Burnout can be overcome: improving your mental and physical health

Illustration by Olivia McCabe

Ishaan Nandwani, Opinions Editor

As a junior pre-med student double majoring in Spanish and biology and applying to medical school this application cycle, I’ve experienced my fair share of stress.

In addition to taking challenging upper-level courses, I volunteer as an interpreter and scribe at a local free clinic, study for the MCAT, serve as a service-learning teaching assistant, teach golf lessons to children on the weekends and my personal favorite — write and edit for the The Commonwealth Times, of course.

While I love each and every one of the endeavors I’m involved in (well, perhaps studying for the MCAT has lost its charm), I acknowledge that this is an overwhelming number of responsibilities to take on, which has led me to feel burned out at times. There have been days when I’ve simply lost motivation, or felt crushed by the weight of my obligations.

Burnout is when one experiences these feelings for an extended period of time, which is extremely damaging for one’s mental and physical health and sense of fulfillment.

While the logical solution might seem to drop some of these commitments, for many of us, it’s not feasible. Several of my involvements are compulsory by my program, or necessary toward my ultimate goal of becoming a physician. This is also the case for my peers pursuing other fields; others must work in order to pay for college.

An April 2021 survey from Ohio State University found that burnout rate among college students was as high as 71%; these rates were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

With so many college students facing extreme amounts of pressure and stress, it begs the question: what can we do about this? While college is a time of novel exploration and excitement, is it supposed to be this difficult?

The structure of our university system breeds the struggles that students face. We feel defined by the grades we earn, or the internships we score. We’re inclined to put ourselves on a scale and compare ourselves to others. When we feel like we don’t measure up, we become anxious and even burned out — after all, our future career prospects are defined by what we do now.

The truth is, these feelings of stress and burnout that many of us are facing won’t end in college. Ideals of competition and hard work are deeply entrenched into American society. In many ways, college is a microcosm of life: a rat race in itself.

I’ve been afraid of this future recently. I’m pursuing a demanding career in medicine, and am well aware of the workload and sacrifice ahead. I wonder if I’m already feeling like this, what’s it going to be like when things get harder?

I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve learned that I’m not alone in these feelings. It’s important to have open conversations about these feelings and acknowledge how they affect us, which can destigmatize conversations about mental health and the work-oriented culture in the U.S. Desiring a healthy work-life balance should not be frowned upon.

Lately, I’ve sought out ways to prioritize myself during these challenging times, which has decreased my stress levels immensely. Creating a life of balance and taking care of our physical and mental health are the most important things we can do to reduce burnout.

After much self-reflection, here are some of the adjustments I’ve made that have greatly improved my overall happiness. I hope you can benefit from reading some of these.

First and foremost, remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. I love medicine, and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to pursue this path and one day make a difference in the lives of my future patients. Being a skilled and culturally competent physician is something that deeply motivates and drives me. Reminding myself of my goals every day fuels my resolve to work harder and keep going.

Importantly, taking care of yourself is not optional. I don’t care how busy you think you are — prioritizing your wellness will improve every aspect of your life. Eat healthy. If for you that’s taking the extra time to get groceries and cook, then so be it. I suggest eating at the same time every day to get into a routine.

Exercise. Find ways to get your heart rate up each day, which will improve your cardiovascular health and energy. Instead of taking the elevator up a building, consider taking the stairs. Instead of taking the bus to work, walk. Even these small adjustments can improve your overall health and happiness.

That brings me to my final wellness tip, which is to sleep. I’m sure you’ve heard it a thousand times, but there’s a reason it’s preached so often: a healthy eight hours can do wonders for how well you feel during the day.

I’ve also tried simple things, like writing a list of things I’m looking forward to — going to my cousin’s wedding in Mexico, a trip to France in August — and what I’m grateful for each morning. Approaching our responsibilities as things we get to do rather than things we have to do puts everything into perspective. 

I’ll end this by saying that you are capable of achieving anything you set your mind to. Whether you’re a student reading this struggling with classes, a grown adult overwhelmed from the responsibilities of work and child care or anyone in between, your dreams are possible. 

Every morning, I wake up and ask myself, “why not me?” Others have done this before and succeeded, from all walks of life. You can too.

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