Understanding Stress and Preventing Burnout

Kate Horan (kahoran@ursinus.edu)

According to Healthline, in a survey conducted at Ohio State University, in August 2020 student burnout was at 40% and in April 2021, it was at 71%. These statistics are shocking, but they are not surprising. Especially since the pandemic, students have been put under a lot of pressure and experience a lot of stress daily. It is important for students to be aware of burnout and the effects of stress so that they can use preventative measures.

Danielle Wagner, an Ursinus College staff therapist, agrees with the APA Dictionary of Psychology definition of burnout: “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others. It results from performing at a high level until stress and tension, especially from extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion or an overburdening workload, take their toll.”

Wagner explains, “I would say some of the biggest indicators of burnout are increased frustration and irritability, fatigue (physical, mental and emotional), and lack of motivation.” It is important for students to be able to identify these signifiers of burnout so that they can engage in preventative measures. 

In order to fully understand burnout and its causes, one must understand the processes of stress. Katie Bean, the Director of Prevention & Advocacy, describes neuroception, which she defines as the process of our brains scanning internal and external environments for threats. According to Bean, when a threat is detected, “the stress response kicks in and our body reacts with increased heart rate (to get ready to run), and our platelets in our blood get stickier (to help us clot in case we get cut), and our energy is taken away from our gut/digestion and moved to our brain and heart (to fight/flight).” If this stress response occurs frequently, these biological indicators of stress can become “full blown diseases.” 

“That is the biggest key – our brain needs to be told it is safe now,” emphasizes Bean. She explains the importance of interoception: the sense of the internal state of the body. One can learn to recognize the body’s warning signs of stress. When one senses oncoming stress, they can “combat it” with strategies that send signals of safety to the brain. Managing stress leads to preventing burnout, and some of these important strategies include:

1. Breathing: Experiencing a stress response causes people to take small, shallow breaths, which can increase anxiety and extends the length of the stress response. Taking deep breaths signals to the brain that the body is safe, reducing the physical effects of the stress response. Breathing also relates to mindfulness; it allows people to become more aware of their presence and of the present moment. According to Bean, “The most important tip to avoid burnout is also the simplest. Breathe. Take time throughout each day to pause and notice the breath. Feel the body, become aware of your surroundings using all your senses, and then take at least 5 deep breaths.”

2. Physical Movement: Physically moving and getting your heart rate up can reduce stress and even promote positive feelings. This begins on a neurochemical basis, and according to Harvard Health Publishing, “Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.” These benefits can be caused by any physical movement that increases heart rate – this includes everything from full workouts in the gym to doing a few aerobic exercises in your room. Bean also says that it could be as simple as “dancing to your favorite song.”

3. Other Forms of Self-Care: “Self-care is a process of building a relationship with ourselves and loving ourselves. It’s a way of life: consistently doing things to affirm our worth, letting ourselves know we appreciate and accept ourselves for who we are, recognizing what areas of life are lacking and could use more attention in order to feel more connected to ourselves and to life,” Wagner explains. Self-care is a flexible term, and each person can decide what practices are most effective for them. Both breathing and physical movement are examples of self-care, and other practices can include taking a walk, practicing mindfulness, listening to music, writing in a journal, focusing on gratitude, and so much more. Positive social connection is also a key aspect of self-care because it reduces stress and prevents isolation. “So it can be as short as complimenting someone at Starbucks on their shirt and they say thank you – to a long dinner and great convo with friends. Both are just as valid for the brain to feel safe,” Bean explains.

There are many methods of practicing self-care and reducing stress, and it is important to know them, especially in the prevention of burnout, and to acknowledge which methods work best for you. Students should consistently assess their well-being and practice the stress-relieving strategies when needed but remembering to do this is difficult. Moving forward, Bean advises students to “try attaching it to other habits you already have daily. Like every class you attend, when you sit down, take 5 deep breaths before taking out your phone/laptop. Or before you brush your teeth, or during a shower, or before every meal. These already ingrained habits are a great time to add one more activity, like deep breathing, to the routine.”