Asian woman with dark eyeliner in medical scrubs in classroom with others

Stress, Burnout, and Emotion Management Tips for Health Care Students

Health care is a stressful field for both professionals and students. Learn why maintaining your mental health is important now and in a future medical career.

While all college students get stressed about homework, projects, and finals, health and medicine majors face another level of stress that comes with pursuing this field. Intense workloads, hectic schedules, clinical requirements, and high-pressure situations are stressors that only increase after graduation. That’s why it’s important for health care students and professionals—or anyone who works in an emotionally charged environment—to understand the importance of their own mental health.

Burnout is one of the main factors that reduces performance among students—especially those pursuing health tracks and medical school. Burnout, by definition, is a state of physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion caused by excessive stress. Prolonged stress leads to a state of mental unwellness and lack of motivation. It spills into every area of life, affecting your work environment, academic lifestyle, and even social experiences. Because of its numerous consequences, it’s important for students to be able to cope with burnout and find healthy mechanisms that lead to a better mental state. Recognizing and managing your emotions will help you maintain a healthy lifestyle and, ultimately, succeed in college and beyond. 

How your health relates to the medical industry

The medical field is a challenging one. With the amount and rigor of coursework medical students face, it’s almost impossible to maintain a healthy lifestyle—physically or mentally. The mental health of medical professionals is increasingly important due to the correlation of medical errors and/or a decrease in performance, which can ultimately lead to a patient’s health being at risk. Mental health problems related to burnout can lead to high career turnover rates in a variety of health care fields. Studies have shown that health care workers are more exposed to psychological distress such as emotional labor, the fear of medical errors, experiencing mental abuse from patients, and more. This all piles up to foster an incredibly unhealthy mental state. That’s why maintaining a healthy lifestyle early on in your medical journey is incredibly important.

Related: A Day in the Life of a Health Care Team

The difference between stress and burnout

There are many underlying factors that help distinguish between stress and burnout. Though claiming to be “burnt out” is easy to do in casual conversations, burnout is the true perception of not seeing anything positive happening anytime soon. A stressed individual may have too much pressure to deal with, but they’ll typically feel as though if they work hard enough, they can get back on track. Burnout, on the other hand, is not feeling enough. It’s the combination of feeling empty, emotionally exhausted, and devoid of motivation. To put this into perspective, “If excessive stress feels like you’re drowning in responsibilities, burnout is a sense of being all dried up,” according to HelpGuide.

Major components of burnout

There are three major components of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency.

  • Exhaustion comprises profound physical, emotional, and mental fatigue that undermines your ability to work effectively and feel positive about what you’re doing. In a state of exhaustion, it’s hard to continue routines and even enjoyable tasks seem punishing. Motivation to do certain tasks, even hobbies, is extremely low and, as a result, it’s impossible to finish tasks that were once easy for you.
  • Cynicism, also known as depersonalization, often leads to students distancing themselves from their academic life. Instead of working on homework, you might be emotionally and psychologically detached, often feeling negative emotions that make doing your work feel impossible.
  • Inefficiency is the third component of burnout. It’s a sense of not being as productive as one could potentially be. This state ultimately leads to not feeling motivated and a lack of performance academically.

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to hold your mental well-being as a top priority to prevent reaching all three stages of burnout. 

Related: How to Manage Emotions During Tumultuous Times

Preventing and dealing with burnout

It’s difficult to recognize when you’re burnt out to begin with. Normally, self-denial is a major component; you fail to believe you need to stop and make some changes, and it’s brushed off as tiredness. Nevertheless, whether you’re tired or burnt out, the obvious way to reduce these issues is to maintain a healthy mind. Some acts that can foster a healthy mental state are small such as eating well, getting enough sleep, and making time for exercise. Though everyone may not be able to check all these boxes every day, it’s important to prioritize these activities to make yourself feel better. But there are some less obvious tactics you can employ as well.

Make time for yourself

You can relieve the weight of burnout by making time for yourself. One great way to do this is by journaling or using a planner. Rather than only writing down tasks and deadlines related to work or school, incorporate personal hobbies as well. This way, you’re actively allocating time for yourself and your interests outside of school, and your schedule will feel less clustered and tiresome. For example, my planner includes homework and extracurricular activities as well as independent activities I like to do between them. It looks something like this:

  • Calculus practice: 6:00 pm
  • Biology homework: 6:50 pm
  • Practice the guitar: 7:30 pm
  • Finish language essay: 8:00 pm
  • Finish knitting scarf: 9:00 pm

Not only will your planner seem less excruciating to look at, but you’ll also set a timestamp in your brain for the activities you would like to do. It gives you something to look forward to and prevents the feeling of overwhelming academics. 

Realign your goals

Another way to reduce burnout is by realigning goals for yourself. In a journal or even in the Notes app on my phone, I like to write down small goals I have for the day. By not making the goals too large scale, they seem more attainable. When I achieve these goals, I feel better about myself as a person and more motivated to do other daily activities because of the gratification of accomplishment. 

Spend time with people you love

Another key tip for reducing burnout is to spend time with people you enjoy being around! Going out and buying myself a treat or talking to my favorite people is a huge stress reliever. It will make you feel less alone and could even inspire and motivate you through good conversation. A better mood will ultimately help you foster a healthier mental state and environment that you need to succeed academically and professionally. 

Related: Feeling Burnt Out? 5 Steps to Get Back on Track

Many college students underestimate the importance of mental health and the consequences of burnout, especially in high-stress, highly emotional fields like health care. But maintaining a positive mental state and treating negative conditions are crucial steps you need to take. Learning to recognize your emotions and nurture your mental health isn’t just good for daily life—it’s important in the long run and in your future career as well. 

Being a student is hard, but you don’t have to deal with those overwhelming emotions alone. Check out all Our Best Advice for Dealing With Stress as a Student for ways to make it a little easier!

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