How to prioritise your own emotional wellbeing and avoid burnout

Regardless of whether you are in your final year of university or are just beginning your studying journey in primary school, at some point in time you will have encountered the term ‘burnout’. And if you’ve been studying for as long as I have, this word should bring back some rather…stressful memories.

For the uninitiated, the term ‘burnout’ refers to the feeling of exhaustion that one gets after being constantly overworked and stressed, so much so to the point where their energy literally ‘burns out’.

Suffering from a burnout can be extremely detrimental – it can result in negative emotional experiences, and feelings of stress, anxiety, anger, depression, and an overall numbness that comes from being ‘done with life’. It can also be extremely difficult to recover from a burnout – it can take days or even weeks to recover, and during that period the negative emotions still persist. These negative emotions influence every aspect of life, and can result in impairment in everyday functioning ranging from an inability to work to an inability to even get out of bed.

Thus, the ideal situation is one where everyone does not suffer from a burnout. However, this is often easier said than done – given the high academic pressures and the everyday stressors in our lives, how does one go about preventing burnout?

Based on previous experiences, I have curated a list of three important tips that can hopefully help you to prevent your own burnout!

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1. Pick Study Habits that Actively Avoid Burnout

You know what they say – prevention is always better than cure! And if you are trying to avoid the occurrence of a burnout in the first place, it is best to pick a study habit that tends to result in less burnout overall.

However, this is different for everybody – my study habits are not the same as the study habits of my friends, and they are likely not the same as yours. Every individual is different, which means you need to know yourself well enough to select an effective studying habit.

I will share my experiences on how I found my strategy, and I will then list some of the common strategies I observe around me.

Personally, when I was younger, I didn’t quite know what my style of studying was. In primary school, I actually tended to be more rebellious and would purposely refuse to work hard and study. However, in secondary school and JC, I then became more disciplined and ended up forcing myself to constantly work hard every day. However, the results I obtained for IB were actually lower than what was predicted. It was also lower than what I expected of myself.

Because of this, I had to reflect – why did I end up with a lower score? Upon reflection, I found that I often suffered from burnout because I had to constantly force myself to be disciplined. It wasn’t natural to me, I had to push myself to work every day, and I would often tire out very easily because of it.

When I arrived at university, I decided it had to change. Throughout my life, I realized that I had always been an extreme – I was either extremely passionate about something or extremely indifferent, and there was no in-between. This led me to try a studying strategy of extremes – I would have periods of extreme productivity, where I work for at least eight hours a day without resting much, followed by days of extreme relaxation where I don’t want to get up and I lie in bed without doing any work.

This current studying habit has served me well – I do decently in university, and I manage to completely avoid burnout, aside from maybe one or two occurrences.

But, of course, it took a while for me to be able to find a strategy that I was comfortable with. From my story, I think the main takeaways for you would be to try a variety of strategies while you still can, and to reflect and see if one strategy was more effective at both producing grades and avoiding burnout than another. You should also be willing to try different strategies and experiment with different styles.

Over the years, I have also observed many different studying styles around me, but I have classified them into three main categories:

  1. A style of extremes, similar to my own
  2. A daily, disciplined style, where the person studies a little bit every day and completes the project/assignment before the due date
  3. A cramming style, where the person doesn’t study until a week or two before the exam, and spends that whole week cramming and studying for the finals

You can spend some time reflecting on whichever one you adopt, and whichever one you might want to try. Do note, however, that there are many different studying styles, and the ones I have just described might not fit you, so do remember to experiment and reflect!

2. Be Aware of the Early Signs

However, even with an effective studying strategy, there are still times when a burnout is inevitable. The best way to stop an oncoming burnout is to be aware of anything that signals a potential burnout. And in order to know this, you have to be very aware of your emotional state, your working habits, and your normal routine behaviors.

For example, if you are someone who normally stress-cries after every exam, then there is nothing abnormal about it and there is no need for concern if your parents find you stress-crying at home after midterms. However, if you begin to feel the need to cry during spontaneous intervals e.g. when the teacher hands out a new assignment, that is a definite warning sign of a potential burnout.

Unfortunately, some signs are not as explicit. Everybody experiences different signs, and these signs can range from outright crying to losing appetite, or feeling constantly exhausted despite resting the whole day. All these things have to be taken into consideration, and one should not simply dismiss them as a one-off incident. Instead, the moment you notice something odd that is outside your routine, make sure to examine why it occurred.

One example of a sign would be feelings of constant exhaustion and a general overwhelming exasperation and anger at life and work. I have personally experienced this, and would often make remarks about being ‘done’ with life. During these periods, I would lie in bed and do nothing, and whenever new assignments came along I would feel anger and frustration at having to do a task instead of my usual feelings of motivation.

The moment I begin to feel even a little bit frustrated with work, or the sensation of being overwhelmed creeps up, I immediately take a break. It doesn’t matter whether I finished the task or not – what matters is being able to sustain myself for the future tasks ahead of me, and if that means I need to do nothing for the rest of the day then so be it.

I would also like to add that you should probably learn to be ok with not finishing your to-do list. Do what you can, and if you need a break then take it. Do not try to push yourself too much, especially since it can affect you in the long-run. But I do acknowledge that it is difficult – it is difficult to be ok with unfinished work, it is difficult to not feel guilty at resting, it is difficult to force yourself to rest instead of pushing to continue. But the best way I justify it is by reminding myself that everything can be completed tomorrow. Every day is a new twenty-four hours, and if you can fully focus for even four of those hours you can accomplish a large portion of your work.

I would also like to add a final reminder that everybody functions differently – from my experience, I can’t continuously push myself to finish work when I feel an onset of burnout. Some people can. But I personally cannot, and I am simply sharing from my own experiences and perspectives and giving advice from there. You know yourself best – make the best decision for yourself.

3. Addressing Burnout

Despite all your efforts, a burnout can still occur sometimes. When this happens, you should do your best to find an effective strategy to recover from it. If you are experienced in dealing with burnouts, then by all means, use your strategy. However, if you have yet to find a decent strategy to help you cope and recover, don’t panic! Based on my own experiences, I’ll share with you three potential strategies that you can use for a speedy recovery.

But again – these strategies are what has worked for me personally. They might not work for you, and if they don’t, I suggest you keep trying to find something tailored to your own personality and characteristics.

Strategy #1: Do nothing

When I say do nothing, I really do mean it. Do not touch your work, don’t get out of bed, just lie there and enjoy the feeling of rest and relaxation. In my personal experience, I find that this works especially in the beginning of the burnout, where you are just completely drained. Lying on my bed and doing absolutely nothing but resting helps me to recover both physically and mentally. But at a certain point, it can get boring. Thus:

Strategy #2: Do a physical activity

Now, when I say ‘physical’ activity, I don’t necessarily mean physical exercise. It can be anything ranging from drawing to journaling to playing the piano. I spend so long staring at our computer screens and listening to zoom lectures to the point where I feel a headache coming on, and it is particularly bad during a burnout.

So, I switch it up – I do activities that involve zero screen time. I sometimes play the piano and practice my scales, or focus on pieces that I learnt in the past. Another favorite of mine is to play chess on a physical chessboard – I sometimes learn and practice new openings. Alternatively, I play against an AI, except whatever move they make on the phone I make on the physical chessboard, and I use the physical chessboard as a reference instead of the phone screen.

Those are just some examples of ‘physical activities’ you can consider!

Strategy #3: Anything music-related

I have often found that music has helped me to have a cathartic release. Through music, I can let go of all the pent-up stress and emotional burdens – whether it be listening to music, playing music on the piano, or just singing in my living room – music has always been a way to help me find release.

But if you’re more of a dance person, or even an art-drawing-style person, then by all means, go ahead! Find your method of expression that helps you have a healthy release!

And with that, we’ve reached the end of the article! Good luck for the upcoming examinations, and remember to avoid burnout!

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