Everything else

Help Yourself

This doesn’t have to be a radical idea.

Illustration by Emma D.

For many of you, school’s out for the summer, and hopefully, you’re getting the opportunity to crash for a while: sleep in, play video games, do absolutely nothing to aid your future academic prospects—in fact, do nothing at all. Which is great. You are probably tired as all get-out right now, and you deserve it.

But some of you might start to notice something: you might not feel any less tired. In fact, after the push of getting through finals—plus work or sports or applying to colleges or whatever extracurricular activities you’re doing—you might feel as though you will never be less tired. This is a condition to be avoided. It’s what’s known as burnout, and what it means is this: there’s only a certain amount of stress that people can take—emotional stress, physical stress, whatever. There’s a limit, and if you reach that limit and force yourself to go past it, you start pulling on your emergency reserves of energy without letting yourself recover. And sooner or later, you might crash.

This is presented as an adult problem. “Burnout” is supposed to be the sort of thing that only happens if you are a fancy business lady whose job involves tough decisions and (preferably) shoulder pads. But it happens to young people, too. Stress is not some club where people vote and drink whiskey all the time. It’s just life. And young people—especially young perfectionists who are ambitious and/or pressured to succeed —burn out all the time. They just aren’t taught to recognize or deal with it, because they’re not old dudes named Chet who work in a bank.

Well, you need to recognize it. And you need to know how to stop it. This can be a radical notion, especially for girls, because it involves paying attention to yourself, or saying “no” to people, or adhering to your own opinion of what you need rather than trying to keep up with what everyone else needs or wants from you. In my experience, these aren’t always things that girls and women are encouraged to do.

There are a few ways to tell if you’re slipping into stress overload. If you always feel tired, even after a full night’s sleep or a few days off, that’s an indication that something is wrong. Insomnia is another warning sign: sometimes stress can actually keep your body from shutting down, and the less sleep you get, the more stressed you become. And exhaustion and stress can lead to poor habits, which can lead to actual illness. It’s a vicious cycle.

There are also emotional signs, which are more insidious, because they just feel like natural ways to react to a bad situation. Often, burnout happens when people who care about doing well or who are used to accomplishing things easily respond self-destructively when a situation (a relationship, a class) isn’t working out. They assume they can and should fix everything themselves, so they put more effort in and cut down on “non-essential” fun stuff rather than asking for help or accepting that they’re in a no-win situation. But this is draining. It is possible to care about something so much—getting into a certain college, being the best player on your team—that it breaks your ability to care about anything else. So stress can manifest as apathy towards things that used to matter deeply to you, or irritation at the very idea that you should have to engage with the world.

And, again, this feels natural. This is what it means to WORK HARD and BE PASSIONATE. But these can also be symptoms of depression, which can develop as a result of these patterns. If you’re suddenly antisocial or angry all the time, you should see a doctor. Maybe you’re burning out.

Of course, in order for you to tell anyone about all this, you have to notice it. And many people just drive themselves into breakdowns, because they don’t consider their own needs important and they don’t pay attention to them. This could sound like cheesy advice, but keep a journal. Not a Tumblr, not a blog, not a series of Facebook status updates that represent your public, plugged-in persona—an actual Word file or notebook that no one else gets to see. When you write privately, you can say what you actually feel, not what sounds good. And it doesn’t have to be profound. My journal is composed mostly of sentence fragments and lists, like “THINGS I WOULD LIKE TO STOP BEING ANGRY ABOUT EVENTUALLY.” If you don’t have a lot of time or anything to say, just write one or two sentences per day: “I am feeling [BLANK] because [BLANK].” Over time, you might start seeing recurring concerns or behavior. At the very least, you’ll notice your emotions as they arise. Once you actually know what you’re feeling, you can make decisions about how to respond.

You also need to start checking in with your body. Every natural, short-term response to stress—sleeping less, staying inside more, dumping a zillion iced coffees into your system to stay alert, forgetting to eat proper meals—will make you sick if you force yourself to do it over the long term. But checking in with your body can be complicated. Sometimes it seems like girls are never allowed to feel good about themselves physically. So the idea of “taking care of yourself” often turns into this rigid routine of doing yoga for three hours a day, drinking only decaf tea, and eating raw leafy greens harvested by witches that chant passages from The Feminine Mystique at the plants to increase their womyn moon powers, which can become a stressful regimen all its own.

That is not the plan here. This is about acknowledging your own physical existence. I didn’t recognize how unhealthy I was until I tried to keep a list of what I ate every day—not to monitor caloric intake or anything, I just wanted to make sure I was getting the proper nutrition. But when I sat down at the end of the day, I couldn’t remember my meals. I had been so distracted by work that the food had not registered in my brain. So, after that, I just refused to check my phone while I was eating. I gave myself that break for nourishment, and feeling healthier just sort of happened. When you’re aware of your body, you know that sitting in the same chair for three hours with nothing but Diet Coke in your stomach actually feels really bad.

This is the hard part: deciding to change things. All of this introspective stuff can feel dangerous already, and you might ask yourself: Am I being self-absorbed? Unproductive? Narcissistic? Answer: not at all. You need to know which of your obligations you’re putting too much time into without enough support, which people routinely make you feel guilty or upset, which former projects you’ve genuinely lost interest in, and what you’d prefer to be doing instead.

And then you’ll have to do something about it. There are a lot of things you legitimately can’t control when you’re young. You are going to have to go to school (or get your GED). You do have to pass your classes. You may need a job. But then there are probably more things that you think you need to do, because your friends are doing it, or because your family has really specific expectations, or because you were told that in order to appear well-rounded on your college applications, you have to learn to write a screenplay in French while riding a horse.

This is a really valuable adult skill: people care about you, but no one else can take care of you. You have to learn to do so yourself. And an essential part of growing up is learning how to say “suck it” to the people who love you—and maybe even to yourself. I mean, not literally. But, yes, sort of literally. You will not make it a day in this world if you don’t know how to kindly, gently, politely break the news—or simply accept—that there are things you can’t or won’t do. Everyone has to do this eventually. Start now. ♦

51 Comments

  • Susann June 15th, 2012 3:26 PM

    This is really helpful – sometimes everything just seems like it’s getting too much and finding the right moment realize that is crucial!

    Fashion in Pepperland

  • RaineFall June 15th, 2012 3:28 PM

    I wish I had this in January! I had a several meltdowns that month. I had just sat exams, had failed to get in Veterinary Medicine (a course I’ve wanted to do since I was 7) and had at least 6 extra-curricular clubs, one of which I was vice president, and another was being in the school musical. It ended up with me crying in the Year 8 playground, while I was on prefect duty when my Head of Sixth Form told me he thought I wasn’t going to achieve my predicted grades. This had been all building up since September.
    It took a lot of support from my friends and family, and I eventually got through it. Mostly by looking at the positives of the bad situations. I got As in January. I can now do an art course while reapplying for university, and I got positive feedback from the universities.
    Stress is and probably will always be a monster in my life; and I think the key is not to avoid stress, but to be able to cope with it.

  • decemberbaby June 15th, 2012 3:29 PM

    I love this. Thank you, Sady, as always :D

  • Flower June 15th, 2012 3:29 PM

    I am bookmarking this in my bookmark folder of rookie articles that will probably save my life in the future.
    I know the feeling of being constantly tired, no matter how much sleep I have. I just sleep really lightly and wake up basically every half an hour and then wake up all stressed out and twitchy.
    And starting to write a journal is the best thing I ever did.

    http://www.bobblyrainbowsocks.blogspot.com

  • Anaheed June 15th, 2012 3:31 PM

    First thing I did after reading this article was ask for a vacation.

  • Narita June 15th, 2012 3:33 PM

    This so much. I wirite for five sites, have tons of deadlines and editing to do each week. I’m officially depressed and I’ve got medication for it, and people are always like ‘You’re fourteen shouldn’t you be concerned about having a boyfriend’ and I’m like ‘nope got some writing to do you lady’ but sometimes it’s too much. I’ve been on the edge of a break, just quitting everything for like, two weeks but I can’t. I love what I do and I love the power it gives me even more, even though it’s not the power I need to get out of my bed: I’m almost out of that one..

    • Pashupati June 15th, 2012 7:54 PM

      Hmm, if one of these sites is yours (meaning you’re the webmistress or editor), you might want to get some guestwriters for one or two series of article to have some less workload and be able to relax a bit during the times when you were working on this one before. It could help getting new ideas and views for this same website or the others.
      (hope I don’t sound like a jerk, it just seems it’s an idea I could have used in another context and didn’t because I didn’teven think of it!)

      • Pashupati June 15th, 2012 7:55 PM

        (I mean, for this same website or articles on the others.)

      • Narita June 16th, 2012 1:26 AM

        I’m indeed the editor of one of the sites and that seems like a good idea, thank you! I thinj I might consider that. :)

  • abbs June 15th, 2012 3:44 PM

    I need a nap

  • WitchesRave June 15th, 2012 4:05 PM

    I can’t stress how much it helps to keep a journal. I have one that iIi started when I was 12 (i wanted to have my angst years written down). I only write in it about every 3 months or so, sometimes more often if big things happen.
    When i write in it, i feel a huge load come of my back, because all the thoughts and dreams and opinions and worries that are in my head have been written out, and will remembered forever so they dont HAVE to stay and clog up my brain anymore. It feels like emptying a vacuum cleaner

    witches-rave.tumblr.com

  • puffytoad June 15th, 2012 4:12 PM

    I started paying more attention to what I really want after reading What You Really Really Want by Jaclyn Friedman. She talked about your intuition, and how it just *knows* things. I thought I had no connection to my intuition, but then I noticed this little angry voice in my head that is always being rude and honest. I realized it was the same voice I heard yelling “SHUT UP SHUT UP I DON’T CARE SHUT UP” at my teachers while I calmly took notes. I realized that just meant that I was bored! I also hear it say “oh I *love* this song” or whatever even thought I never say I love anything out loud.

  • katrinaexplainsitall June 15th, 2012 4:20 PM

    Ugh, I love this. I’ve been on break for 2 weeks and have accomplished absolutely nothing. I really do need to change some things in my life….

    http://www.katrinaspice.blogspot.com

  • Frannie Lou June 15th, 2012 4:28 PM

    You just described how I feel and what it’s like to be tired and stressed all the time so perfectly. This is such good insight on how to deal with stress – thanks so much for this article, Sady. <3

    Also, there's a typo in the first paragraph, just so you know – It says "doi nothing at all" instead of "do nothing at all". Just thought I'd let you know. :)

  • Moxx June 15th, 2012 4:57 PM

    I often stress out so much for things that I don’t eat, don’t sleep, and have a tendency to vomit.

    As a person who stresses for everything, all the time, (maybe it’s hereditary?) I think this is a cool article. Thank you!!!

  • sylvie June 15th, 2012 5:08 PM

    This is so great! I especially love the part about diaries.. when I started to get unhappy and stressed at school, I needed something to let it all out on. It’s also fun to muse about stuff and write stuff that you know no one else could possibly understand if they read it. Now daily writing in my diary just feels SO RIGHT.

  • Gracie June 15th, 2012 5:25 PM

    Ohhhh I needed this in my life, preferably three weeks ago when it was really hitting me how stupid it was to take on a photography course on top of art, take on eponine in my school’s Les Mis, take an extra astronomy gcse, be in a gospel choir, a contemporary dance youth thing and have my crazy important science gcse (as well as RE, spanish, statistics and english). Its fair to say that I have been having A LOT of melt downs, forgetting to eat, feeling tired…. also not seeing much of my friends. But most of that is coming to an end now and I can sort of focus on one thing at a time…

  • SpencerBowie June 15th, 2012 6:01 PM

    I needed this article. I’ve been tired for days, staying up trying to accomplish art projects but instead, the moment I get alone, I fall asleep in my clothes. I laid down on the couch the other night for what I thought would be just a second, I feel asleep with my shoes still on and still tied.

    I’ve got to say no to people and eat right if I’m ever gonna get these things done! The Lord put a need/want to paint back in my life recently, and I’ve got to start!

    Thanks for the advice!!! :)

  • GlitterKitty June 15th, 2012 6:59 PM

    This is quite shocking because I recognize every single one of these things in me. Even the journal writing thing. You seriously have saved my life (or at least my sanity). Thank you for writing this Sady. I’m bookmarking this one.

  • Annie92 June 15th, 2012 7:00 PM

    This is really useful! I think I’ve definately suffered from burnout. Last September I started at University after a really stressfull last year of school. I was studying history of art, my favourite subject, and I’d go to galleries and look at the art and just think how much I hated it and how much I hated the people looking at it. I just felt angry and tired ALL THE TIME, so I’d skip lectures and spend all day staring at skeletons in the British Museum.
    It was really weird, cos I’d always been a straight A student and then all of a sudden I felt like I couldn’t even read. Maybe it was the pressure of people expecting me to do well.
    Anyway….my advice to people would be to have a gap year after high school (if you can) so you have time to breathe and figure out how to take care of yourself.

  • Abby June 15th, 2012 7:37 PM

    Okay, so I just wanted to say,

    1) Thank you. I need to remember to do this more.

    2) The journal/diary thing is really, really true. I love that I can write and draw in my journal and not care about what it looks or sounds like, because the only people who are ever going to see it is me and the paper and pen gods. I can write lists, coherent sentences, non-coherent sentences, anything. I can totally rip my heart out and put it all over the pages in any way I want, and that’s great. I always feel a lot better when I write/draw/scribble in my journal. Seriously, try it. It helps.

  • Natalie. June 15th, 2012 7:54 PM

    Such a great article! I feel like I am only just working this stuff out now. No one ever seems to tell us that we can and should prioritize ours happiness.

  • Eryn June 15th, 2012 8:04 PM

    THANK YOU.

  • Rhianna June 15th, 2012 8:08 PM

    Today was my final history exam and I’m really good at history. The first history exam, 90/90. Coursework 39/40.
    So, I’m good at history. That is safe to say.
    Over the past 2 weeks of study leave I kept telling myself “I am good at history, so I can relax.” and “I’ll start first thing tomorrow”
    Suddenly it was yesterday. All I had done was write some notes and draw Eli Roth as The Bear Jew.
    I knew nothing; in a frantic attempt to cram I went overboard and I think passed out from exhaustion to wake this morning in a pile of note cards and an hour before the exam. I had fallen asleep.
    I knew nothing.
    I rested so much on the fact that I was good at it I think I was just arrogant.
    Anyways, I went mad and was like a PMS Jack Torrence and had a break down.
    How could I let myself FALL ASLEEP?
    But I sucked up. I’d be damned if I let a 1 hour 45 min paper break me!
    I found this inner peace which was a place I had lost in the strains of caring about grades. I realise now, with only 1 exam to go on Tuesday for Maths, that the piece of advice I gave myself over and over “A letter on a piece of paper does not define your self worth” is true.
    Throughout my scholastic career I have been a slacker but you know, the kind never does what she is supposed to when she is then frenzies when she realises she actually cares but regardless; gets by.
    Maths is not my strong point but I’m okay at it. I had planned a full blown maths bootcamp but I need a break for me and no “I can rest when its over” nonsense.
    I need to just, y’know. Breathe.
    And for what its worth, the exam went great.
    What even.

  • TheGreatandPowerfulRandini June 15th, 2012 8:14 PM

    I truly admire people who dare to keep an honest journal. I could never do that. I have siblings, family, other people who might find it. Kudos to you!

    • Abby June 15th, 2012 9:26 PM

      You just gotta learn to be a really good hider lol. I have mine propped inside my prom dress in the back of my closet… But SHHH, don’t tell!!!

    • Hayley June 17th, 2012 10:59 PM

      I have a 17-page Word document that I use as a journal. It’s on my flash drive, which I carry in my purse at all times, and the document itself is nested in several layers of folders with unassuming names.
      I actually keep a couple of journals, but my Word document is the most honest because I know nobody will find it.

  • wildflowers June 15th, 2012 9:31 PM

    After a long day of feeling drained and emotionally unstable, I decided to ease my mind off and read an article or two. I am so glad that I did because this article was just what I truly needed today.

    This school year has been an uphill battle and with finals, ACTs, and my grades all behind me, I thought I would finally have time to take a breather during the summer. But surprisingly, the summer so far has been just as much, if not more, hectic as the school year has been. And I love my parents to death, but they have set a standard for me that is a stressful upkeep to stand on. I am just so glad that this article acknowledged this topic and made me more aware of balancing my life.
    And that it is okay for women to stay true to their beliefs, feel good about their body, and say “no”.

    god this turned out to be a much longer comment than what I’d thought I’d post. But I hope that the length can be translated as my appreciation for articles like this and for Rookie magazine in general.

  • cakethepop June 15th, 2012 10:34 PM

    Ahhh totally relate to this. My failures have been hitting me heavier and i feel like neverever tired. Thank you so much rookie ;D

  • SaraMel91 June 15th, 2012 11:42 PM

    I feel like this article was written for me. Thank you, Sady.

  • Megann16 June 16th, 2012 12:21 AM

    You know us toooooo well!

  • sweeteelou June 16th, 2012 12:23 AM

    This organized my thoughts into the most perfect words.

    sweeteelou

  • lyrarose June 16th, 2012 2:04 AM

    once again, a rookie article struck home with me.

  • bird June 16th, 2012 7:00 AM

    This. Is. My. Life. Thank you so much for the wake-up call!

  • y0 June 16th, 2012 10:34 AM

    I can relate so much to this article, THANK YOU! I’ve kept a journal since the end of last year and just poured out everything into it. Mostly during times when I feel super depressed and emotionally unstable, it really helps clear your mind a bit.

    I think I’m definitely in or at least been in a burnout situation. I don’t think I’ve ever felt awake in school, even if I sleep early. And the amount of stress of trying to please everyone and get really high grades in everything!!! I guess I’m ALWAYS stressed….

    Now, I gotta get back to my history essay after I finish writing this. It’s coming up to 3am right now…

  • kruisin June 16th, 2012 1:12 PM

    Sady,
    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS!
    I’m crying right now because of all the crap I’ve been doing to satisfy others, and I have not been taking care of myself at all.
    I’ve gone into depression and been diagnosed with a hefty illness and it seriously was me just not being in tune with myself and my body and I let it snowball. And now here I am, aged 27- ready to make a change.
    This article really made me feel like I’m not alone and it’s not too late.
    Thank you;)

  • moonflower June 16th, 2012 1:55 PM

    I think a really simple thing people always forget to bother about is SLEEP. I don’t think a lot of people know what it feels like to have actually slept over 10 hours, maybe if they tried they would feel the difference! :)

    http://ultravioletpixiedust.blogspot.com

  • Sea goddess June 17th, 2012 3:19 AM

    I hadn’t been able to come and check out what was new yesterday, but here I’am. This is very very good, because sometimes we get lost in this fast life and truly forget whats going on around us. I tried keeping a journal and I felt SO lame, but THANK YOU because now i will continue with it, even if i don’t write a whole page or w/e, because for the bad stuff that happened to me in the day or just things i didn;t really like, I though “why would I include them here if i don;t even like them?” so i would just skip through those events, but inside i still felt the need to write about them.

    http://deadelmare.bigcartel.com/

  • Lucille June 17th, 2012 5:41 AM

    This is my wake-up call!Thank you!Pretty helpful.

    http://fashion-babel.blogspot.com

    HUGS to all of you, Rookies!

  • eliselbv June 17th, 2012 2:29 PM

    This article is so true! I want everything I do to be perfect and I can’t prevent myself from this.
    But this state of mine turns my life into a constant struggle with myself. How many time I have thought that I coud do better and went back at my desk to improve an essay or whatever I could not say but sometimes I lose the fight and I simply accept it. I take two days of doing NOTHING, I don’t go to school, I’m not reading, I’m not listening to music, I just lay in my bed and sleep and after that I’m back in the game!

    http://www.iloveyourjokes.blogspot.com

  • bee_epoque June 17th, 2012 10:32 PM

    Jebus. This is the kind of thing I wish I’d had someone say to me when I was back at high school…. and college… even occasionally now at 23.

    It can be so easy to forget your own basic needs sometimes. I’ve got two techniques which help me these days, on the off chance they do some wonders for you too:

    1) Remind yourself that it’s your basic human right to be happy. This takes away the guilt that sometimes comes with cutting things out / taking time to whack your feet up on a couch and actually enjoy getting lost in a book without feeling like a selfish literary escapist.

    2) Schedule in time to stress. This sounds weird. But rather than let something that’s bothering you seep into the background of every moment (and sap the fun out of everything), instead try saying: “well… at 3pm this afternoon I will tackle (said issue) like wonder woman.” And until then you can revel in getting back to your now non-tainted day.

  • Hayley June 17th, 2012 10:52 PM

    “when people who care about doing well or who are used to accomplishing things easily respond self-destructively when a situation (a relationship, a class) isn’t working out. They assume they can and should fix everything themselves, so they put more effort in and cut down on “non-essential” fun stuff rather than asking for help or accepting that they’re in a no-win situation.”

    Oh my god. This was like my whole high school career. Not getting an A in that class? Great, you’re never reading for pleasure again. Get the fuck off Youtube already. Why would you allow yourself to even leave the house this weekend?
    It was pretty awful and I only figured out what I was doing–that a lot of my school obligations were no-win situations for me–in the last months of senior year. I was trying to be fiercely intelligent and driven and opinionated, but it was so difficult to do that when I was willfully ignoring a school system that was starting to hurt me.

  • imola June 19th, 2012 11:13 AM

    omg Sady – after posts like this I feel there are simply no words, I mean NO WORDS to express how much I love you and how thankful I am that Rookie exists. I wish I had something vaguely similar when I was a teen! maybe I wouldn’t be battling a lot of issues that root back to my highschool years.
    what I like about basically any Rookie article is that what you talk about is not only adaptable for teenagers, because those issues do return at later stages of your life too. I’m 27 and I can relate to a lot of stuff here and not only on a nostalgia-level and maybe I should be embarrassed that I’ve only learnt so much in almost three decades that I turn to Rookie for guidance but whatever, so be it, you are THAT GOOD.
    so thank you again, end of fangirling.

  • kt4d June 19th, 2012 12:30 PM

    honestly, the best.

  • Melbaroast June 19th, 2012 2:21 PM

    Rookiemag, why are you always saving my life?

  • Stephanie June 19th, 2012 3:41 PM

    Sady, thanks so much for this. I really needed it senior year of high school and I still need it now. I hope every teenage girl in the world reads it because it is so important to learn how sense a burnout and take care of yourself.

  • annadee August 3rd, 2012 11:41 AM

    Thanks for this article. I have two jobs and a LOT of AP summer homework to do, and a rather demanding social life… but i need sleep too! I feel like I’m burning out and it’ll be over soon but it’s nice to be reminded how normal it is

  • Somnambulist August 6th, 2012 3:55 PM

    it’s articles like these that make me feel really, really glad rookie exists. you guys are so amazing. it’s such a relief, such a HUGE relief to just look through your website. i don’t really know how to describe it. it’s like i’ve been holding my breath for years and years, and then this site is the hand on my shoulder telling me to exhale. thanks, rookie. seriously.

    also, i’m definitely taking this article to heart :)

  • la fee clochette September 6th, 2012 11:32 PM

    Yet another bookmarker, here. Tonight I have recognized how much I’ve been on “the edge” all month. I have a lot of things to clear up, and this article makes things much less cloudy- so invaluable. Thank you.

  • mery September 27th, 2012 2:51 AM

    I feel like I should read this every day before going to school. I’ve put so much pressure on myself I can barely control my emotions anymore or force myself to eat regurarly. I’ve come to a point when I feel awful about not going to school because I’m very ill, like that’s no excuse. This article will hopefully make me feel better about myself and then I’ll understand that I don’t always have to be perfect. Thank you so much :)