Tips For Coping With Academic Burnout

As medical students, we all know how medical school and stress are like two peas in a pod. There are no two ways about it; to become a doctor, you must pass through trial by fire. In the midst of all of this stress the question is, are we handling it properly? What if you have been pushing yourself for so long, believing you are thriving when really you are just one more sleepless night away from a burnout or even right in the middle of it?

The University of the People defines academic burnout as “a negative emotional, physical and mental reaction to prolonged study that results in exhaustion, frustration, lack of motivation and reduced ability in school”. Simply put, it is a state of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion.

In essence, it is the climax of many weeks or months studying the same material or working on the same project, or from continuous years of schooling. It can occasionally be mixed up with the feeling of frustration after studying for hours on end, or tiredness from pulling an all-nighter but in actuality burnout is more of a chronic condition. With the nature of the medical school curriculum, I am sure I am not the only one who can see how at risk the average medical student is of suffering from this, talk less the efiko.

If you are wondering if this applies to you, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Are you feeling exhausted no matter how much sleep you get?
  • Have you been feeling increased pain and tension in your body like headaches or muscle aches?
  • Have you noticed you have been falling sick more often and attributing it to stress?
  • Do you lack the motivation to go to class or start assignments?
  • Have you been feeling more irritable and find yourself lashing out at others?
  • Do you notice that you find it difficult to concentrate on school work or lectures?
  • Have you lost confidence in your academic abilities?
  • Are you feeling uninterested in the things that used to make you happy?
  • Do you have feelings of anxiety or depression?
  • Have you noticed an increase in bad habits that you usually do when you are stressed e.g overeating, biting your nails etc?

If you answered no to all of the above and have concluded that you are not burnt out that is amazing considering the circumstances. However, as they say, prevention is better than cure and as long as you are still maintaining a student career, it would be shrewd to prevent it from occurring down the line by observing the following:

  1. Make Time For The Things That Make You Happy: Trust me when I say that we make time for the things that matter to us. Even if they are small pockets of time found as we go along our day, we must make sure to grab them and maximise them in ways that make us happy. Amid all the hustle and bustle, we have to learn to carve out time for ourselves.
  2. Get Plenty of Physical Exercise:
    We are advised to exercise at least three times a week, stay hydrated and eat healthy to keep mind and body optimal. Easier said than done for most of us, I know, but let us try to take care of our bodies as much as possible via simple things like proper hydration, taking walks, eating fruits etc. We have been given only one body, we have a duty to take care of it.
  3. Make Time for Social Interaction:
    Friends and family make a good support system and spending time with them will make you happier and give your mind a break from all the stress of the day or week. Aim to have a good work-life balance by setting up your schedule for equal parts school and fun or social activities.
  4. Avoid Procrastination:
    Prioritize your daily tasks and tackle them one at a time. Make sure you are not biting off more than you can chew. Use daily reminders to keep track of your tasks and find ways to motivate yourself to meet deadlines. It is always tempting to put off assignments and projects when we are stressed but at the end of the road, this is a trap leading to frustration, sleep deprivation and more stress.

If you think you are already burnt out, I know how you might feel but do not fear, you can recover from this. Now that you recognise the symptoms, do not ignore your mind and body. It will only get worse if you keep trying to sweep it under the rug. Instead of working yourself like a slave driver, consider the following options:

  • Make deliberate changes e.g. purposefully setting aside time for yourself.
  • Reduce the stress factors you can control.
  • Practice the preventive measures listed above. Mindful breathing, meditation breaks and other healthy ways can also help to relieve your stress.
  • Do not be too hard on yourself. It probably took months or years to develop academic burnout and so recovery will likewise take time and commitment.
  • You may need to seek the help of a professional and/or enlist the help of friends and family.

It will demand intentionality, but if you choose to put yourself first this time, then you will find the path to recovery is well worn and quite walkable. Only an alive and mentally well medical student can hope to save lives in the future. Choose yourself today.


Omoyemen Aisuodionoe-Shadrach


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