Academic burnout: how to recognize and avoid it

Academic Burnout | How to Recognize & Deal with Academic Stress

All to often people involved in helping young people prepare for applying to college can become a little narrow in their perspective, it’s important for young people and those helping them, whether they are counselors, teachers, or perhaps even parents, to forget that college applications don’t happen in a vacuum, all students aiming for college are having to juggle so many, often competing, deadlines. If you are one of those students, this article is for you.

Stress is normal; its how you deal with it that matters!

Just about every student gets stressed at some point and its good that they do. There are many studies and articles that talk about the benefits of stress. According to experts, stress is a burst of energy that basically advises you on what to do. In small doses, stress has many advantages. For instance, stress can help you meet daily challenges and motivates you to reach your goals. In fact, stress can help you accomplish tasks more efficiently. It can even boost memory. The problem arises when that stress increases or continues for a prolonged period when it can manifest itself physically, emotionally, and/or mentally. This means that stress can affect many things, including physical health, thoughts, feelings, and behavior and for an increasing number of students, academic burnout.

How to recognize academic burnout?

The World Health Organisation characterizes burnout, academic or otherwise, as having three dimensions, but it is important to say that just because a person shows these signs does not mean that they are suffering from burn out.

Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.

·       You always feel tired or not had enough rest, even with adequate diet and amount of sleep

·       Under-sleeping, over-sleeping, and/or experiencing insomnia, which is a chronic condition where individuals have trouble falling asleep or trouble going back to sleep after waking up at night

·       Feelings of worthlessness, sadness and perhaps feeling hopeless for no apparent reason.

·       Physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, body pains, nausea, etc., which are not otherwise explained

Increased mental distance from school and academic work or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s school or academics.

·       Loss of motivation for schoolwork and school life

·       Feeling unhappy and/or dissatisfied with school, regardless of your actual level of personal accomplishments or successes

·       Not caring or giving attention to activities or responsibilities you used to be excited by or that you considered important

·       Increased negative talk or thoughts about school; feeling resentful and as though you do not have any positive feelings toward school

·       Wanting only to engage, or to primarily engage, in non-academic/school-related activities compared to before

Reduced efficacy in studies

·       Underperforming in areas you usually excel in or know you do better in

·       Difficulty focusing or concentrating on tasks; taking longer than usual to complete your activities or responsibilities

·       Being more forgetful or “spaced-out” than usual

Some other possible signs of burnout include increased nervousness or irritability, loss of appetite or poor diet, and anxiety, among others.

How to prevent academic burnout?

Now we know how to recognize academic burnout the next question should be how to prevent it. Remember that burnout is a consequence of too much stress so the way to prevent burnout is to manage the stress so that it remains at a level where you are benefiting from the positive effects of stress, but without it getting to a point where it starts to overwhelm you. Below are a number of approaches that often help students.

Set attainable goals

Part of the stress is psychological. If you always feel like you are in a rat race, that you never feel “caught up” or doing enough, then you will be frustrated and feel unsuccessful, even if you have accomplished a lot. Be reasonable (and kind) with yourself. Set realistic goals that you can check off your list and be invigorated by.

Allow time for ‘the basics’

The basics mean sleep, diet, and “free time” to relax and do something that you enjoy (and is not a requirement).

Figure out how many hours of sleep are ideal for you and maximize your energy level. It may be seven, eight, or nine hours. Then, make sure your schedule allows that many hours of sleep. Many people find it helpful to create a bedtime routine if you have difficulty sleeping. A routine acts as a signal for your body, telling it when it should start slowing down for rest.

The same goes for diet. No matter how busy it gets – no matter how little time you feel you have – always make sure to keep up a robust diet and to find time to eat right. Food is fuel. If you do not have enough fuel, your body may be negatively affected, and its ability to handle stress (and to fend off illness) may decrease.

Next, free time. Free time may not seem important to you in the short term (i.e., “I have to finish XYZ and go to XYZ, so how can I possibly stop and play video games for 45 minutes?”), but it is different if you frame it in the long term. Free time is absolutely necessary because without it you run the risk of running yourself into the ground. This would set you back far more than if you took 45 minutes to relax. For your free time activity, we suggest choosing something that is enjoyable and, for the lack of a better word, “mindless.” What we mean by “mindless” is that it should be something you will not worry about achieving or completing well. For example, take playing the piano. Playing the piano may be something you take seriously and practice regularly. But for your free time, if you choose the piano, then do not use your free time as serious practice time. Instead, play songs you have already learned and perfected – to simply enjoy. “Mindless” free time gives your brain and body a break from its usual worries and responsibilities, allowing you time to rest and recover.

As we say, these ‘mindless activities are an important element in preventing burnout but should not become a way of avoiding or putting off the work that you need to do, that will just lead to increased stress! I always recommend using the alarm function on your phone and set it to go off when your period of free time comes to an end.

Spend time doing things that will make you happy and drop activities that don’t align with your goals.

Much of high school may feel like a “must” or a requirement, but this does not mean that you cannot customize some of your experiences. Aligning the “musts” of school with things that you care about is one way to help keep you motivated and energized.

For example, do you care deeply about social justice? Find a club that focuses on those issues and make that one of your core activities and learn as much as you can in your history courses. For example, if you are able to choose an essay topic, use that opportunity to write about a cause you care about.

Sometimes students can get the impression that the number of activities they participate in is the most important thing for getting into college. Stories of people trying to learn how to play an instrument, while raising money for a good cause and at the same time setting up an NGO to educate disadvantaged children in order to stand out in a college application round abound. This is not the case. Colleges would prefer to admit a student who has done one or two things in depth.

Avoid having too much on your plate by focusing your time and energy on those activities that help you demonstrate your interest and passions rather than spend your time going from one activity to another.

Keeping fit, feeling good!

There are lots of scientific studies identifying the benefits of exercise. In short, exercise causes your body to produce endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals that alleviate stress and pain, and they can increase feelings of happiness. If possible, work occasional exercise into your weekly schedule. It does not have to be a big thing, perhaps make doing some exercise one of your free time activities.

Stop measuring yourself against others, recognize your successes

It is often tempting to look at what friends and peers are doing and comparing that to what you are doing. Sometimes you may think that what you are doing is better for their work, which can make you feel negative about them, it may also give you a false sense of security and lead to you slacking off in your activities. In our experience more often it results in feeling less accomplished and questioning your abilities.

Instead of looking at others, try to think about the progress you have made. If you have improved, grown, or accomplished something, recognize it, and be proud of it – no matter how “small” you think that progress is. Everyone’s successes will be different because each person has different goals and ambitions. Focus on yours!

Don’t accept negative thought patterns

We all tend to be our own worst critics, sometimes this can be helpful, enabling us to evaluate and improve, but all too often, our internal critic is overly harsh and simply untrue. Think about how you react to successes and failures. Do you tend to downplay successes? Do you tend to keep replaying a ‘failure’ or make it bigger than it is? Do you sometimes hold beliefs that contradict objective facts? For example, a student may tell themselves, “I am no good at maths,” even though they received A in their end-of-year boards.

This (false) belief could stem from many sources – such as comparison, as discussed earlier. whatever the source, this belief is not true, but their mind may jump to this conclusion whenever someone earns a better grade than them. Introspection and identifying your internal critic’s patterns are important. This way, you can stop them and keep going forward.

Don’t forget those that care about you.

Finally, don’t forget the option to reach out for help! When people feel stressed, they may withdraw and alienate themselves from others. Reaching out and depending on another person may help alleviate stress.

Some final thoughts

In this article, we have seen how academic burnout is a result of natural stress getting out of control. It is something that many, many students experience at one time or another, you are not alone.

In the current time of COVID-19, everybody is having to cope with massive changes to the way they live their lives. For many students, this means adjusting to lessons online and not being able to relax and unwind with friends.

This article will hopefully enable you to identify academic burnout in yourself and others, together with giving some suggestions as to how you can reduce the stress to a more appropriate level. For some people, our suggestions may not be enough, or they may find it difficult to implement them in their lives. For them, it is important to seek additional professional help. Burnout can become a serious problem if not dealt with. It’s good to push yourself, but also invest in your mental health in order to boost your productivity and results.

This will help you in school and in life.

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