Brain Dump: fighting burnout and senioritis

by Arhana Aatresh (’23) | March 10, 2023

Art by Kiana Allard (‘24)

It’s that glorious time of year again for seniors nationwide: March. College acceptances are slowly arriving, and graduation is only two months away. The indomitable condition, with a bit of malaise mixed in, seems to overshadow everything else. While “senioritis” may not be contagious, it manifests like a sweeping plague, with a sea of sweatpants, heads on desks, and empty seats during first period. This time of year also forces seniors to reflect on how tired they are. However, falling into this trap is avoidable if its basics are understood.

Senioritis is fundamentally caused by a lack of motivation. This amotivation occurs when the end goal is the only valued part of the process, leaving seniors with little to strive towards.

Additionally, what can make senioritis dangerous is its coupling with burnout, a state of exhaustion or “a manifestation of chronic unmitigated stress,” according to Mayo Clinic scientist Dr. Lotte Dyrbye. Demotivation compounded by a burnout-inflicted inability to work can leave seniors feeling directionless in one of the most crucial transition periods; they can lose long-held passions or even college acceptances. 

A study from Vanderbilt University found that levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain known for making humans feel good, reflect a high correlation with an individual’s work ethic. Using positron emission tomography, a brain mapping technique, researchers found that those willing to work hard for some reward had higher dopamine levels in the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex—regions of the brain associated with reward and motivation. On the contrary, those unwilling to work hard had higher dopamine levels in, surprisingly, the anterior insula—a region deep in the brain associated with emotion and risk perception. 

The findings suggest that dopamine plays different roles in different brains based on how individuals seek rewards, and that participants’ choices between larger and smaller rewards in the study can “predict, to a certain extent, how motivated they might be in other contexts,” according to lead researcher and postdoctoral student Michael Treadway. Further understanding such biological markers can help combat the negative consequences of senioritis and burnout. 

This lack of motivation is also a self-feeding loop. By phrasing the feeling of amotivation as a disease, with the suffix “-itis,” seniors label laziness as an ailment entirely out of their control, although it very much is not.

Although motivation is marked by brain chemistry, it is still in our control. Senior Andrew Adkison reflected on how he combats burnout and senioritis, stating that he “finds the people that matter the most to [him] and spends time around them because in the end, it’s relationships you will think about. You have to enjoy the process and all the small moments that make the journey and make you happy.”

Senior Swathi Badrinaryanan said, “It gets a little hard to keep up with the same pace and intensity when you know it’s contributing to worsening mental health. But I’m trying to keep working hard because I know I have to use the same [knowledge] in college—so, learning for learning’s sake.” 

Additionally, impatience for the next phase of life is a familiar feeling. However, as Activities Director and math teacher Mr. Todd Meulman expressed, “[Seniors] miss out on things…by rushing through to the end… My biggest worry is that they have regret about some things they may have missed along the way.” Valuing the present can also help combat boredom—a skill built with further development of the brain’s frontal lobe.

Refocusing on passions can help us realize the purpose behind achieving and what drives us to learn. This change begins with honoring the process rather than the end goal alone. Soon enough, senioritis will only feel like a trace of a lingering cold.

Categories: Science

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