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  • Writer's pictureIsabelle Johnsen

Burnout Explained and Recovery Resources

What is Burnout?

The dictionary definition of burnout is “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” But what does that actually mean? In short, I don’t believe there can be one collective definition of burnout because, in reality, burnout looks different for each person experiencing it. The general understanding between the resources I used to research this topic is that burnout is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion that results from a combination of exposure to environmental and internal stressors and inadequate coping and adaptive skills. To clarify, burnout does not mean you are just ‘stressed out.' Stress is a short-lived sensation and is usually tied to a specific goal or deadline. Burnout can be longer than this, it can feel like the stress is never-ending and this stress is usually accompanied by feelings of anger, irritability, emptiness, apathy, and hopelessness. It may be accompanied by feelings of mental and emotional exhaustion and depression. Burnout can appear in physical symptoms as well, like headaches, fatigue, heartburn, and gut irritation. Those experiencing burnout are more vulnerable to becoming reliant or addicted to substances like alcohol or drugs, and even harmful eating habits.

Some sources define burnout as “a psychological state of physical and emotional exhaustion thought to be a stress reaction to a reduced ability to meet the demands of one's occupation” (Burnout | definition of burnout by Medical dictionary ( When I read this definition, I (as someone who has experienced burnout) felt irritated and de-validated. Similarly, I found a definition that defined burnout as someone who FEELS as if they are unable to do their job. In my opinion, these definitions focus on the result of burnout (i.e. not being able to 'get the work done) rather than contributing factors, societal expectations, and psychological causes of burnout contribute to the academic world's correlation between being a 'burnout' and being a failure. I believe that just because you experience burnout doesn’t make you incapable of completing your doctorate or master's or doing your job, it just means that your approach to your professional life might need reevaluating.



What are the warning signs of Burnout?

My internet deep-dive research session on burnout provided various common symptoms of burnout. Including (but not limited to):

  • Fatigue

    • Experiencing mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion

  • Insomnia and changes in appetite/eating patterns

  • Impaired work performance

  • Increased susceptibility to physical illness and substance abuse

  • Sense of dread about work

  • Feelings of emptiness, apathy, and hopelessness

  • Loss of motivation

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Missing deadlines or a dramatically decreasing academic

  • Self-isolation and feelings of loneliness

  • Increased substance use

I do not believe there is a singular sign or even a concrete list of signs to look out for when you are worried that you or a loved one are experiencing burnout, because as with most things regarding mental health, burnout might look different for each individual. For me, my burnout looked excessively procrastinating by crafting so much that my friends started calling me “the factory.” For someone else, burnout might look like forcing themselves to work on their thesis for hours and sitting there staring at the computer without actually getting the motivation to start the work. The best way to figure out how a graduate student is doing is to ask them and have an honest conversation about mental health. Everyone’s different, and you know yourself better than anyone. If you think you might be on the brink of burnout, it may be a beneficial exercise to start observing or write down your actions, thoughts, and emotions during the day. Are you motivated to start your work? How productive do you feel you are on a daily basis? What hobbies do you have outside of the research that makes you happy? How do you relax after a long study session? Do you give yourself time to relax? Even asking yourself questions such as these can start to give you a better idea of what burnout might look like for you specifically.

Why is it common in Graduate Students?

“The results from the Nature study are not an isolated snapshot of graduate student mental health. National survey data from the American College Health Association (ACHA) demonstrates the prevalence of mental health issues and mental illness among graduate students. In the spring of 2019, graduate students reported experiencing the following issues during the previous twelve months:

24% of students reported that stress had negatively influenced their academics.

41% of students felt so depressed it was difficult to function.

46% of students reported that academics had been traumatic or very difficult to handle.

58% of students reported feeling very lonely.

A possible contribution to why grad students might be experiencing such high levels of burnout may be the inherited beliefs we are given by each other and/or to ourselves. I am not sure if every student experiences these stigmas in the same way, but either way, I can tell you for a fact I definitely felt the pressure from them. A good example of this is something I have said to my parents probably one million times at the dinner table: “I don’t have time to take care of my body because I am way too stressed out with school and just don’t have time or energy.” Unfortunately, for most of my academic career, I have put my studies before my mental and physical health. My research on burnout heavily highlighted that neglecting your physical health actually can cause or contribute to the symptoms of burnout. For example, I read if you eat too many carbs, you may get a sugar/glucose high at first, but it results in your body sending more insulin to get rid of the sugar (hence, the “sugar crash”). Once the glucose is out of your bloodstream, you have an even HARDER time focusing and experience even MORE fatigue. This totally sucks, but makes sense, because my late-night “emergency” McDonald’s had never really seemed to help the productivity of my study sessions.

A belief that can be harmful to students is the idea that the more hours you spend studying/writing/researching, the more productive you are or the more progress you make. However, your brain actually works better when you give yourself (what I like to call) ‘brain breaks’. When I read about this, I immediately regretted all the late nights I spent in the library pushing my brain past the point of mush. A brain break can be any activity that lets your mind rest a little from the work you are doing. Try it! Instead of sitting down for 2 straight hours staring at your screen, try going for a walk around the library for 10 minutes or go searching for your favorite book and just read one page of it. You’re going to be more effective!

In the same vein, my research emphasized that multitasking completely cuts down your productivity levels and depletes your energy. And to make matters even worse, when you are multitasking not only are you not doing your best work on any of the tasks, but you also feel worse about yourself at the end of the day because you feel like you didn’t ‘complete’ any of your tasks. As a student who lives by a strict to-do list, when I work for hours on a project and can’t check anything off, I get extremely discouraged. But when I set my goals small and fully focus on my task (even if I don’t finish), I still feel that more progress was made. As someone who just learned about mindfulness in my DBT training, I have to admit it’s way easier said than done. I am a chronic TV-in-the-background kind of person. When you are learning DBT, they teach you a skill called ‘mindfully participating.’ As you might assume, to practice the ‘mindfully participating skill’ legitimately all you have to do is put effort to actively engross yourself within your task. If you were with friends, this might look like asking your friend questions after they tell a story (even if you thought it was boring). With schoolwork, what this looks like for me is having no distractions and trying to conjure interest in what I am reading or writing (even if it seems like busywork to me). Resources on burnout discuss how constantly switching between different tasks can lead to reduced performance and higher anxiety, so if you are someone who gets easily overwhelmed try setting aside a time for you to work on your research and only your research (even if it’s less time than you would’ve liked).

Another internalized belief you may have set for yourself is crafting this idea that your work needs to be perfect one hundred percent of the time. GUESS WHAT, not every piece of writing you do has to completely shake or improve the field. Set smaller, achievable goals for yourself might help you feel more satisfied with your work than if you are setting these impossible sky-high aspirations for your research. Many people think to themselves “if my research isn’t ground-breaking, then why am I even doing it?” But, bro, every contribution to the field counts. Even small term papers help you understand your topic better, help you hone your skills, and give you the opportunity to fail and learn from that failure! It’s all part of the process. If we put the pressure on ourselves to get to that end goal right out of the gate…. we set ourselves up for disappointment and feeling overwhelmed.

Advice from professors and therapists had personally led me to the conclusion that I have to shift my attitude to look at things more as a learning experience and part of my path as growing as an academic, rather than looking at my papers like it is the only opportunity I have to show my worth in my field. It might help to shift your attitude to look at things more as a learning experience. The realization that I needed to shift my attitude in itself helped me take some of the pressure off myself, and it might help you too!



If I do have Burnout, what do I do?

Since burnout looks different for everyone and usually impacts every part of our lives, not just our academic performance, the most logical approach to reducing symptoms is tailoring your ‘treatment plan’ to what works best for you, your environment, and what resources you have available. As a graduate student, you're always going to have work, and as a human being, life is sometimes (often) going to be complicated and exhausting due to things out of your control. The only thing you can actually control is changing how you cope with these stressors. Below I have listed a combination of techniques that I either read about in my research of burnout or learned about when I was attending group therapy with a focus on DBT. Obviously, these suggestions won’t work for everyone but they help me (as I am on my road to leading a more balanced life) so I thought I would share:

  • Reevaluate your work approach

    • The phrase work smarter not harder would be a very very good lesson for me to learn… and I know I am not the only one. For me, this would mean doing one task and actively participating in that task until it is completed rather than trying to accomplish 7 things at once and getting none of them done.

    • I like to apply what I call a "one for one" strategy. This means is that every time I do something either for someone else (like a stressful favor) or for something else (school work, research, exercise, etc.) I also do something for myself! I very quickly learned that the one for one strategy stresses me out when I set the bar too high for ‘something for myself.’ For example, if I tell myself “Hey I just completed this whole outline for my paper now I am going to completely go ham with crafting and make 100 necklaces” then not only is the system not productive, but it stresses me out because I constantly think about the time I am wasting. However, I am learning that if I set low, flexible boundaries of ‘one for myself (like a 5-minute reading break or a 30-minute nap or a 3-minute meditation) then I am much more likely to take a healthy approach to it! It motivates me to actually focus on completing the task at hand because I am excited that I can actually have a break after, rather than procrastinating or multitasking while I am trying to write my essay.


    • Self-care looks different for everyone… so make a combo that works with your time frame, resources, what fits your personality, etc. Some ideas to get you started include: yoga, mindfulness meditations, massages, exercise, dietary changes (ideally healthier changes), and practicing self-compassion

    • Create your own relaxation or mindfulness routine

      • what relaxes you? If you don’t have time to do a full routine, what is one small step (even lighting a nice smelling candle) you can do that might take your stress down at least one notch?

    • Conduct regular self-check ins

      • When you feel yourself getting stressed or overwhelmed, being able to recognize it is crucial to being able to stop the spiral that can contribute to burnout

        • In my DBT group therapy, we did a “feelings check-in” to get the hang of recognizing our feelings→ I made a notepad that you can download for free on the mental health resources page that might help with this

  • Take time to recharge and feel like yourself again:

    • Prioritize getting enough sleep

    • Eat right

    • Try physical exercise

    • Take time for hobbies

    • Utilize stress management techniques

  • Find a support group

    • Check out the links I have uploaded on my mental health resources page

  • Avoid multitasking

    • Or try to minimize multitasking if cutting it out completely seems overwhelming to you

  • Structure your day

    • A good to-do list helps me!

    • Check out my free to-do list and schedule planner’s if you need some ideas

  • Try to accept that feeling a little bit “burnt-out” is part of the process… give yourself permission to accept that making mistakes, failing, or feeling crappy is part of the process; and if you believe that your symptoms go beyond feeling a little stressed out or temporarily unmotivated than start to reach out for help and read the resources you have available to you!

  • Try to set boundaries between your personal and professional life. What would this look like?

    • Setting “you time” weekly and daily

    • Avoid only talking and thinking about your work on your days off

      • Try to ‘actively participate’ (the DBT skill I discussed above)

      • Try setting a timer to limit the amount of time you talk about your work

      • Try having a friend or partner point out (very gently) when you go overboard with rants/complaints about work

        • You can even have a silly code work that’ll make you laugh, this way you don’t get offended

      • Remember to self validate…. Your stresses, tension, and struggles are VALID and you are not the only one experiencing feelings associated with burnout. It is so beyond important to remind yourself that the stress and pressure you are under as a grad student is very, very real. Say to yourself "it's okay to feel sick of my research at this moment’ or ‘I am a grad student, I am in an extremely demanding environment, and its OK to feel stressed or overwhelmed" … these statements might help you remind you that your feelings are valid.

        • Using self-validation may also make it easier to set the boundaries between work and social time. Personally, I talk a lot about essays, term papers, Professors, etc especially when I feel guilty for getting a bad grade or if I feel as if I am losing control and deadlines are slipping through my fingers. When I self validate, I find that less of my relaxation time and my social/fun time is taken up with complaints or anxiety about the work I have waiting at home. Self-validating helps me feel less guilty for taking breaks from my research because I know I DESERVE a break.


Here are some resources that may help:

Resources Used for the Information Above:


  2. Dealing with burnout as a grad student | CU Boulder Today | University of Colorado Boulder

  3. You Might Be Creating Your Own Burnout in Graduate School (

  4. Yes, You Can Overcome Grad School Burnout – Here's How (

  5. Yes, You Can Overcome Grad School Burnout – Here's How (

  6. Mental Health Support for Students of Color During and After the Coronavirus Pandemic - Center for American Progress

  7. Promoting Graduate Student Mental Health: The Role of Student Affairs Professionals and Faculty (

  8. Supporting Graduate Students During Stressful Times - Rackham Graduate School: University of Michigan (\

  9. student-mental-health-and-the-law-jed-NEW.pdf (

Even More Resources (I am a student remember… lol):


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