Writers are taught to dissect their familiarities with words. The feelings that are close to us, whether big or small, have the potential of revealing the quality of our lives. Except, the feelings I have been getting close to lately are not necessarily the warm kinds of feelings that I love to write and talk about. It seems that I have become more concerned about deadlines, to-do lists, and responsibilities over the love of science and health that drove me to become a PreMed student. Maybe what I am trying to say, unfortunately, is that burnout has become a close and familiar friend of mine.
People who work more than a 9-5 schedule five times a week are six times more likely to suffer from burnout. Last time I checked, nearly every single PreMed student in the country fits into that category. Getting into medical school has never been as competitive as it is today, and more and more students are willing to accept any amount of pressure necessary to stand out. As those students finally get accepted, that pressure only intensifies for many. Yet, we choose to talk about burnout like it is an illness – some kind of sad circumstance that only seeks out doctors who practice for 30+ years. Burnout tends to be one of those topics we would rather shrug off and act like it does not actually happen. The reality is that poor habits and an overworking environment can turn anybody sour, PreMed student or not.
If your schedule already puts you at risk for burnout, then how critical is it to hold healthy and sustainable habits? There is certainly no getting rid of long hours of studying, but there are plenty of ways to stabilize it. Since being a PreMed sometimes entails answering the hard questions, you should be asking yourself if some of your closest feelings are beginning to resemble the stages of burnout. More importantly, you should be asking how you could fix it so that you can be the best, and happiest, future doctor out there.
Have I become exhausted – even cynical?
You cannot deal with burnout without first realizing you might suffer from it. People with “all-in” mentalities who work incredibly hard toward goals are especially susceptible to being drained over time. Most people find themselves in burnout from years of unbalanced hard work, not laziness. If you are becoming exhausted, you may start to develop negative feelings towards studying and going to class. The good news is you do not have to quit being a PreMed student to be happy, and most effects of burnout are completely reversible.
Do I see value for my hard work still?
One of the reasons why I generally love what I do is that I get to handle adversity and overcome steep learning curves. If you are like me, you are a person of challenge. But if you are relinquishing the challenges that you would normally thrive on, it may be a sign that you are not seeing the value in hard work or taking pride in what you do. Underperformance can become a serious problem if it is not fixed. Do not fall into the trap of wondering whether day-to-day responsibilities are worth your best efforts. They are always worth your best efforts.
Do I have enough control over my time?
Push yourself to volunteer, travel the world, cure cancer, and generally be remarkable on top of your schoolwork. The only problem is that you are walking a dangerous line if you are consistently sacrificing your happiness at the expense of more responsibility. One of the biggest factors of burnout is the feeling of not having control – especially when it comes to time. If you wake up and go to bed too often as a slave to your responsibilities, then free something up immediately. This would also be a great point to readdress your study efficiency and schedule. Maybe you do have the time, but could probably use it a little more wisely. If you do not have time for your own happiness at least once every few days, it is only a matter of time before you are part of the next batch of burnout statistics.
What are some tips for getting out of burnout?
- First, take the time to completely understand yourself. None of the following tactics will work otherwise.
- Distinguish between true burnout and true laziness (you know who you are).
- Write down a few scenarios you experienced in the past that made you smile or reminded you why you loved being a PreMed student. Try to have that experience again tomorrow.
- Pick up a creative hobby that is separate from medicine or science.
- Ask yourself, “What motivates me to be good at what I do?”
- Make a running list of small things that you would like to do better at. Work on one or two of these every few days.
- As always, exercise, eat well, and create habits that support a healthy lifestyle.
For more information, The Happy MD provides practical advice in the area of physician burnout. While his website is aimed specifically at physicians, it is not too crazy to think that unhealthy habits and burnout start long before physicians start wearing their white coats and making rounds.
Make sure the feelings you are getting familiar with are not being shrugged off. Truthfully, we cannot keep acting like burnout only happens to people who need to retire. Your greatest obligation is not always to your studies, research, or volunteering. Sometimes it is simply to your well-being. Smile, be honest with yourself, and be happy.
Austin Greer is a 4th year student at Indiana Wesleyan University and a current Student Advisory Board Member for PreMedLife.