Burnout

So it has been quite some time since my last post because I have been busy studying for exams that I just took yesterday. The results are in, so I will post them tomorrow. For tonight, however, I want to talk about other topics pertaining to our human mind.

For this third exam, in particular, I have been starting to spot signs of burnouts among my colleagues. This reminded me of my post prior to the start of medical school in which I discussed about the importance of dealing with “burnouts.”

According to PubMed, “Experts have not yet agreed on how to define burnout. And strictly speaking, there is no such diagnosis as “burnout.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072470/)

The following is from the same PubMed article:

There are three main areas of symptoms that are considered to be signs of burnout:

  • Exhaustion: People affected feel drained and emotionally exhausted, unable to cope, tired and down, and do not have enough energy. Physical symptoms include things like pain and stomach or bowel problems.
  • Alienation from (work-related) activities: People who have burnout find their jobs increasingly stressful and frustrating. They may start being cynical about their working conditions and their colleagues. At the same time, they may increasingly distance themselves emotionally, and start feeling numb about their work.
  • Reduced performance: Burnout mainly affects everyday tasks at work, at home or when caring for family members. People with burnout are very negative about their tasks, find it hard to concentrate, are listless and lack creativity.
The signs seem to be pretty familiar and I can say with confidence I have experienced them myself. Burnout, especially exhaustion, is inevitable whether you’re a medical school student or an undergraduate. I can only speak of these two although exhaustion can be observed on all levels of work environments. As an MPH student, I can also confidently speak of the importance of managing stress in our daily lives because stress is one of the biggest causes of deleterious health effects.
So burnout is inevitable. Inevitable. Yet, prevention and preparation are still important role because they will allow us to control the severity of burnouts. Burnout is like a hurricane. We know it comes every hurricane season, and we cannot stop Mother Nature. We can, however, prepare for it and make prevention efforts to ameliorate.
What I had discovered with this third exam was that burnout hit most of us regardless of whether we had aced the first two exams or performed less-than-expected. In other words, previous performance played little role in the ability to completely prevent the occurrence of burnout. And I thought to myself, “why?” The most likely reason is that there are still two written, one practical and one standardized patient exam left in the term. And nobody could afford to perform poorly on the third exam regardless of the performance for the first two exams. So the work keeps on piling up, time does not wait, and the high expectations start to asphyxiate.
So how do we move forward? This is probably the most important part of my post tonight. The key is to prioritize. But I feel like too many people take the word for granted. Yes, it could simply mean listing things on a post-it note and making sure that you cross of tasks starting from #1. To me, however, prioritization means much more. It means that my daily schedule has to revolve around that task labelled as “#1.” For me, that #1 is studying musculoskeletal system, for example. And on particular day, I might have to give all of my undivided attention to the brachial plexus.
Now here’s my secret: I take frequent breaks. This allows me to disperse the amount of sensory information that I receive over a particular period of time. I realized this on the first day of anatomy lab when I was exposed to the unique scent of cadavers after having completed three hours of case discussion, patient examination and ultrasound. The anatomy instructor was talking about how students had fainted before because of lack of sleep, lack of food (breakfast) and sensory overload. Sensory overload can make you faint in extreme cases such as this, which reflects more an acute effect. What we don’t realize is that when we are studying in the comforts of our own room, we are actually letting sensory overload take effect surreptitiously over an extended period of time. We most likely don’t realize the effects until burnout has set in place because our minds tell us that we are in our comfort zone. It is as if we are able to compensate and suppress the overload until we hit some threshold in which the effects are too large to suppress with our comforting thoughts. In any case, often times I will take a break as often as every 10-15 minutes. And this might seem like I have an attention deficit, but it is really a way for me to absorb the information while letting my brain cool. The important part is to actually focus for the 10-15 minutes. And you have to be very efficient with how you absorb information during that short period of time. Otherwise, there is really no point in taking a break because there was no sensory overload to begin with. I will take a 5-10 minute break. And during that time I might watch a short youtube clip or close my eyes and start storing information using method of loci.
Someone might ask, “what about during lecture?” That is a good question because you cannot just take a break in the middle of the lecture to watch a video or store info into your memory palace, which requires a specific environment. To accommodate for the fast-paced, no-break lectures, I actually preview extensively. I almost teach the material to myself prior to the lecture such that the lecture is similar to a review. I will usually reserve three hours in the morning or the night before to accomplish this.
Another important aspect of managing burnouts is to keep in mind that you are going through something that is inevitable. You have to simply accept that the emotions and exhaustion you are going through are completely natural and ordinary. If you are a student, then make sure your life revolves around your studies. This means it is okay to take frequent breaks because you should be able to confidently tell yourself that studying hours take up a significantly larger portion of your daily schedule. Prioritization does not mean prohibition even though a certain level of self-control is crucial. Lastly, keep in mind that you will not be given tasks that you cannot handle. That is just a simple rule in life. Cheers!

 

Tomorrow: Exam 3 results & post-exam analysis

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