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
Photo credit: SB Arts Media, Shutterstock

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
Photo credit: Prostock-studio, Shutterstock

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.

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