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Academic burnout and how best to avoid it

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I think it was about three o’clock in the afternoon on a rainy day in November. My personal tutor – who was more of a surrogate mother to me at this point – had just slid another cup of tea across the desk. It was some sort of lavender infusion which I had absolutely no taste for, but my tutor clearly believed it had soothing, calmative qualities, and so I indulged her and drank it down. I had been in her office for hours, rambling about anything and everything. She was the first person to tell me I was overly ambitious. She was the first person to tell me warningly that I needed to take it easy. 

Third year, for me, was one of my best years of University, and was simultaneously one of the most draining. I was taking two practical modules for my course, worked twenty hours minimum at my part-time job, and on top of that, I held several committee positions for Brig newspaper. Life was busy, but I thought I was totally fine. Spoiler alert: I was not. 

There is a very prevalent culture when it comes to academia; a culture in which it is almost expected to work into the wee hours of the morning, hunched over your laptop in the library with five crushed cans of energy drinks beside you. Some have romanticised this ideal, and if you’re a student with hopes of getting a 1st or entering academics professionally, this is most likely the picture that has been painted for you. It is the very nature of academia that has completely discouraged me from taking a master’s degree. 

But this sad tale of academic burnout does not have to be the norm. There are ways to spot the signs and preventative steps to take. 

Firstly, one should understand what is meant by the term ‘burnout’. There are several definitions, but the general gist is that burnout refers to a prolonged length of time where one feels exhausted and disillusioned with one’s job or studies, leading to a significant decline in productivity and grades. Does that sound familiar? 

Credit: Healthline

Academic burnouts have more than just a few causes. Usually it will be a mix of multiple things building up over time. For instance, several causes could be poor mental or physical health, family issues, a straining part-time job, or even problems with fellow students and lecturers. But by far one of the biggest problems seems to be an overwhelming amount of coursework. 

University of Stirling student Iman Mackenzie has cited poor time-management as the cause for one of her own burnouts: “Timing has always impacted my experience. I set unrealistic deadlines or I don’t set any at all and wing it. I’ve learned now that you need to recognise all other aspects of life that need your time too and factor them in.”

Iman’s experience is not uncommon. Thankfully, your body will give you a few red flags before you have a fully-fledged breakdown. These include feelings of constant and persistent exhaustion, a general feeling of frustration or unease, as well as a vague, detached feeling from yourself and others, and a lack of motivation and attention. 

Whilst it may seem like your options are limited when your body gives you these red flags, there are certain methods to tackle burnout head-on, or avoid it altogether: 

– You need to take time for yourself; away from the books and away from any part-time commitments. Taking time away and doing nothing for a day can bring about feelings of guilt, but recovery and relaxation is necessary here. Take a step back and do what is best for you.

– Spend some time outside. Numerous studies have shown that fresh air can effectively reduce stress levels. Luckily, Stirling has a beautiful campus to explore, so you’ll never have to venture far to reduce stress. 

– Time-management is key, especially when studying and working at the same time. Avoid procrastinating and stick to your schedule. Just make sure to add some personal time in there as well. Downloading a life-changing app like Microsoft To-Do List can be an extremely practical way to do this; as can treating yourself to a physical planner from a nice stationary site such as The Journal Shop.  

– Set yourself more reasonable goals. Breaking things down into more achievable chunks and setting smaller goals over a shorter time can make you feel much more accomplished. A sense of accomplishment can go a long way in terms of your motivation to get more things done, and therefore it is better for your mental state. 

– Make sure that your relationships with your peers, tutors and lecturers are solid and dependable. There should be mutual respect and trust there when possible, so that way if you do need a break or extra time, there are no questions asked. Talking to people about how you feel can also be a massive help if you’re feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders. 

With these skills in your arsenal, you should be able to navigate the treacherous waters of University without the added strain and stressors most of us feel today. Your studies may come first, but never at a detriment to your own health and happiness. 

Do not let the culture of student burnout stop you from living a healthy and balanced life. It took reaching breaking-point and slurping down lavender tea that rainy day in November for me to realise that the burnt-out student is one stereotype you do not need to fulfil. 

Featured Image Credit: Freepik

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