Uni life is fun – you learn a lot, meet a lot of people, and make friends for the rest of your life. But it is not always painted in pink – hard moments have their place, too. Such a moment hit me the past week, when I have learnt, in my own way, what exhaustion really means. Managing all the uni workload, especially during exams week when everything goes crazy, having a job, being part of a student association, managing a long-distance relationship and trying to have a social life, particularly when most of the Erasmus friends I have made during the first semester were saying goodbye to Maastricht because their semester abroad finished – there was so much to do, so much to think about, so much stress that came out of this situation – and it got to a point where it was too much! My body could not cope with all the stress anymore and signs to show this did not delay in appearing.
This post is not me complaining about how hard it can get; it is more intended as a friendly advice to those of you who are similarly dealing with a lot of things at the same time. The best thing I can tell you is: please, listen to your body! Exhaustion is not the same as being tired, and breakdowns that it causes can be dangerous!
Below, I have listed a couple of things that I have experienced and are known as symptoms of physical and mental exhaustion. I hope you find it useful to understand the difference between this and tiredness and, if you feel you are experiencing more than one of these symptoms, please contact a doctor straight away.
- Dehydration: When you are in a state of extreme tiredness, your body asks for more and more water to produce the level of energy you need to carry on. However, most of the times when you are sitting in front of a computer trying to finish your 5000 words essay due in a day, you forget to drink enough water. Dehydration is, thus, inevitable, and it takes the form of extremely dry lips and skin and a constant desire for drinking. In most extreme cases, if you experience really dry lips and hands, you might even get to the point where the skin cracks and starts bleeding.
- Inability to focus: We all know that being tired is not a really good state you want to be in when starting a task. Tiredness slows our mental and physical abilities down. Progress on tasks that are normally performed in short periods of time becomes slow, and the quality of the work we produce decreases. But when you are exhausted, it is not just that. Extreme fatigue takes over your mind: you are unable to focus even for a couple of minutes; you find it difficult to understand even very simple concepts; you get a lot of blanks, moments in which your mind just “closes down”, basically claiming back on its own a little bit of rest; you do things without thinking about it, mechanically; you find it difficult to memorize and remember things. On a physical level, your whole body is in a state of numbness; every movement or action seems to imply a great deal of effort and you feel discomfort generated by harsh pains in your stomach, back, knees, headaches etc.
- You can’t sleep and/or sleep too much: This is one of the paradoxes of exhaustion. Most of the times, when you are extremely fatigued, your body and mind ask for sleep, but as soon as you go to bed, you are faced with long hours of staring at the ceiling, in the dark, not even being able to think about something. Sometimes, your insomnia will be the result of you being extremely stressed and ending up overthinking and worrying about too many things, not allowing your mind to clear up and relax. In other cases, your insomnia will be the result of you being so tired that your mind just enters a survival mode, in which your body is awake, but your brain is asleep. But there are also the reverse cases, in which people who suffer from sleep deprivation for a while end up sleeping for really long hours, in an attempt of their bodies to “catch up” with the sleep that they have missed on. But sleeping too much can also generate exhaustion.
If you have pulled an all-nighter before, I am sure you are able to recognise these signs. Short-time exhaustion is also dangerous, but I am not saying you should definitely go to a doctor because of it. That all-nighter might have drained you of all of your powers and you will probably need a couple of days to fully recover, but you will recover eventually. But when the listed symptoms persist over a long period of time, then you can assume that there is a problem with your habits, the way you manage your time, or just the fact that you have taken upon you too much, much more than you can cope with. In those cases, please, for your own sake, stop, take a breath, talk to a doctor or a specialist, and understand what has gone wrong – all the essays and projects in the world are not as valuable as your own health!