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How to Recover from Burnout


 Listen in to learn how I believe you should spend your break in order to recover fully.


You begin the semester with optimism and genuine excitement for the challenges ahead.

But as stress builds, that excitement can die out quickly.

If you don't plan for effective recovery during busy periods, you are at risk for chronic stress and, eventually, burnout.

But with appropriate recovery, you can recover your excitement and focus, and reach even your most ambitious goals. 


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Welcome back to season two of the Ivy League Prep Academy Podcast. Equipping you to successfully pursue the college of your dreams. We believe everyone deserves to reach their full potential, and the admissions process shouldn't hold you back.

As I record this podcast, the semester is coming to a close. And for many of you who are listening to this, right about the time that the podcast episode goes live, you've just finished your semester, or you have a few tests remaining, perhaps before the winter vacation. And of course, if you're listening to this at another time, that's completely fine, because it's not like burnout is something that happens once and is over with.

It's something that we need to be aware of, begins and builds crescendos. And it's something that we need to be able to take care of at each different stage of the process. So today I want to talk about what I would consider to be the five stages of burnout for teenagers.

Now, of course, you know that I'm not a doctor, I'm not a psychologist. I'm a school teacher. So the five stages that I want to discuss today actually come from my observations in the classroom.

For most teens, each semester begins with excitement and motivation. And let's call that phase one, right? The beginning of the semester, excitement. Kind of this honeymoon phase where there's lots of motivation, there's lots of energy and optimism and even the big projects, because teachers will announce that, hey, we're going to do this massive project sometime later on in the semester or later on in the year.

Even those big projects and big, difficult classes feel like a healthy challenge. It feels like something that will push you. It will challenge you, but you're up for it.

You'll be okay with it. And at the beginning of each semester, that's how we should feel. That's wonderful.

In fact, it's completely healthy. But that's how I see most people beginning. Then we'll call phase two, the onset of stress.

Like the beginning, the first little hints that the honeymoon has ended, it's dwindled, and you start to feel stress. When you feel that stress, over time, you're going to begin losing focus. I would say that students at this stage start to lose productivity.

They're not as productive. They're not as organized. When they're completing tasks, you'll start to feel fatigued more frequently or more often, your performance can slip.

So at this stage, let's be honest, this happens to everyone. Everyone feels stress. Stress is healthy.

There's not a single thing on this planet that grows without stress, right? We have to experience stress to encourage that growth. So the stress is totally fine. And feeling the fatigue and the frustration, losing focus, all of that is completely normal and completely natural.

And that's just a sign that we need to get back on our A game, but that can move on to stage three, which I'll call chronic stress. All right, this is more persistent daily or even constant. Every single day or all day, every day.

You're really feeling stressed out. You begin to feel irritable. You get upset at your parents or your siblings when they have nothing to do with the reason why you're upset.

You start to procrastinate more and more, especially the stuff that is important to you, but that is not completely urgent. So things that you used to love or things that you would love to complete or accomplish if you've had a big project that you've wanted to work on for a long time, a new hobby that you've wanted, those are the things that get pushed out really quickly when you're under chronic stress. There's lots of escape time at this stage.

So by escape time, you know what I'm talking about. If you're in the Ivy League challenge, I talk about this downward spiral all the time. And if you've listened to my podcast, you've heard this before.

But this is the idea that when you get ready for your day, first of all, you're probably waking up sleep deprived, right? And so you hit the snooze button until you can't hit it any longer. You must get out of bed. Even though you're exhausted, you're fatigued, you're sleepy, right? But you get out of bed and you just kind of survive your day because nothing ignites that flame anymore.

Nothing is a spark. Nothing makes you feel like, man, this is a challenge, a healthy challenge. It's going to be challenging, but I'm up for it.

There's none of that anymore. It's just I need to survive the day. How do I get from one class to the next and survive until I can escape? And by escape, I mean social media, TikTok, and whatever else, but also your television.

And that, of course, today is mostly YouTube and streaming, netflix or Disney Plus, things like that. And of course, video games. All of these activities, the video games, the social media, the television, all of these things either put you into a hypnotic kind of resting state where you're just vegetative, or they frazzle your brain.

They fry the brain by overstimulating it. One of those two things happens. And either way, you are not enabling your body or your mind to recover.

And so that's a downward spiral. Once you hit that kind of apathy level of chronic stress, you wake up and the day does not start well. It doesn't begin well.

And then you just kind of survive until you can escape into these activities that then fry your mind even more, make it harder to learn, harder to remember, harder to recover. And of course, that downward spiral just continues. Now, the chronic stress phase does not look like total apathy all the time.

You're still going to have deadlines. You're still going to have events that shock you, right? And these shocking events spur you into action, and you get ferocious amounts of work done in very little time because the deadline is approaching and you do put down your devices, you do get work done. So chronic stress does not mean that all day, every day, you've completely detached.

It means that you detach as often as you can. And the only thing that kind of yanks you back into the day, into your activities and your responsibilities are these deadlines that are looming and are important to you. But then we move into the burnout phase and it's hard to kind of know where chronic stress ends and burnout begins, like true burnout.

But there is a kind of distinction in my mind between chronic stress, where you can recover, versus burnout, where you're no longer capable of functioning normally. And this is where you just feel extreme apathy or extreme self doubt, constant stress, but you cope by just disengaging and total apathy. You feel numb.

What I've seen among my students is that you start to see health related issues that begin to show things like headaches or stomach aches. You feel chest pain or tight jaw, tight back, tight muscles in wherever you carry the stress in your body. But again, the headaches and everything else kind of shows up.

And of course, you're sleep deprived, so you don't notice that all these things are happening. You're not very self aware, you're not very thoughtful. You just kind of survive each day.

But at some point, you're no longer capable of switching back and you just are stuck in total burnout. And then what I have seen among students is that at some point, if that continues without recovery, there is a real breakdown that phase five, I would say, would be total breakdown. And that's a mental breakdown or a physical breakdown or both.

And this is the stage where your body has forced the issue. It's no longer giving you the choice. You no longer have any ability to control your body.

And so it breaks down. You get physically sick, you can't get out of bed for two weeks, or you have a mental breakdown. I've seen both.

And sometimes both things happen at the same time. That only happens because you did not recover along the way. One of the things that I teach in the Ivy League challenge is that productivity is a function of three things.

First of all, vision. In other words, you have to be clear on what matters most to you. Second of all, strategy.

What are the tactics that you use? Do you know how to focus your brain? Do you know how to eliminate distractions? All of those issues. And then, number three, equally important is recovery. True productivity requires consistent recovery.

And so let's look at those three things, because if you do not allow for and plan for strategic recovery, very effective recovery along the way, then pretty soon your tactics lose their sharpness, you lose your edge, and you're not able to focus, you're not able to eliminate those distractions as well. You're not able to get things done while you're supposed to be focusing. And eventually you even lose the first step, that vision.

You lose track of what is most important to you. It gets lost in the shuffle when you hit chronic stress and burnout phase. And so recovery is the key to allowing for true productivity over time.

Burnout is the evidence that you did not plan this well. So now here we are at the end of the semester. How should you use your vacation time? How should you use your days off from school? What I have seen as far as recovery goes, and I've been teaching extreme productivity to both adults and teenagers for a long time.

But in particular, in the Ivy League Challenge, as I've taught teenagers, these are the things that really help you reengage and recover. First of all, if you need to recover right now, if you need to recover from burnout or from chronic stress or I don't know that the terms are correct, but whatever phase you are along that process, if you've burned out or you're in chronic stress, then you probably need to do kind of a digital detox. I would say shut down your phone for an entire day or two.

Literally shut it completely down. If you have a friend that you think will be reaching out to you, let them know that you need to recover your mind and your body and you are completely shutting down your phone. And they can call your parents, they can call someone else to get a hold of you if it's an emergency.

But shut down your phone, all your apps, your entire everything, and go through that kind of detox phase where you want to reach for your phone every 30 seconds or every few minutes. Go through that and recognize just how addicted you have been. Then spend some time in bed asleep.

You probably are sleep deprived, and so get extra sleep throughout this break. Also, another thing to just do all the time, not just during a vacation period, is learn how to breathe. And I know that sounds silly, but mindfulness and focused breathing is a powerful tool to relax your mind when it's stressed out, when it's feeling that pressure.

And that's a skill that is worth learning how to develop. So I do teach it in the Ivy League Challenge, but you can easily learn, have a conversation with someone who already meditates or who already does mindfulness exercises around their breathing, or watch a five minute YouTube video about this. I'll let you dive in on your own if you're interested there.

But all of that so far is very general advice, regardless of when you're listening to this podcast. If it's the beginning of the semester, the middle of the semester, or the end of the semester, that advice is all valid. You should plan in recovery at regular intervals throughout your productive periods.

And you won't be productive for very long if you don't have strategic recovery. All right? That's just the reality. Now, at the end of the semester, here's what I recommend for decompression, for reengaging your mind and your body and just total recovery.

These are a few of the ideas that I had. First of all, I would begin with gratitude. As weird as that is, spend two or three minutes thinking about your ability to breathe, your ability to see your favorite color and how beautiful that color is, your favorite song, and the ability to listen to music at all.

If you play music, perhaps you could sit down and feel grateful for the skill that you have developed and the self discipline that others around you and you have exercised in getting you to the point where you do have this skill. Sit down and be grateful for your fingers and your eyesight and your ability to taste or whatever else you have. Take a moment to realize that just breathing is miraculous.

Breathing oxygen in and exhaling carbon dioxide. And then the way that your heart and your lungs and all of the rest of the systems in your body work together to transfer that oxygen throughout the body and make you healthy and capable of thinking and being productive in the first place. It's a miracle.

It's an absolute miracle. And so take a minute to just be aware of that miracle and stop and write down a few things that you're grateful for. But don't just write them down.

Think about how miraculous it is. Be inspired by the things that you're grateful for. The second thing that's a bit of a surprise, that's maybe a bit different than what you were thinking, is try to find someone that you can serve.

Try to find someone that you can help make their life a little bit better. If it is wintertime and maybe your neighbor needs their their walk shoveled because you it snows where you live, then go shovel their walk. Or if you can clean up for someone or take care of something for someone, especially if this is someone that you normally don't think about, like your mom or your dad or a younger sibling, or an older sibling or a friend, it doesn't matter.

Can you think of someone that you might be able to alleviate some of their hardship or some of their frustration today? See what you can do. It'll make you feel amazing, especially if it's been a while since you did this last. And it just helps you to recover, to shift your focus towards that.

So start with gratitude in an act of service, random if possible. And then these are my other ideas. Of course.

Get more sleep. And while you're disconnected from your phone, connect with humans, connect with animals, connect with children or babies and connect with nature. Take a walk outside if it's cold, then wear an extra coat and a scarf so you feel warm inside as you are just inspired by nature.

If you can watch the clouds because it's not so freezing outside, then go ahead and lay down on the grass and watch the clouds. And finally, one more idea that I have. Get out a good book, or get out your journal and write, or get in the kitchen and cook.

Do something that you haven't done for a while, that you love, but you just haven't done because you haven't had the time. Spend some time doing that thing that you love and reconnect to your interests, reconnect to your soul. So what have we done? Actually? We've said we need to reconnect to your body, connect to your breathing, reconnect to your values and your interests, reconnect to the humans in your life and the other animals in nature, and reconnect to this planet.

And the miracle that is that you exist on this planet and that you can contribute in meaningful ways to make this planet a little bit better. Enjoy your vacation, but make sure you spend time fully recovering, so that when next semester begins, you can start with that extra excitement and motivation and energy and optimism, that healthy approach that leads to an incredible year.