Imagine for a moment a balloon. And imagine that as the balloon inflates, each pump of air represents another personal stressor. Exams are coming up and I have to start studying; pump…My family expects me home for the long weekend, but I have too much to do; pump…I should take on an extra shift at work so I can pay for that textbook; pump…I can’t decline another invitation to hang out with my friends or they’ll stop including me…pump.
Now, imagine that you take a few moments sometimes to release some of that air by creating study notes to help make exam prep easier. Or offering to visit family for part (but not all) of the weekend. While your stressors haven’t been eliminated, by addressing at least some, you’ve minimized the impact. And by making your tasks more manageable, you’ve avoided the dreaded pop!
On the other hand, what happens when you fail to periodically release air from the balloon? Inevitably, your balloon pops…and stress can become burnout. Once the balloon has popped, piecing it back together can sometimes feel impossible.
And students are clearly feeling stress. For example, the 2016 Canadian National College Health Assessment surveyed 45,000 post-secondary students and found that:
The difference between stress and burnout can be difficult to identify, and the answer may differ from student to student. Consider the following definition from this guide:
“Stress, by and large, involves too much: too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and mentally. However, stressed people can still imagine that if they can just get everything under control, they will feel better. Burnout, on the other hand, is about not enough. Being burned out means feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring.”
It is not as simple as saying “if you’re taking 5 courses, you are likely to burnout”. Five courses may be manageable for some students, while for some it may contribute to burnout. In general, burnout does not discriminate, is subjective, and can be debilitating for anyone at any time.
Burnout also tends to be gradual, to build over time, and to compound if not recognized and addressed. Arguably, the most important thing you can do is learn to understand your body and mind, as well as your limits. Be mindful of common “red flags” including (but not limited to!) low mood, decreased motivation/more procrastination, loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy and/or neglecting important relationships. Physical symptoms can also be part of burnout, and may manifest as difficulty falling or staying asleep, changes in appetite, feeling more tense and unable to relax, and/or stomach upset.
In general, burnout includes three key elements as discussed in this article:
So, chances are, if you are feeling exhausted, miserable at school, and less capable/productive, it’s definitely time to take stock of whether you are on the path to burnout.
At this point you might be asking, “Yes, but don’t all students feel this way at some point in their academic careers and beyond?” The answer is undoubtedly yes - but the intensity of these symptoms, along with one’s personal resources, and the impact they have on his/her/their functioning, are what differentiates whether stressful situations culminate in full-blown burnout. Remember, there is no definitive way to experience burnout. If you think you might be burnt out, you probably are.
It used to be commonly accepted that adulthood began later in life, once you had commitments such as an established career, children and/or a partner, and financial obligations. More recently, however, students are balancing increasingly challenging expectations, such as pressure to perform academically and engage in networking activities to secure future opportunities, manage financial responsibilities, respond to social pressures, and meet familial obligations.
So, back to our original image of a balloon. How can students take practical steps to prevent themselves from “popping”? Here are a few tips:
1. Be proactive/preventative: Trust yourself to know your body and listen to what it is telling you. If you notice personal red flags (e.g., sleeping too much, not enough, procrastinating, feeling down, demotivated), acknowledge them, and get support before the stressors feel overwhelming.
2. Set boundaries for yourself: In addition to knowing your body and what it is telling you, it’s also important to know your limits. Set boundaries with yourself by not over-committing, and by assertively saying “no” if what is being asked of you may cause the balloon-you to pop.
3. Put down the water: A popular stress parable describes a lecturer asking his class how heavy a glass of water is. Responses to the question are variable. The students are then asked to consider how heavy the glass of water becomes if held for one minute versus one hour. And what if someone offered to help hold the glass of water? Before stress becomes burnout, perhaps you simply need to “put down the water” or ask for help to carry the weight of the glass.
4. Carve out time for self-care: As with anything related to mental health, self-care is crucial. And self-care can look different across individuals. In general, how you talk to yourself, and the time you take to nurture yourself (e.g, with enjoyable activities, good people, your favourite meal or cup of tea) can mitigate the negative impact of stress and keep things manageable. In short, each self-care activity is an opportunity to release some air from your balloon and prevent it from exploding.
If you feel that you’re heading towards burnout (or maybe already there!), it’s not too late. Consider the 3 “R” approach: recognize, reverse and resilience and chances are you will have a stronger, more durable balloon for the future.