Academic burnout in all its forms

How to spot a breakdown and what to do when enough is enough

Academic burnout can be defined as a negative emotional, physical or mental reaction to prolonged study that results in exhaustion, frustration, lack of motivation and reduced ability to perform in academia. It’s normal to feel stressed, anxious and nervous at university, especially at the start of the year or around exam periods. However, when that stress gets so bad that you feel ill or incredibly drained, it could be your body giving you a sign that it’s time to take a step back. Academic burnout can manifest itself in a number of different ways. Common physical symptoms include a feeling of exhaustion and a depletion of motivation to perform to the standard you once had. Mentally, burnout can leave you feeling isolated. It can also lead to an increased cynicism convincing yourself that what you’re currently doing is pointless and won’t help you in the future, or no longer enjoying a course or other activities as much as you once did. Burnout can cause real, psychosomatic problems such as headaches, insomnia and depression. These symptoms indicate that burnout is much more than just mild tiredness and feeling like you can’t attend another class. 

“If you’re feeling burnt out in the workplace, it should be recognised as a genuine health issue.”

The heightened focus on mental health and personal wellbeing in recent years has sparked a discussion around burnout, culminating in The World Health Organisation announcing in early 2019 that it now considers burnout to be an occupational phenomenon in their Internal Classification of Diseases. This means that if you’re feeling burnt out in the workplace, it should be recognised as a genuine health issue. Whilst the World Health Organisation classification of burnout only applies to the workplace, it is indisputable that the symptoms can be felt in other areas of life that also cause immense stress and pressure. At times your degree can feel like a full-time job, and the amount of pressure many of us put on ourselves to do well can sometimes be debilitating.

One issue with academic burnout in university is that levels of stress amongst peers tend to increase at similar times, such as approaching deadlines or exam season. This might mean that support systems might not be as readily available and accessible as they are during quieter parts of the year. Recently, Trinity reported a worrying rise in counselling enquiries, and some students have been made to go through the Disability Service, a much more well-funded area of College, in order to receive the support they need. This feeling like you’re not being heard can make already prevalent symptoms of burnout become much worse. 

The recent focus on productivity during lockdown has been toxic for many people.”

The stresses of living alone, coping with lockdown, online lectures, jobs and extracurricular activities can also easily lead to someone feeling overwhelmed. The recent focus on productivity during lockdown has been toxic for many people. Online lectures and working from home can lead perfectionists to become even more demanding of themselves, feeling like they have all the time in the world to sit and edit their essays, rewind their lectures and take never-ending notes. Similarly, with all the chaos in the world right now, it can be tempting to turn to something we can control, such as our work, and obsess over it for hours on end, escaping into our laptop screens in an attempt to distract ourselves from everything going on outside. This distraction is perhaps more of a hindrance than an aide. Others, however, have difficulty concentrating on work during these times, finding it almost impossible and feeling overwhelmed by what life is throwing at them. One first year student spoke about the pressure to have the best time of their life at university, and having just recovered from the mess of the Leaving Cert before being thrown into virtual Freshers’ Week and constant Zoom calls, she felt she had no break, and that life was passing her by. ‘I found myself saying yes to everything. I never asked myself whether I really wanted to do it, or whether I had the energy to,’ she said. ‘One day, I realised that I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat and every morning I dreaded the day ahead filled with meetings, lectures and other commitments I couldn’t cope with.’

One way to cope with academic burnout, and the inevitable increase in such an illness during the coming year, could be the introduction of compulsory sessions for wellbeing. This is a possible solution easily applicable to university, with such initiatives gaining popularity at primary school level with mindfulness lessons being introduced to encourage mental wellbeing in pupils. Having said that, it is also important to have a professional figure, such as your GP, College counsellor or therapist, who can help when things get too overwhelming. It’s important to understand the effects of a burnout and realise when a line has been crossed and someone begins to exhibit signs of anxiety, low mood or depression. 

If you feel you might be heading towards academic burnout, make time for enjoyable activities and try to get some physical exercise, like going for a walk outside.”

If you feel you might be heading towards academic burnout, make time for enjoyable activities and try to get some physical exercise, like going for a walk outside. One key factor is to make time for non-study-related activities. This will provide a positive support system, and time spent away from work will make you happier and give your mind a break. Similarly, in the age of Zoom, it can be nice to get away from your screen. Journaling or setting ten minutes out of your day to write reasonable goals using a calendar and daily reminders is a good way to stay motivated and to not feel like everyday is a monotonous cycle of Blackboard Collaborate. 

It’s important to realise that we’re not alone, even if we may feel like it. Every year at university will be stressful, but 2020 has been, and will continue to be, different. The large amount of uncertainty and anxiety around the pandemic and its effects on our studies and personal life has had huge impacts on our mental health and physical wellbeing. College has many supports to help, such as the Student Counselling Service, S2S mentors, your personal tutor and the Disability Service if things get too much. And don’t be afraid to ask for deadline extensions. If there was ever a year where not handing in your work on time was acceptable, it’s this year. Remember to seek help, recognise symptoms and don’t ignore how you’re feeling. We’re all in this together and things will get better with time.