Let’s talk about burnouts – and no, I don’t mean the kind you do in your dads V8 with a stubbie in your hand. I mean the university kind. The kind of burnout that hits you like a ton of bricks when you think you’re coping with your crazy schedule. The kind that affects you at a critical assessment period and leaves you feeling like you have no control. This is the kind of burnout that had me leaving work on the verge of an emotional breakdown. Not on one, but two separate occasions.
My first breakdown came when I returned to study after deferring a semester to travel Europe. For some reason I thought it would be ok to also take on full-time work, move out of home, and lose the ‘extra baggage’ I brought home with me from Europe **mmm Nutella Crepes**.
A major deadline was approaching and I was putting a ridiculous amount of pressure on myself to live up to my pre-holiday, pre-full-time work grades. The result? I left work practically hyperventilating and went into hibernation for three days.
If you can’t tell by now, I’m a pretty open person when it comes to this stuff. Everyone I spoke to about my burnout was telling me “you’re doing too much”, “give yourself a break”, and “you need to drop some of your commitments”.
While this advice came from a good place, I didn’t realise how much worse it was making me feel, until my best friend said, “You can’t be told to drop things, that’s just not you. You have done this before and you can do it again. Pick yourself up and get on with it”. She was right, and that’s exactly what I did.
With this being said, I knew this would not be my last burnout resulting in an emotional breakdown – but I did promise myself that I would recognise the signs next time, and do everything in my power to minimise the impacts.
I know I am not the only student hoping on and off the emotional rollercoaster of stress and self-doubt. In fact, a national survey released by Headspace earlier this year revealed a whopping 83.2% of students reported high to very high levels of psychological stress in the past 12 months. A further 52.7% reported panic attacks, 79% felt anxious and 59.2% had feelings of hopelessness/worthlessness. Most alarmingly, 35.4% of students had thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
A lot of advice to cope with and avoid stress involves eating well, staying active, meditating and breathing. Of course for me, trying to stay active and eat healthy had an adverse effect. Subsequently, the following points discuss alternative tactics that I wish someone explained to me (in a raw version) prior to my encounters with burnout.
Acknowledge your feelings
Now I know this is cliché, and I must admit that acknowledging you’re stressed doesn’t really fix it. But this tip is more applicable to the emotional breakdown and hibernating phase of a burnout. You may want to tell yourself that you’re a failure for ‘letting emotions get the better of you’, but doing so is only going to make you feel worse. I learnt this the hard way. Practising clinical psychologist, Leanne Hall, states, “The only way we can move through any emotional experience is to look at, understand it, and sit with it”. So rather than getting rid of your emotions, try to be aware of them and accept them for what they are, knowing they won’t last. After all, your emotions are your body’s way of keeping you in tact.
Recognise the signs
Ignorance is bliss, right? Not when it comes to stress and burnout. Having a repeat of your breakdown is totally fine, but recognising the signs of when it’s approaching can significantly reduce the severity of your burnout.
I could feel when my second burnout was coming on. I had been stressed for weeks and was placing too much importance on the little things. I would beat myself up if I missed a gym class, I would stay up late working on university assignments and I would spend my weekends working on projects. If I didn’t do any of these things I felt like I was falling behind and not using my time effectively. I was constantly exhausted, but kept pushing through anyway. I was starting to feel like I was running a road to nowhere. Before I knew it, it hit me again.
But this time I saw it coming. I did try to relax a bit more in the lead up, although the most important thing was that I didn’t beat myself up when it came. I had been through it before, and knew I had pushed too hard again. Because of this awareness, I was able to anticipate my breakdown and recover quicker.
Take some time to process
“Meditation offers the opportunity, the potential to step back and to get a different perspective, to see that things aren’t always as they appear. We can’t change every little thing that happens to us in life, but we can change the way that we experience it…. All you need to do is to take 10 minutes out a day to step back, to familiarise yourself with the present moment so that you get to experience a greater sense of focus, calm and clarity in your life.” – Andy Puddicombe, TEDx Talk
Now I know we can’t all be buddhist mindfulness experts trying to juggle balls on a TED talk, but Andy Puddicombe does offer some useful stress management tips for when you start to recognise the signs of stress and burnout. As he points out, we put a lot of pressure on our minds to be happy, emotionally stable, focused, spontaneous, and perform its very best at everything we do (among a variety of other things also). Taking some time off and allowing ourselves time to process all of our thoughts, feelings and emotions will do you the world of favours.
An Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA) study revealed psychological stress significantly reduces the capacity to study among Australian university students, with an average of more than 10 days impairment. If taking 10 minutes a day isn’t enough, then taking a couple of “mental health” days off when you feel a burnout coming on, or when it first happens, can help you reduce the amount of time it affects you. Give yourself permission to recover and regroup.
Talk it out
“There is this idea that everyone else is managing and is succeeding, but it’s not the case, and many people still don’t talk about the pressure because there is stigma in admitting that you’re struggling,” – Amelia Walters, Headspace
That’s right, a lot of people have experienced the same emotions as you. They might have different triggers, or different coping mechanisms, but it’s more than likely they can relate. This concept took a while for me to wrap my head around, especially with everyone on social media portraying their picture-perfect lifestyles. It did me the world of favours when I finally clued on. It made me become more open about my own experiences, and it helped me nullify the stigma around mental health issues.
The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, aka Orygen, recognises this is as a prevalent issue among university students, with many students concerned that disclosing such information will jeopardise their reputation, results, and potential job prospects. Furthermore, students who experience mental ill-health are more likely to exit their course early.
In my experience, opening up to my colleagues and friends has actually allowed me to build better relationships with them, and become more accepting of my emotions when all becomes too much.
So, there you have it. A raw, unfiltered guide to coping with academic burnout. Stay tuned for part 2: Do you need a ‘Fucks Budget’? An article about testing the limits of ‘perfectionism’.