Burning out is a reality for CMU students, but it can be avoided

Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor
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It’s that time of the year: midterm after midterm, essay after essay, project after project. Even though spring break is days away, it feels like it will never arrive. We’re drained, but assignments aren’t going to finish themselves. How do we stop from burning out?

Let me first explain what burning out is. It’s that week in the semester when you feel so overwhelmed that all you want to do is stay in bed and eat ice cream while watching Netflix. For me, it’s that time when I’m in bed, eating ice cream, and watching bad reality television, when I briefly wonder whether college is worth it. Don’t worry: I always circle around back.

There are many factors that contribute to burning out. First, the most obvious, is the pile of work that’s dumped on us from all our classes. In the beginning of the semester, I heard from professors that they “understand you’re busy with all your classes,” but they still went ahead and scheduled everything the week before mid-semester. While I understand the wish to get exams in before spring break, it feels like I’m falling down a constant chute that never ends.

Another factor is the search for and planning of summer excursions. While this is more concentrated among upperclassmen looking for internships, underclassmen also experience this. For me, as I search for an internship for the summer, it’s hard not to compare myself to my friends who locked down an internship in the fall with Google and Microsoft or some other industry giant.

This speaks to an overarching factor that also contributed to burning out: stress. Our age bracket — 18 to 29 — experiences stress the most often, with 87 percent of the group responding they are sometimes or often stressed.

In recent years, “stress culture” has been highlighted as an issue at universities, especially at Carnegie Mellon. A 2013 study by the Carnegie Mellon Community Think Tank analyzed the different scenarios different students face. The study gives several recommendations of where students can ask for help: Academic Development, Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS), and the Global Communication Center. However, many students don’t want to ask for help, or feel that they have to fight through everything on their own. Everyone seems to be stressed out, sleep deprived, and carrying on like a zombie, that sometimes when I’m not, I feel bad. How ironic: feeling bad about not feeling bad.

The most detrimental part of stress culture is this inherent need for students to want to one-up each other by how much they’re struggling. Among my friends and just around campus, I’ve heard things like, “I had four hours of sleep!” followed by, “Well, I got three!” Or perhaps, “I have three midterms and a group project in two days!” and its response: “I have five midterms and three group projects!”

I can’t say I’m innocent in this. I’ve done it. We feel good about ourselves if we’re suffering more. And when we do prevail and get the work done (which we do, but maybe on no sleep whatsoever), we feel even better.

All these things add up to burning out. Let’s return to the main question: How do we stop from burning out? Or how do we overcome burning out?

There’s no one set path, but the most important thing that has helped me is to make time for yourself. Yes, you have to get things done, but you can’t get those things done if your brain isn’t rested or relaxed. Have a cheat day — not just for food, but for everything. Go shopping (or window shopping). Stay in bed as long as you can. See a movie, binge that television show you’ve been meaning to watch. If you can’t spare a whole day, do something small. Grab a meal at a place you’ve been meaning to try. Buy a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Limit yourself and only watch one or two episodes of that television show. Essentially, go treat yourself. Taking your mind off all the work will do some good.

Know when to say no. This is especially important if you’re part of a club or organization. Know your schedule so you know if you can take certain responsibilities any given day or week. For me, I’m an editor for The Tartan, but I also enjoy writing articles, like this one, for other sections across the paper. But some weeks, when editors ask if I can write an article, I need to know my schedule that week so I know if I can say yes. Sometimes I can’t, and I need to say no. It has come back to bite me when I don’t say no.

And finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Professors do schedule things all around the same time, but they do understand that you’re busy and overwhelmed. Check a week or two ahead to be sure of deadlines, and ask your professor for an extension if you know you can’t physically do all the work as assigned. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help with midterm exams, but it underlines something I’ve been repeating: know your schedule. It will save your life.

Burning out is part of being a student. It’s universal, but it’s also something we should try our best to avoid. Good luck — there’s one more week to go!