2015.03.26 Burn out

Do you know the warning signs of burn-out?

Irritability and short temper. Don't sleep well. Don't feel like doing what is expected. Head aches. Body aches. Lowered immunity to any disease that cross your path. Change of appetite...

If it sounds like the signs for depression, it is because it is. Burn-out is depression caused by negative stress.

Many people who try to reach some externally set goals or live up to some outside expectations wear themselves down. And it doesn't matter if the goals or expectations are some that to outsiders seem interesting and worth reaching for. It doesn't even matter if the goals are some they themselves find interesting and worth reaching for - if they have "burned the midnight oil" for too long.

I could be talking about closing a round of funding. Or delivery of the newest software upgrade. Or negotiating a big contract. Or all of the above.

But in this particular case I was prompted by an email from one of the local nurses. She was weighing in on the overscheduled and super-competitive every day life of the common Silicon Valley teenager:

  • Our kids are dealing with much more stress than many adults are able to handle.
  • Anxiety, panic, depression, cutting, eating disorders, self-medication with various substances and risky behaviors (of all sorts) are just a few ways that kids in our area are manifesting their experience of stress.
  • It doesn't stop in high school. Every year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas, I keep many emergency appointments available for kids who get to school and then fall apart. (for context, this year it was 7, who needed emergency psychiatric referrals and several who were unable return to the prestigious universities and colleges they had worked so hard to get into).
  • Many parents and educators I speak to feel overwhelmed by a system that encourages a frenzy to achieve.
  • I also speak to many parents and what I also hear is a lot of parental anxiety that unless their child is pushed and pushed, that they will not be able "to go to a good school, get a decent job and... (this is the real underlying fear) have a good life."
  • I was speaking to an educator at Gunn (High School in Palo Alto, eds.) this week. They are starting a policy that kids ONLY be allowed to take 2 AP classes per semester, and yet over 750 families have opted out (take more than 2 AP's against the school's recommendation. eds.).
  • On the flip side, I also hear this from other kids returning during breaks, "I felt stupid and below average in High School, they made it seem that if you didn¹t have 8 APs, high SATs and ACTs, straight A¹s, then you were a failure, and then when I got to college, I realized that I was pretty smart."
  • I have patients who were picture perfect in high school, high GPAs, lots of activities, lots of AP classes, are destined for greatness, graduate from elite universities and then come home after 4 more years of trying to please everyone else, check every box for potential success and then are exhausted, burned out and completely unmotivated.

Imagine one or two of these teenagers living in a family with one or two parents who themselves are trying to start a company from scratch, land a round of funding, deliver a new software release...

If the school system and the expectations are very different from what you grew up with, it is not just because you moved to another country. Although the system hasn't changed much over the last generation, the expectations are also very different from what most Americans grew up with.

Perhaps you have an advantage from being different? You can better choose to use your common sense to decide what is too much because you still look at the system from the outside.

Just remember, if you haven't fully acculturated, there is a chance that your children also have the stress from juggling different norms at home and at school on top of everything else they must handle. Make that an excuse to give them a little extra open space in their schedules.

Make sure that neither you nor your family members pay too high a price for your/their ambitions. It is truly not worth it.

Don't ignore the warning signs.