Rebuilding after burnout

By Rebecca Stone

Every medical student has a simmering pot filled by the stress of long hours, perfectionism, and a seemingly unscalable mountain of study to be done. So I guess it isn’t too surprising that every now and then we can let it boil over. This may result in the triad that any true acolyte of Hassed is well aware of: depersonalisation, emotional exhaustion, and lack of personal accomplishment. In short, the criteria defining burnout.

The word burnout makes me think of the time my dad refused to let go of his 20-year-old Honda until smoke started seeping from its bonnet and it broke down on him, leaving him stranded at work. Which I guess is exactly what burnout is, but on a human level.

It’s your mind and body, the key components of the human machine, letting you know that they’re working at a rate which is untenable.

At times, medical students can view reaching this point as failing, but taking this viewpoint is utterly counterproductive. Not only does it exacerbate the manifestations of burnout such as a lack of personal accomplishment, but it also prevents us from positively responding to the messages your mind is telling us.

Burnout is an opportunity to rebuild, and reassess.

There are always reasons why we burn out. Some are within your control, and some are not, but ultimately it is incredibly important to identify and respond to these issues. Unfortunately, this is never simple, and may in fact require reshaping your worldview. If you’re struggling to find a sense of accomplishment, then perhaps you may need to redefine what you see this as being. Or maybe you need to take the time to rediscover who you are, or who you wish to be. Hopefully, these actions will allow you to evolve into a happier and healthier human.

When I noticed that I was experiencing symptoms of burnout sometime around first year, I had internalised the attitude that this made me a failure. I tried to deny that I wasn’t coping. Soon I discovered suppressing feelings leads quickly to further emotional exhaustion. This, accompanied by suddenly becoming a tiny fish in a ginormous, university-sized pond, left me feeling very much burnt out. Of course it eventually became clear through falling academic results and my seemingly constant unpleasant mood that something had to be done.

I had to change my priorities, my definition of achievement, and ultimately the way I perceive the world and my place within it. While once my current marks would have made me flinch, now I am impressed by what knowledge I have gained that will ultimately go towards helping others. Before, I would only feel accomplished if I had achieved my goals to perfection. Now I focus on the steps I have taken towards a goal, despite not always reaching them.

While of course I would not wish burnout upon anyone, I believe that it is a chance to reconstruct how you see and interact with the world. Identifying ways to deal with burnout makes you into a more resilient, well-rounded and emotionally intelligent person.

So if you do find yourself feeling slightly burnt out, try not to keep driving the old Honda that will inevitably break down on you. Instead, why not take the opportunity to upgrade to a new Mercedes?

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