Are you suffering from academic burnout at university?

What is burnout?

Sometimes student life feels like every time you meet a deadline, another one looms. You’re constantly waiting for this crazy week to be over, just to have an even crazier one coming up. Staying on top of your workload is a challenge, but overworking isn’t sustainable for multiple weeks in a row. If you try and do too much in a short space of time, you’ll exhaust yourself – hello, academic burnout!

Lots of stress over a long period of time – aka, a uni term – can lead to a feeling of exhaustion. This fatigue can be physical, mental and emotional or all three. Professor Kim Hirabayashi of the University of Southern California says that burnout is a catch-all term that ultimately means “the opposite of thriving”.

University student suffering from academic burnout, sitting at desk with laptop
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Academic burnout symptoms

Academic burnout is unlikely to be caused by one thing in particular. However, there are several aspects of student life likely to cause added stress and make burnout more likely. These include work overload, accommodation worries, feeling isolated due to online learning, and financial concerns.

Stress is the body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure. It’s very common and can be motivating to help us achieve things in our daily life. But too much stress can affect our mood, body and relationships – especially when it feels out of our control. If you ignore the signs of stress and neglect to manage it properly, you’ll eventually burn out.

Some physical signs of academic burnout:

  • Feeling tired and drained most of the time
  • Lowered immunity and frequent illnesses
  • Headaches and/or muscle pain
  • Changes in appetite or sleeping habits

Some emotional signs of academic burnout:

  • Sense of failure and self-doubt
  • Feeling helpless, trapped, or overwhelmed
  • Detachment and/or loss of motivation
  • Increasingly cynical and negative outlook
  • Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment

Some behavioural signs of academic burnout:

  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastination
  • Difficulty concentrating and/or racing thoughts
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
  • Taking out your frustration on others
University student suffering from academic burnout asleep on his desk
Photo credit: Antonio Guillem, Shutterstock

Burnout recovery

Take a break

It sometimes feels like doing well in uni work is the world’s most important thing. While it’s admirable to be taking your work seriously, your mental and physical health should always be number one. If you’re feeling burnt out, you’ve probably prioritised work at the expense of your wellbeing. It’s not realistic to expect yourself to be productive all the time, especially during the pandemic.

The first thing to do when experiencing academic burnout is to take a step back from your work. Take a couple of days off and make sure you really relax, whatever that means for you (sport, reading, time with friends, bubble baths…). This might feel like the last thing you should be doing with exams or deadlines approaching. However, getting some breathing space will help you regain your energy, and be more productive in future.

Challenge your negative thoughts

The way we think affects the way we feel. Try and challenge unhelpful thoughts by considering the good things in your life. Of course, this is way easier said than done. But focussing on the good in your life will remind you that the world is bigger than your uni campus. You have so much more going for you than just your marks!

Try to stop comparing yourself with others and adding unnecessary academic pressure. Every day, list three things about your own life that you’re thankful for. These can be as big as an important person in your life and as small as finding a 50p piece on the floor.

Talk to someone

Trusted friends, family and colleagues, or contacting a helpline can all help when you’re struggling from excessive stress and student burnout. Though uni can sometimes feel like a lonely place, there are lots of people there that have your back. Try and seek help early instead of waiting until you’re at crisis point. See our mental health tips for more info.

Social contact is nature’s antidote to stress. Talking to a good listener is a great way to calm your nervous system and relieve stress. Try and schedule quality time with uni friends, or call important people in your life. If you don’t feel like you have anyone to turn to, it’s never too late to build new friendships and expand your social network.

University student suffering from academic burnout speaking on the phone
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Build a good schedule

As you go forward, try and stick to a schedule that gives you lots of breaks and time off. If you want to keep up a good momentum for a long period of time, you need to pace yourself. For example, if you’re studying hard until 4 or 5 pm, there’s no need to keep going into the evening! Take a look at our post on time management for more advice on setting good boundaries. Use all your time off to chill, unwind, spend time with other people, and get enough sleep.

Set reasonable goals so you can stick to them. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by large tasks like ‘Start Chemistry revision’. Breaking it down into ‘Chapter 1 notes’, ‘Chapter 1 practice questions’, etc, will make it more manageable. You can keep your morale up by ticking lots off your to-do list, thus avoiding burnout.

Remember your work-life balance

Life at uni is about loads more than your actual degree. Joining a club or society can be a great way to do something you enjoy and boost your mood. You can even meet nice people and create a community. However, don’t take too much on – you don’t have to say yes to every social activity or study group! Only do the things that bring you joy.

Exercising might be the last thing you feel like doing when your energy is low. But just 15 minutes of movement can make a huge impact on your mood, especially if you manage to spend the time outdoors. There’s a form of sport for everyone: it can be as simple as moving from your desk to the floor for a yoga video.

Struggling with poor mental health at university?

I remember looking at older friends’ pictures from university while I was in school with envy. I couldn’t wait to join in the fun. A month into my own time on campus, however, I realised hadn’t thought at all about managing my mental health at university.

I’d been misled by my friends’ ‘highlight reel’ of the student experience. Of course nobody uploads photos of them working late into the night, or struggling to connect with strangers, or just going through life without the support system they’d known at home. Another huge thing I hadn’t realised was simply how much time I’d spend on my own if I weren’t proactive about it.

Student mental health

The arrival on campus brings amazing new opportunities. However, the upheaval can also leave you vulnerable to struggles with your mental health at university, as you deal with the stresses of adult life for the first time. This situation has been compounded by two years of cancelled social activities and classes held behind a computer screen. In an NUS survey, over half of participants said that their mental health had been negatively affected by COVID-19. Less than a third of them had sought help. According to the Office for National Statistics, 26% of students reported feeling lonely often or always, compared with 8% of adults in general.

Students can experience struggles with all aspects of their mental and emotional health. Triggers that students report include study and work pressures, relationship trouble, homesickness and loneliness, financial worries, and bullying. Anxiety is one of the most commonly-diagnosed mental health problems among students, as well as depression and suicidal feelings.

Warning signs for these disorders include things like extreme highs and lows of emotion, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, lack of energy and motivation, or physical symptoms like headaches, digestive issues and body pain. However, this checklist isn’t exhaustive at all. If you’re struggling, seek help immediately, regardless of what symptoms you do or do not have.

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Taking care of your mental health at university

Go easy on yourself

Mental health struggles can make simple tasks feel overwhelming, so don’t overload yourself. It’s not realistic to expect yourself to be productive all the time (especially during the pandemic!), so do what you can in manageable chunks. Good grades are important, but nowhere near as important as your wellbeing. Take care of yourself and seek help when you need it.

Joining a club or society can be a great way to do something you enjoy and boost your mood. If you meet nice people, it can create a community to fight loneliness or homesickness. However, don’t take too much on – you don’t have to say yes to every social activity or study group. Make sure to relax and spend time in your own space as well! It can be hard to focus when this living space is untidy, so try to de-clutter. Clean up mess, and open windows to let fresh air in.

Let’s get physical

Your mental health is strongly tied to your physical health, so try to eat as healthily as possible. There are lots of resources online for how to do this cheaply and easily. Exercising might be the last thing you feel like doing when your energy is low. Nonetheless, just 15 minutes of movement can make a huge impact on your mood, especially if you manage to spend the time outdoors. With impending deadlines and nights out, it’s unlikely you’ll be getting the recommended eight hours of sleep. However, try to establish a healthy pattern when you can. And when you do go out, remember to drink sensibly.

You know you best

Find outlets that work for you – this could be running, baking, arts and crafts or something else. Do whatever you know will lift your mood and calm you down. Keeping in touch with friends you had before you got to campus is a good way to maintain your social interactions. It can also be a helpful reminder that a world exists beyond your university (sometimes easy to forget!). There are lots of apps out there that can help with mental health struggles, like Headspace, Calm and Worrytree.

The most important advice is to seek support early if you’re ever struggling with your mental health at university. Don’t leave it until you’re at crisis point – there are lots of people and services out there that have your back.

Photo credit: fizkes, Shutterstock

What help is available?

It can be hard to open up to family and friends about how you’re feeling, but it can also be a huge relief. Don’t feel like a burden; your loved ones are there to help you and hear you out.

To find out what support is available through your university, contact student services or look on their website. Your university’s wellbeing service can provide a listening ear and signpost you towards more services. These might include appointments with dedicated mental health advisors, drop-in counselling or mindfulness sessions, and support groups. Some institutions have their own phone helpline, de-stressing sports activities, and animal therapy sessions!

If you’re seriously worried about your mental health, it’s essential that you visit a doctor. They can give you a medical diagnosis and a referral to appropriate services. If you think it’s affecting your work, have a chat with your personal tutor or somebody in charge of your pastoral care. You can express your concerns and make a plan for the future. Once when I was going through something hard as a student, I spoke to my tutor even though I hadn’t felt any negative impacts yet, just to flag it up. You can also apply for mitigating or extenuating circumstances for any exams or coursework you think could be affected.

Organisations such as the Mental Health Foundation, Mind, Papyrus, Sane and Student Minds provide excellent advice and guidance. There are also multiple free support lines that you can call at any time to talk about anything that’s getting to you. Call the Samaritans at 116 123, or text ‘SHOUT’ to 85258.

Five steps to success as an international STEM student

Students studying online

STEM International Students

The early excitement of going to an international university can soon fade when you find yourself immersed in a confusing new culture, but fitting in is more straightforward than you might think. At Proprep, we want to help you make the most of your experience, so here are our top tips for feeling at home on campus.

Allow for culture shock

The biggest challenge for many international students is getting used to a new education system and the general UK mentality. While culture shock is totally normal, it’s important to make sure you feel supported, so try and find out what programmes are uniquely tailored to international students at your university.

You’ll probably want to befriend other international students – they’ll be able to empathise with your culture shock struggle and help you work through it. Search for uni Facebook groups (they’ll often have one specifically for foreign students) or groups for international STEM students, so you can discuss any questions you have with people who’ll understand. However, pushing yourself outside your comfort zone and making an effort with peers from the UK is an amazing way to help you integrate.

Focus on your language skills

As tempting as it is to avoid speaking English when you don’t feel sure of yourself, power through the shyness as much as possible. Every interaction, whether with a friend, a stranger, or a lecturer, is an opportunity to practise your language skills, so try and push yourself to talk – you’ll be so grateful in the long run. Expressing yourself more and more fluently will help you become more confident and improve all your communication skills.

Read as much as possible in English. In particular, things like textbooks, papers, and academic research will help you understand how to write to the standards of your university. If you think you might need some extra help, look out for language classes on your campus. There are also apps you can download to improve your English in a fun and engaging way, like FluentU.

Get to grips with your lectures

Even if you’re fluent in English, it might be hard to get used to native speakers at the beginning. Aside from the fact that people will probably be talking faster than you’re used to, there’s the added stress of hearing regional accents, colloquialisms, and slang in everyday conversations. 

Proprep’s video tutorials are created for your exact university, so the content is synchronised with your syllabus. If you don’t manage to catch everything your lecturer says, you can use our learning resources to catch up – reducing your academic stress, and improving your understanding of challenging material.

Having this support at your fingertips means you can cover content in your own time and at your own pace. You can pause the videos as you go and rewatch them as many times as you want, helping you tackle tougher subject areas with confidence and giving you countless opportunities to practise.

Students studying Math

Photo credit: Rawpixel.com, Shutterstock 

Build your confidence in class

Living in a new country and feeling that you aren’t quite there with the language can also lead to shyness in the lecture hall. Try not to let this hold you back; be brave and ask as many questions as you need. Ask your professor to speak a little slower if they have an accent that you don’t understand or are talking too quickly.

If you miss a topic in your lectures, using our personalised system of STEM video learning content and study guides can help you review key notes and fill in your knowledge gaps. You can then go over this material with your peers, and this will help improve both your confidence in the subject and your language proficiency.

Use Proprep

Whatever you study, wherever you study, we’ve got your back to help you thrive at uni. Our online video tutorials and other resources are on hand to provide much-needed support, and you can test your understanding with our thousands of practice exercises. Setting up an account is quick, simple, and free for the first two weeks – so click here to learn more and get started!

How to look after your mental health during the lockdown

Looking after your mental health and wellbeing isn’t easy during lockdown. You may be self-isolating at home or living in a cramped room with shared facilities. Whatever your situation here’s how to stay well.

Acknowledge your stress

It’s a stressful time when normal life becomes something very different and restricted. The psychological impact can be wide-ranging and substantial. What helps here is to be mindful of your thoughts and feelings so you can manage them more effectively than you might do in everyday life. Start by giving yourself a break about what you feel you ‘should’ be doing right now. If you don’t feel like working today, don’t work. If you need to spend all day on Netflix, do it.

Mentally prepare for the day

Of course, it can be all too easy to fall into a Groundhog Day mind-set where every day just merges into the next with no real focus. What helps is to ask – “What do I need to do today to stay healthy and productive?” Productive doesn’t have to mean study; it can be something as simple as getting dressed, and calling a friend or going for a long walk.

Photo credit: fizkes, Shutterstock

Act when you feel socially isolated

At some point, you will feel isolated but when you do don’t retreat into your bedroom instead make an effort to connect. Video chat a friend, message your family, or call someone up. These are all ways to make a real connection while in isolation. Also, consider reaching out to helplines and University counsellors all of who can help if you feel your anxiety feels as if it’s out of control.

Maintain a healthy sleep schedule

The other problem with isolation is it’s easy to get into a routine of eating when you feel like it and sleeping and waking whenever you want. The problem here is it throws your body out of rhythm and can leave you feeling tired and groggy, and down about life.

Open the curtains and let the light in, and try to eat at the usual times. Don’t stay in a dark room all day watching TV, or on your phone or computer. Reduced exposure to daylight and sun will reduce the amount of melatonin and serotonin being produced in the brain; this can lower mood and affect your sleep pattern.

Stop watching rolling news

24/7 coverage of the COVID-19 can cause enhanced anxiety, mainly because the press leans towards negative stories. To help yourself avoid overexposure only check in once a day at a set time, preferably not before bed. Also make sure you go to legitimate sources of information and avoid conspiracy theories, which have been shown to affect mental health negatively.

Take extra care if you are self-isolating on campus

Living on campus can be tough right now, as it’s likely to be empty, which in itself can feel depressing. Be sure to take advantage of any help your university is offering. Remember they are not closed and are still operating, albeit in a different way. Find out about appropriate pastoral care via your university website, make use of any additional tutor meetings for extra support and see what student union help is available to you.

Ask for help if you are self-isolating in shared accommodation

Follow the guidelines if you are self-isolating for 14 days and living in shared accommodation but remember to ask for help. Ask housemates to bring you food and medicine but leave it outside the door and if you are unwell to check on you. However, you will need to avoid all shared living spaces where possible. If you need to cook, you should only use the kitchen when no one else is there so arrange set times with your housemates. After use clean, the surfaces you’ve touched and the same goes for shared bathrooms.

Take control

Anxiety levels can rise when we feel we have no control. This is why it pays to keep yourself mentally, and physically fit during the lockdown. Staying active and living in the moment will help you feel in control and able to cope when you are unable to go anywhere.

Where possible, try a daily 45-minute walk in the fresh air, or a YouTube fitness video if you don’t fancy going out. Eat healthy meals and a focus on what you have right now to enjoy, like the time to relax, watch your favourite shows, read and even catch up on your studies.