Declassified: Avoiding burnout


Illustration by Noelle Barrera

In my time at Trinity, I have acquired a reputation for overcommitting myself. I wear many hats on campus. I have peer-tutored, presented research, held campus jobs, run student organizations, directed a short play (do FYPOT!), organized teach-ins and shared many a cat meme on Twitter @thtbourgeoisgrl. Current Trinity students know me as either “that girl who brought Bernie Sanders to campus” or “that girl who gives allyship presentations” or “that girl who lives on the third floor of Northrup Hall.” In fact, last year’s issue of the Trinibonian satirized me as an ice-coffee sipping, diversity office working, social justice warrior named Homily Proletariat, which is pretty indicative of how most people see me on this campus. In the greatest turn of hypocrisy, I am here today to talk to you about burnout. Most students here take on a lot of responsibilities, and my story of dealing with this phenomenon is not unique — it affects students, staff and faculty members alike. Keep in mind, I am not an expert on mental health or wellness, but I have been around Trinity for what feels like a decade. If you find yourself needing someone to talk to, seek out the University Chaplain or Counseling Services.

Let’s begin by talking about burnout. In her article, How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, Buzzfeed News reporter Anne Helen Peterson details the condition’s origins and modern applications. “Burnout” was first recognized as a psychological diagnosis in 1974, applied by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to cases of “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” Burnout is of a substantively different category than “exhaustion,” although it’s related. Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.” Burnout happens to anyone at any time. It is the result of this pressure for hyper-optimization and hyper-performance that is put on us by society, our parents and ourselves. Burnout does not just affect politicians and caseworkers — it affects all of us. This one is for all of us here on this campus.

On my Twitter and Instagram accounts this summer, I asked my followers to give advice for their first-year selves regarding self-care. Here are some of the tips Trinity students, faculty and staff provided to prevent college burnout:

Understand that your time is worth something.
People will ask you to do many things and if you are competent, (which, you’re a Trinity student, so you definitely are) they will continue to ask you to do things. My good friend and co-worker Camille Johnson reminded us that you do not need to be the leader of every club you’re in for it to be meaningful. Choose only to do the things that make you feel good. If it does not serve you, it is OK to say no.

Find a community and spend time in it.
I have my people. If I do not spend time with my people, I start to feel it. These are the people who understand you, who do not question you and who leave you feeling regenerated. If you start walking away from interactions feeling worse, it is OK to take a break from being friends with them. Surround yourself with good people.

Find professors and staff members who you can trust.
I can not emphasize this enough. I have a short list of people who I can talk to, whether it is about academic stress or family stress and who are willing to listen to me. These people are your biggest advocates. Every professor who responded to the Twitter thread said the same thing: go to office hours regularly and ask questions. Professors are here for your success.

Find something that you love to do and do it regularly.
This should be easy, but it’s not. I love poetry but took a break from writing and performing for the first two years of college. Now, I’m back to writing and competing semi-regularly around San Antonio because it is something that brings me joy.

I can’t emphasize this one enough. Sleep.
Nobody cares how much sleep you got this week. There will be those people in your classes who wear their all-nighters with pride. Here’s a college secret: You will be more effective at your work if you sleep at least seven hours a night. Maddie Kennedy, Class of 2019, taught me that naps are made of magic, and if there is one piece of advice you take from this article, make it this one.

Take at least one day off a week.
I typically take a Saturday or a Sunday to just exist. I go out, off campus, and I do something. If you have to schedule or budget time or money specifically for this, do it. It doesn’t matter what you do, just get off campus. Dr. Claudia Stokes, chair of the English Department and president of my own personal Board of Directors, once told me to take walks when I start to feel overwhelmed or in need of a break. Move your body every once in a while, preferably in a place that is green.

Listen to your body.
If you’re tired, then sleep. If you’re hungry, then eat. If you’re sick, please, for the love of God, do not go to class. Nobody wants to hear you coughing during lecture. Resist the urge to compete for “most dedicated.” It is an award that comes with a check for admittance to the emergency room for dehydration and exhaustion.

If your gut is telling you that something isn’t right, listen.
Don’t stay in that class, in that major program, in that room assignment, in that friendship, in that relationship that isn’t filling you up. Whatever it is, do not allow other people to dictate how you spend your time and energy. College is too short to waste time on things that do not serve you.

Drink water.
This should be a no-brainer, but I was chronically dehydrated for two years. This is a retrospective for 2016 Emily Bourgeois: Iced coffee is not hydrating.

Dr. Benjamin Stevens, a brilliant professor and fan-favorite faculty member here, responded to my Twitter thread with a perfect piece of advice. “Meaningful work can be difficult — and doing badly doesn’t make you bad: Failing at work isn’t a moral failure. Indeed, you might discover that a course, or course of study/major field, isn’t for you. You might even decide that college isn’t right for you, right now or perhaps at all. That’s OK: There are many paths in life, and doubtless you’ll walk more than one!”

Take pride in the work that you do but remember that every paper, every club event and every shift you work will not be perfect. Be open to failure and take it as it comes. Trust me, your first B will not be the end of the world. Neither will your first C or D or F.

There you go, Class of 2023, everything that you need to be successful in college. This list is by no means exhaustive. Part of college is finding out what you need to do to refuel your own unique body. Some people can work for hours on end without a break, others need to work in 20-minute increments. It does not matter how your classmates do it — find a self-care schedule that fits your needs. And remember: Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.