Even the most relaxed, ‘get-on-with-it’ students are likely to find themselves experiencing burnout at some point during their studies. Prime time includes first year exams when you realise that in six months since A-level exams you’ve forgotten how to revise, the first time you have overlapping deadlines and zero time management, or (like me) first semester of third year when you realise just how much everything matters now.
But all is not lost, experiencing burnout is completely normal when you’re in a high-pressure environment like university. By burnout, I mean the general overwhelming feelings of anxiety, stress and dread when you think about how much work you have to get done in such little time. Sound familiar? Maybe, maybe not. For me, I’ve always been someone who manages to get the work done in decent time, whilst balancing other commitments fairly well. Assessment periods did cause some stress, but never unmanageable. So I was surprised when I felt myself feeling weighed down by stress and anxiety over my workload in third year; dissertation had become more than a problem for Future Me, it was now something I had to face….alongside a job, extra-curricular activities and maintaining relationships. Something had to give, and it was my mental health.
I ended up so stressed over everything that I sought help from my university’s health and wellbeing services, which has been really useful, but not something I ever expected to have to use to get through university. Now, I’m feeling good and have many major deadlines behind me for a few months so can work on myself and balancing my responsibilities without burning out again. So, here I am to impart some wisdom about how to handle burnout at university; mostly this is lifted from my counsellor advising me, and counselling can be hard to find, so why not pass on some good ideas?
1. Asking for help is encouraged
It’s easy to feel like your problems and stresses don’t matter in comparison to people fighting more difficult battles with mental health and their circumstances. If the way you’re feeling is affecting your life in any way, it’s worth seeking support. I definitely felt like a bit of an imposter when I went for my first appointment with counselling services…by the end of it, I’d opened up about many more personal things than I’d ever expected to, and realised how beneficial it could be. Take that step and enquire about support services at your university. Everyone is different, so you might want practical support like a study plan to help you manage your time rather than counselling. Getting help in any way you need is so important. Why suffer in silence when there’s so much support just waiting for you to use it? If you’re worried, try bringing a friend along for moral support, and choose a quiet time to go chat to whoever you need to. Receiving regular counselling sessions made me feel so much better, just to know I had someone to talk to about everything, who was professionally trained in how to help.
2. Nip it in the bud
If you can feel any of your telltale signs of stress creeping up, pay attention to them. I would just feel immense feelings of being overwhelmed and the mere mention of dissertations had the potential to send my mind spiralling. I’d lay in bed thinking about everything I’d done that day, everything I had to do the next day…it never ended. These spiralling thoughts and inability to shut off were clear signs that something had to change. Keep an eye out for your stressors; if you catch them early enough, you may be able to stop things getting any worse. Don’t wait until you’re on the verge of a breakdown to address your sleepless nights, irritable personality or recurring headaches.
3. Self-care needs to be a priority
Writer and activist Audre Lorde said: “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This is how we need to see self-care, as necessary for our self-preservation and just as important as anything else we do. Identify what makes you feel relaxed and calm, or that serves as a distraction, and do it. If you let your self-care habits slip, it’s likely your mental wellness will too. You don’t have to buy into the commercialised idea of self-care as requiring bubble baths and facemasks (but if you want to do that, hell yes!) if that doesn’t feel useful. Taking a walk, going to the gym, taking a nap, reading a book for pleasure, treating yourself for tea, a phone call with a friend…any of these could be self-care that resonates with you. Dedicate time to it, even when you feel like you’re too busy to divert from your everyday responsibilities. Treat self-care as a responsibility, because you should always prioritise yourself over the things you do.
4. Be realistic about your schedule
This is really just me targeting myself publicly. YOU CANNOT DO EVERYTHING! And that is okay, nobody expects you to! We tend to have really high standards for ourselves (because capitalism expects us to be productive 24/7 but that’s a tale for another day) and put far too much pressure on ourselves to achieve and give 110%. It just isn’t sustainable to be working yourself to death, whether that’s through paid work, volunteering or other extra-curricular activities.
Of course, lots of students have to work to survive university and this advice is not intended to suggest everyone gives up work for their mental health, because not being able to afford to live is probably going to cause more mental health issues. But if you can alter hours or rotas so you aren’t stuck in a cycle of ‘university-work-home-university-work-home’, it’s worth a try. Think about all your activities and responsibilities and whether they are sustainable to continue with. It might just be that during stressful times you take a step back from a role for a while, but even just accepting that you can’t do everything every time is really important. If you find you have a volunteer responsibility, or even a job, that just doesn’t feel worth it…consider stepping back entirely. You need time to care for yourself and to not be ‘on’ all the time.
5. Talk to your friends!
If you can open up to a friend about how you’re feeling, you will feel a little better. Maybe they have their own struggles and you don’t want to burden them, but even just mentioning “yeah I’m feeling really stressed out today” when they ask how you are will go a long way to helping you get things off your chest. Your friend might actually be feeling similar, and you can work together to help relieve some stress – maybe by holding each other accountable for taking breaks or seeking support together! Friendship is so important at university, so you shouldn’t have to go through anything alone.
These five tips might feel self-explanatory to you, but sometimes seeing realities written in black and white helps your mind focus. Take this advice on board and avoid a full-scale burnout breakdown, because let’s be honest, nobody has the time for that. If you’ve experienced similar feelings, leave a comment about any methods that did or didn’t work for you. Crowdsourcing advice can be useful, and I’m sure there are ideas I’ve missed here!