How Burnout and Stress Led to My Grad School Mental Breakdown
“The road to burnout is paved with good intentions.” – American Psychological Association
(This article is co-written with Tiffanie Williams, Licensed Clinical Social Worker. See her profile below.)
During the second summer of my JD/MBA I had a major mental breakdown. A week before the 4th of July – halfway through my summer internship – I called my dad and told him I needed to come home for the 3-day weekend. Graciously, he understood, bought me a ticket, and a few days later I was headed home. My mom picked me up from the airport and brought me home. As we started talking and catching up, I began to cry. Not for any particular reason – I just couldn’t help it. I cried and cried and cried and didn’t stop crying for the rest of the weekend.
That Saturday night, I was lying in bed feeling anxious and having a hard time getting to sleep. I called my dad, on the phone, who was upstairs in bed. I had been crying again and needed some comfort. My dad came downstairs and held me in his arms, like a little child. I lay there and sobbed and sobbed and told him I couldn’t go back. So he told me not to. He told me to change my flight and stay for the next week. And I did.
The rest of that week was a blur. I cannot give my parents enough credit for the utter care and tenderness they showed me during that time. They were true champions. Because I would start crying whenever I was left alone, they alternated working from home so that I never had to be by myself. I followed them around like a child, alternately crying and staring into oblivion. It was extreme, but it helped. When I finally came back to D.C., I wasn’t fully healed, but I was able to get back to life.
Throughout all of this, I kept asking myself what had happened? I had encountered stress before, but I had always been able to handle it. I was used to stuff like this. And I wasn’t clinically depressed. So what was going on?
From Tiffanie Williams, LCSW
Stress is extremely powerful. Nobody escapes from it completely. However, our level of stress is often impacted by our perspective; resilience; life experience; physical, emotional and mental health; and support systems. Sometimes it is difficult to determine if the stress is the symptom or the problem. Stress can contribute to depression, anxiety, burnout, health problems, and much more. In fact, our relationship with stress can be more impactful on our health than sleep, exercise or nutrition. In Erin's case, she was operating from a significant level of stress, from a variety of sources, which impacted her physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and socially. This stress led to significant burnout.
Burnout arises when we are overworked, overtaxed, emotionally and physically exhausted, and unable to cope with everyday situations. It is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion caused by unrealistically high aspirations and illusory or impossible goals. Burnout is not just linked to work. It can also be linked to church responsibilities/ service, school, life roles, and more. High stress combined with a sense of loss of control are factors in burnout.
Effects of Burnout:
- Mental Health effects: Depression, Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive behaviors, feelings of helplessness, addictions, anger, etc.
- Relationship effects: conflict/ stress on marriage and family, feelings of isolation, lack of intimacy, increase in disagreements, etc.
- Difficulties in the workplace: absenteeism, conflict, delays, missed work assignments, quitting, health issues, anger, lower productivity.
- Health effects: high blood pressure, exhaustion, addictions, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, development of chronic and degenerative conditions, diabetes, headaches, nausea, muscle aches and pains, loss of energy, cramping, frequent illness, etc.
- Cognitive effects: difficulty concentrating, tangential thought patterns, forgetful, disinterest in work or learning, lack of clarity in thinking.
- Emotional effects: mood swings, crying, apathy, numbness, stress, irritation, emotional disconnect or emotional unavailability, procrastination, easily overwhelmed, avoidance, etc.
- Social effects: isolation, disinterest in activities or friends and family interactions, withdrawal, avoidance, etc.
Causes of Burnout:
- Perfectionism: focus is on what needs to be improved, rather than what has been accomplished.
- Never-ending tasks: work that appears to lack both a beginning and an end.
- Work overload: when we have more to do than we can complete in a given amount of time.
- Impossible tasks: physical inability to do something we feel we should be able to do.
- Multiple roles
- Self-sacrifice: when we agree to take on certain tasks despite our true desire to complete them.
- Unspoken feelings: any emotion that is unexpressed creates “blocks” in our ability to complete tasks and to function in relationships.
- Type A Personality
- High or unrealistic expectations of self or by others
- Lack of time
- Cognitive distortions
My process of burnout
Looking back, it’s not hard to see why I got so unbelievably burned out. The first year of law school is notoriously difficult. There is immense academic pressure to perform well, mainly due to the ever-present knowledge that your future job is primarily based on your first-year law grades. But in addition to the academic pressure, I had also been adjusting to the cultural undercurrents of the East Coast, law school, legal internships, and being in a new place entirely on my own.
After this first intense year, I was already feeling really worn out. But rather than go back to the now-familiar law school, I started an entirely new program at the MBA school, filled with brand new people, brand new class structures and styles, and hours of extracurricular work required by career clubs and the MBA model of working in teams.
Not only that, but this was the year that I turned 31 and had to transition into my church’s mid-singles congregation. For Mormons, this is often a really difficult social transition, one that most people hope to avoid. For me, making this transition meant that all the friendships I had worked so hard to cultivate in the Young Single Adult congregation were suddenly moot now that I was out of sight and out of mind. For the third time in two years, I was starting over.
It was after this year that I had my meltdown. I simply couldn’t take it anymore. But with the support of my parents and really good roommates and friends, I pulled through and prepared for my third year.
Sadly, I didn’t learn my lesson in my third year. Although I was now familiar with both the business school and the law school, this year I had to figure out how to shuffle them both simultaneously, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that they are literally on opposite sides of DC. At the same time, I was President of two student organizations, on the board of a third, and competing with the law school’s negotiation competition team. As if that wasn’t enough, I was also involved in planning the Washington, D.C. mid-singles conference for my church and had taken on a position as a Graduate Assistant for a professor at the business school.
Even though I didn’t have another meltdown like I did the previous summer, I did start noticing trends in how I was reacting. I noticed that I was living with a general level of angst that sat just under my skin and never seemed to go away. I was cranky, irritable, and worried about everything. Little things would set me off and I would snap at people who were close to me, like my parents. I also had no energy or enjoyment for the things I used to enjoy. In the very limited free time I had, all I wanted to do was sit home and escape into the mindless entertainment of Netflix.
Most importantly, I noticed that my ability to appreciate spiritual things was virtually non-existent. I would sit in church each week and feel nothing. It was like I was dead to the very things that had always brought me hope. My commitment to my faith never waned during this time, but I started to wonder if God had forgotten me and had somehow distanced himself from me. That feeling of separation made me feel panicky, and I would spend periods of time driving myself into my scriptures or listening to wholesome music in an attempt to restore a feeling I thought I had lost. And throughout it all, I kept wondering if this was what the rest of my life was now going to look like. A new question started to form in the back of my mind – how did truly successful people make it in life without completely losing it? Were they all this unhappy, or was I just not cut out for this type of life?
…Back to Tiffanie
If Erin had come to me as a client, my first impression would have been Major Depressive Disorder and/or Anxiety. She describes many symptoms of depression and anxiety but does not fit the criteria completely for those diagnoses. What does come through are some significant symptoms of stress and burnout. Society tends to minimize the idea and experience of burnout. We throw the word around so much that it is seen as unimportant, or something that is easily and quickly fixed. While the degree of burnout can be on a spectrum, a major burnout can, at times, be as debilitating as clinical depression. In fact, if left unchecked for too long, burnout can lead to depression. Stress, when it has the impacts Erin describes, is also something to take seriously. Burnout and stress can impact every area of your life and can take some time to work through.
Now, in my fourth year of grad school, I’m finally figuring out how to find balance.
My biggest goal this year has been to simplify my life to handle the additional stress I’m facing as I stare down the weeks until graduation. And it has worked. I started really studying my scriptures again (not just reading but studying) and have felt an immediate rushing return of the Holy Spirit. I am generally happier and have started re-discovering old and new hobbies. I also take every opportunity to find mentors in my field and ask them how they balance the many responsibilities on their plates.
However, I still notice those symptoms creeping back whenever my stress levels begin to rise. My creativity disappears, my general level of happiness declines and my anxiety levels go through the roof. But now I also recognize it when it’s happening. And when I do, I try to step back and restructure my life to ease up the tension. If I can do that, I can usually come right back out of it.
Prevention and Coping Strategies from Tiffanie:
Prevention is based upon utilizing coping strategies and support systems, setting boundaries, decreasing and eliminating causes of burnout, maintaining balance, feeling purpose and direction in responsibilities, and taking care of self.
"Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I shall give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30
“For it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.” Mosiah 4:27
5 Tips for Surviving Burnout- Melissa C. Stopper, M.D.
1. Take Inventory
Go someplace quiet; take pen and paper, and list all the things causing you to feel stress, worry or helpless. Identify all of the commitments and responsibilities in your present schedule. Identify the cause of feelings and where changes need to be made. Take inventory of your strengths, skills, and resources, both internal and external. Consider strengths to fall back on and what has worked in the past.
2. Pare Down
Accept that this is a time of crisis, self -evaluation, and change. Cut back as much as you can on commitments and responsibilities for a time and allow yourself to "treat" this emotional and mental exhaustion. Decide which areas you can let go for a while. Take a brief respite from your responsibilities.
Delegate tasks to others when possible. Accept offers of help from family and friends. Know what your limits are.
4. Pamper Yourself
Get plenty of rest, good nutrition, and exercise. Give yourself permission to participate in activities that bring you joy or pleasure.
5. Know When to Seek Outside Help
Recognize when feelings of burnout are leading to depression, anxiety, or other emotional disorders that may require the help of a professional counselor.
Additional Solutions for Burnout: Tiffanie Williams, LCSW
- Set boundaries and learn to say no
- Use your coping strategies
- Pray and read scriptures
- Ask for help from, and turn frustrations over to, God
- Prioritize 2 things daily
- 15 Minute Rule: get through the day or difficult task 15 minutes at a time
- Strengthen family and personal relationships
- Have fun and schedule free time; laugh and cultivate a sense of humor
- Break larger tasks into smaller ones
- Do not procrastinate necessary responsibilities- Just Do It.
- Remember: Moderation in all things
- Recognize your accomplishments
- List what you can control and what is outside of your control
- Leave work at work as much as possible
- Have a trusted person to confide in
- Find meaning or purpose in your activities, work, callings, responsibilities
- Learn and utilize stress management/ relaxation exercises
- Learn to be okay with mistakes and efforts rather than expecting perfection of yourself and others
- Work on personal issues
- Organize yourself and your life
- Utilize "mental health sick days"
Are you struggling with burnout or stress? Here are some additional questions and resources from Tiffanie that can help you determine if you should seek counseling or find ways to pare down your life.
Questions that can help identify Burnout:
- How do I feel about my current status in life?
- Am I happy in my occupation?
- Do I feel a sense of control in my life and responsibilities?
- Do I feel that I get some recognition for what I accomplish in different areas of my life?
- How do I feel when my phone rings? When I am approached by someone?
- What are my thoughts when asked to do things?
- Do I feel overwhelmed? Guilty? Resentful?
- Do I resent people for making demands on my time?
- Am I having a hard time feeling compassion, acceptance, excitement, and motivation?
- Am I noticing an increase in emotion or irritation?
Questions to Manage Existing Burnout:
- What are the signs and symptoms that I recognize in myself?
- Erin’s Tips: Find your “mental health barometers” – indicators that tell you how well you’re doing. For me, it’s podcasts. If I don’t want to listen to a podcast, it likely means I’m stressed out and unable to handle learning something new.
- What are my expectations? Anger is often based on unmet expectations.
- Erin’s Tips: Patience is often difficult to come by if you’re feeling burned out. If you find yourself getting angry at unmet expectations, try finding ways to develop more patience.
- Am I focusing on the right things for the right reason?
- What boundaries do I need to put in place to deal more effectively with my responsibilities(i.e. prioritize exercise, sleep and nutrition; delegate – no unnecessary meetings; etc)?
- Erin’s Tips: As Elle Woods says, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people [are less likely to get burned out].” Use your time to exercise as a way of treating yourself to a break. Listen to a favorite podcast, audiobook, or music playlist. Also spend time in nature. Nature has been a really important way for me to find mental relief from the stress of the city and reconnect with my roots.
- How do I personally apply the Atonement of Christ to the responsibilities that I have?
- What do I presently do to cope? Which coping strategies are adaptive? Maladaptive?
- How do I leave work at the office/school?
- Where does my stewardship on this assignment begin and end?
- Am I working harder than my member, colleague, etc?
- What’s one fun thing I can implement in my schedule to look forward to each day?
- What are some ways I can pamper myself now?
- Erin’s tips: Plants are a great way to de-stress. My apartment is now a veritable botanical garden. (So far I’ve only killed two.)
- Who are my support people?
Questions to Guard Against Future Burnout:
- How do I know when I am burned out?/ What are the effects of burnout on me?
- What are some boundaries that would help me to not become burned out?
- How do I balance personal, family, calling, occupational and other responsibilities?
- Can I differentiate between Good, Better and Best priorities?
Erin’s Tips: One of my great mentors once told me – in response to my question about how he balanced running a large public corporation, church assignments, and family time – that he never watches any sort of TV because it’s a complete waste of time. While I haven’t quite gotten to that point yet, finding ways to prioritize your tasks can help eliminate the feeling of being overwhelmed by large To-Do lists. Additionally, an old boss once told me to make a list of everything you have to do at the beginning of the day and then cut out all the things that are unnecessary. When I get stressed, I always go back to this.
- How do I take care of myself?
- What do I do for enjoyment?
- How have I dealt with burnout in the past?
- What could I do to cope better in the future?
Tiffanie A. Williams is the Founder and Director of Turning Point Counseling Services in VA. She received a Master’s in Social Work from Brigham Young University. She works with individuals, families, and groups on a variety of topics, including depression, anxiety, mood disorders, relationship issues, grief/loss, sex addiction, adjustment disorders, self-esteem and self-improvement. Tiffanie runs a monthly therapy/ support group for Spouses of Sex Addicts. She teaches marriage and family relationship classes and has facilitated therapy groups for survivors of sexual abuse, depression, grief, and life transitions. Tiffanie is a member of AMCAP and the National Association of Social Workers. You can find out more about Tiffanie at http://turningpointcounselinggroup.net/.