Academic Burnout

(August 4, 2021)

Whether you’ve experienced it personally or not, the mention of burnout usually brings out a sense of dread.

Those who have yet to start their careers may be less familiar with the concept or feeling, even if they recognize the term. Burnout is classically considered an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organization, which means it is a condition of facing chronic stress in the workplace. It is characterized by exhaustion, frustration, low motivation, and having an overall feeling of being stuck. While the WHO explanation focuses on occupational burnout, the focus can easily be shifted to academic burnout if we view a student’s “workplace” as school to examine how students are impacted by burnout. 

College and high school students in particular face unique challenges in their settings, including pressure to excel in academic, social, and other capacities. The constant strain of doing well on projects and exams for multiple high-level classes at a time is inherently draining, with a lack of sleep on top of it. 

The start of the first “normal” school year for many students since March 2020 is inevitably going to set many people up for experiencing academic burnout. Whether you thrived or hated Zoom school, the drastic change to operating in an online environment changed our current tolerance for full days of socializing, traveling, learning, and time management--all key elements of the school day, especially when you have to frequently change rooms or buildings to attend class. The difference between the typical stress of the adjustment period of starting a new school year and burnout is how long these symptoms accumulate without adequate strategies or support for coping with the stress. If people are not able to successfully cope, they can end up suffering mentally, physically, and emotionally for months or years on end, which is not sustainable to our wellbeing. 

Dealing with Burnout:

The first step is recognizing that something is not going well. Symptoms of burnout in school can include:

  • Feeling exhausted regardless of how much sleep you get
  • Little or no motivation for going to class or doing work
  • Irritability and anger outbursts/lashing out
  • Lack of creativity or inspiration
  • Not able to meet important deadlines
  • Increased physical pain like muscle or headaches
  • Getting sick more often because of stress and exhaustion
  • Stress-induced bad habits (biting nails, staying up too late, etc.)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling bored doing things you usually enjoy
  • Skipping classes
  • Brain fog
  • Isolation
  • Depression*
  • Anxiety*

*The help of a trained professional can help determine whether an individual’s experience of depression/anxiety becomes a significant, diagnosable issue to tackle with the help of therapy. 

The second piece is about finding ways to prevent or overcome burnout.

Take a mental note of which strategies you tend to use when you become stressed:

  1. Enjoying or maximizing your time off
    1. This can be your weekend time, scheduled vacations, or staycations. Having at least a full day off every week can relieve pressure and allow your mind the time it needs to rest. 
  2. Get active
    1. Physical exercise has physical, mental, and emotional benefits. Staying hydrated, eating and sleeping well, and exercising for at least 30 minutes most days of the week can keep your body in a routine of activity, which allows it to rest properly when the time comes. 
  3. Spend time outside
    1. Studies have shown that humans benefit from spending time in nature. Our brains literally need to see green and blue and brown things and breathe fresh air and hear crickets to feel more connected with ourselves and the world around us. If your options for being outside are limited, trick your brain by watching the nature channel or using an ambient video. Try this one. 
  4. Socialize
    1. Using your support system helps with giving your mind a break and being able to laugh and have fun. They may also provide some insight to your struggles to help you overcome them. 
  5. “Make it small”
    1. If your goals or deadlines are too overwhelming or unrealistic, reassess what is doable. Use the practice of making things smaller so they become more achievable and approachable (and less intimidating!) If you can’t write a whole paper in a day, write a paragraph. If you can’t write a paragraph, write a sentence then come back to it when you’re ready.
  6. Find support
    1. This can come in the form of a family member, friend, church, club, team, counselor, or teacher. Depending on your needs and comfort, they can be an invaluable part of your healthy work-life balance.

How to avoid academic burnout (long-term):

Now you know some strategies for overcoming academic burnout. But the real question is how to make these a regular practice for you, and checking in with yourself when you start to notice stress taking over. Try using this process every month, if not every week:

  • Ask yourself the last time you took a break. Do you take them often enough? Also, what do your breaks look like? Do you have time to enjoy yourself during your breaks? Do you pack your seasonal breaks with internships or extra studying? 
  • Ask yourself if your expectations are too high (or the expectations placed upon you). With remote work options and technological advancements, our perception of how much work a human can do surpasses the reality. Take some of the pressure off of yourself by learning ways to set boundaries and limit certain commitments. Learn communication skills for letting a teacher or professor know what you are capable of at a given time. Trying your best means doing what you are capable of at that time, not your all-time best all the time. 
  • Break up the monotony more often. Do any of the aforementioned prevention strategies on a regular basis, but change it up. Maybe one week you take a walk outside, maybe next time it’s a bike ride. Be aware of what works for you and what needs refreshing. If you’re stuck studying all hours of the day, find ways to work within your limits by studying in a new location or bringing a snack. 

The takeaway:

  • Learn how to recognize burnout and where it comes from. 
  • Try new steps for overcoming burnout, maybe with the help of a new support person. 
  • Avoid burnout by practicing these strategies on a regular basis.

If you need help coping with burnout, or any other mental health issues, give us a call at (217) 203-2008 or email us to schedule an appointment.