another day? How will that affect your sleep or your mindset? Try not to worry about your friends judging you, if they are real friends, they will understand your needs and will be happy to hang out another time. Just be honest with yourself and honest with them. It is okay!
-Overwhelmed? Can’t turn off your mind? Grab a pen and paper and write down the most important tasks you have to complete tomorrow. The next day, choose only THREE of those activities to focus on. Then step away and let your subconscious come up with a plan of attack for tomorrow. If this doesn’t resonate with you, simply writing down your thoughts for 10-15 minutes can be very rejuvenating. Either way, relax and recover to the best of your ability. This isn't about perfection, but showing up for yourself a little everyday.
I hope you found this blog article helpful. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out!