This article has been written & shared with us by Mohammad Askari, a student from the department of Engineering.
I usually draft my posts over and over to make sure they read well, and follow through on everything I want to say to my audience.
But then I asked the people who read my blog to tell me what they liked, and all they said was that they just wanted to read how I thought about things to myself. As if I was writing for me, and not for them.
So this one comes from the heart.
The start of Semester 2 meant a lot of things for me - another chance to do better with my grades - make more progress in my engineering projects, build relationships with the people I loved and get the most I could out of university.
That was until the stress started kicking in.
Constant stress can affect the body in a lot of different ways. In my case, it means kidney stones.
It was an issue that surfaced back in high school, when I was focused on finishing my A Levels, getting into a good university and managing the expectations of my friends, teachers and parents as someone that seemed like they would go far in life. 4 years on, and it's the same story. Thankfully, I got through the worst of it without serious medical attention, and carried on.
A couple days later, and I get the devastating news that my last grandparent passed away. Taking a week off to grieve with my family meant my mental health took a significant fall.
And then I came back to university, a week behind on lectures, going to all my project meetings again, talking to friends, and trying to pass off the recent stresses as though they needed just one off day. Sometimes it just happened to be that day for the people I interacted with, if I couldn't play it off well enough. And sometimes I managed to keep it hidden long enough that they just moved on.
Adding to that one of my personal flaws of being unable to turn others down, and I was always out with friends or loved ones, trying desperately to run away from my thoughts and feel normal, when what I needed more than anything was to sit and process the feelings I was avoiding.
Burnout makes you feel out of touch with yourself, your friends, even your passions. It’s more than just having an off day - it’s a repeated, or even constant feeling that you don't have the energy to carry on.
It's your body’s way of telling you that you’re exhausted - physically, mentally and emotionally.
For people who take up too much work - who in my case, in my friend groups at university, and in aerospace engineering, are usually the more common bunch - it's a serious risk. And often times the procrastination doesn't stem from laziness, but because the people affected physically can’t work any more.
I’ve put myself through it in both semesters this academic year. Having to adjust to a new year and new work, among all my engineering projects, definitely had me reprioritising how I spent my time.
In all honesty, I only made slight changes, dropping out of a project that only took an hour of my week, to settle the concerns from the people close to me - because I still wanted all the achievements I’d signed up for. I didn’t want to accept that I didn't have the energy to put all the work in.
That’s the curse of ambition. You want to do it all, so you convince yourself through any means necessary that if you just keep going and make that little adjustment next time, you won’t burn out, and you can still do everything.
I started this blog because I wanted to write. And every few days, I’ve come up with a new idea to write about - about my engineering projects, or leadership - about my birthday, my New Years goals - but every time, I’ve been caught up in some other form of work, and been unable to do it.
I suppose I started now because writing felt natural to me. Because I told myself I was just going to put what came to mind on the page, and say it unapologetically. And because journaling for me is one of the ways I heal.
With burnout, there’s always that dread of there being work to do for tomorrow - in my case, lectures that have gone unwatched, notes that have gone unwritten and quizzes that have gone unanswered, left with a great big 0 next to the final grade.
I’m scared of failing. Failing to get my degree, get the job that I want, make enough money to support myself and the people I love - and find a place in life where the work that I do matters to me.
That fear of failure can eat at you without you knowing, and I think it’s been eating at me for more than a few years.
So what changes? What can I do now to get rid of it? Am I supposed to get rid of it? Or will it just make things worse?
I think just like anything else, it’s a feeling. Feelings pass, whether they take a day or 5 years. Because life always carries on and brings new experiences.
But there are ways to speed up the process. To bring in other emotions that ease it, and help you get back to normal.
I’d always heard the word burnout thrown around before, especially in the YouTube space a couple years ago, when editing, making videos and getting clicks became almost like an extreme sport.
I never imagined it as a real phenomenon that affected people of any field, especially engineering. But the first time I realised I was having it recently was after watching a YouTube video (ironically enough) that listed 7 signs of Burnout. Here’s what they were.
You’re procrastinating a lot.
This was an interesting one to me - in my mind, I’m always assessing myself for when I’m procrastinating and doing things that aren’t productive in the long term. And really, it always felt like this was the case - that I had work I wasn’t doing.
The one big sign to me that it was burnout, was that I couldn’t start work as easily on new tasks that I knew were coming up. In a normal situation I might have forced myself, but the exhaustion was enough that I couldn’t muster up the motivation to start.
2. You’re isolating yourself from others.
Usually when I feel emotionally or mentally drained, I don’t go out of my way to vent to other people about it. I don’t like burdening people, and I don’t like it when they share my pain.
It’s why I retreat back to my room a lot of the time, into isolation, to recover by myself.
After the series of knocks to my mental health that I mentioned before, I came back to university telling myself that I’d gotten through it all: I was done grieving, done being sick, I could go back to work as normal. In truth, I just hadn’t processed any of those issues. And when it became harder and harder to stay out talking with friends, even though I forced myself to - one day I just couldn’t handle it - so I snapped, and became a recluse.
3. You’re becoming very impatient.
In part, that ‘snap’ that I mentioned, was brought on by my inability to handle simple misunderstandings that I usually would have been able to look past, with my friends and the people I loved.
Quirks became annoyances, and simple inconveniences became infuriating mistakes.
Even things like slight changes in plans, or differences in timing - having to show up early to meet someone, or a colleague coming late to a meeting by a few minutes, became more and more difficult to put up with - in a way that was completely unjustified as an emotional response if the burnout hadn’t been there.
4. You can’t sleep.
For me, this was an interesting one. Some nights I’d be so tired I didn’t have to put conscious thought into lying in bed and closing my eyes - sleep was something my body would force me into whether I liked it or not. Other nights, I just didn’t have the will to go and lie down, because I knew I’d be stuck there for hours.
5. Your previous hobbies no longer excite you.
This was a big realisation for me - work had taken up the time I would spend on any of my other hobbies. It wasn’t that they didn’t excite me; more that I didn’t get to spend any time on them. Work had become my hobby, and it didn’t just not excite me - I ended up hating it.
6. Your work or school performance is deteriorating.
After I came back, I realised how much I was behind on university work. Not only that, but the pressure from my projects made me prioritise my extracurriculars over revision for finals.
So it took a long time for me to realise I’d really fallen behind more than I even thought.
I’d started relying on supportive friends for help with work, and although this was what I needed for a little while, I could tell that without it I wouldn’t be able to stand on my own two feet again, in terms of being able to understand my course content and keep up with weekly deadlines.
Not just that, but my absences from project meetings started stacking up. Having already been running from one meeting to another in first semester, it felt like every week, I'd found another excuse for not showing up; knowing how much it became a detriment to my teams, which didn’t make me feel any better.
7. You turn to addictive habits for comfort.
For me, it was partly gaming, and partly food. Arguably, the burnout really just made me return to a normal human diet, given that I rarely eat enough on a work day - but after becoming a hermit over the weekend, using games to distract myself became a necessity to avoid the dread of the week’s work. This can happen for more than just a few days, and it’s destructive in the end, with a lot of good students falling prey to video game addiction. It’s something that happened a lot to me in high school, and for the most part I thought I was over it, but it can be very easy for those coping mechanisms to return.
Noticing the signs is important, but even better than that is actively taking steps to counteract burnout. And for each of these, there are ways we can go about getting ourselves back to normal:
Withdrawing from responsibilities is a common symptom of burnout, because we become scared of failing tasks we’re supposed to complete. One of the best things to do when the stress gets to you, is to talk to someone about the pressure and stress you’re feeling; be honest and tell the people in your life you need some time off. 9 times out of ten they will be completely understanding. Burnout is common for all of us.
Time alone is important - but emotional isolation is dangerous. When people don’t know how you feel, they can’t help you, and sometimes, as much as you don’t like it, you need help from a proper support network. Don't be afraid to let people know how you feel.
Negative emotions, and the outbursts that come with them, can sometimes be a sign of a lack of support from the people you love. Being unafraid to ask for their support is often the most important part - and having a healthy social life outside of work is also beneficial.
The bottom line is that you need sleep. Insomnia is helped by sticking to a regular sleep schedule (something I still find impossible to do) or staying active, and limiting substances that affect sleep, like caffeine and alcohol. Seeking medical help through a diagnosis and treatment can really help.
5. Losing Interest:
Reach out to the people close to you. Tell them about your troubles, and if your hobbies don’t interest you anymore, try something new. Sometimes it can just be the repetitiveness of our routine that causes us to lose interest - burnout is a call for change, and that can also mean a change in doing things you love.
6. Bad Grades:
Think back on your purpose. Why you chose to study in this career in the first place, and what made you happy about it. Centre your mind on your positive memories to remember what it was like before the stress got to you.
Recognising triggers for your coping mechanisms is important - what situations you put yourself in to fall into bad habits. At its worst, these bad habits can lead to addiction and health problems. But there are ways of turning them into good ones. Exercise is proven to help, and medical help is always available.
In a way, I wrote this article to self-diagnose and get myself out of a rut.
In truth, I don't know how I'll fare in the next few days. But I have some newfound hope.
Burnout is common to all of us, especially the ambitious ones. It’s a problem brought on by an imbalanced desire to be successful, and although it’s unhealthy at its worst, it can be turned into a massive strength.
Normally when I see someone going through tough times, I tell them to stay strong and keep going, because I believe they have it in them to carry on.
But in this case - to everyone that’s going through something similar:
Take a step back.
Find the time you need to recover.
And only once you’ve done those things - come back stronger. With thanks to Mohammad Askari for sharing his article. You can read more of Mohammad's work here.