As you might have gathered in your physics or chemistry courses, energy is governed by laws of thermodynamics. And the first of those laws states that energy cannot be created or destroyed – only transferred.
The same principle applies (albeit with some creative license) to your studies. You are an isolated system, possessing a finite amount of energy in the form of academic focus and stamina. You can transfer that energy to your schoolwork, and indeed you should! But you have to give yourself the time and space to regain your energy elsewhere: with friends, family, quiet time, mindful practices, sleep and extracurricular hobbies. Or else you run the risk of depleting your energy. You run the risk of burning out.
Thermodynamic metaphors aside, we wanted to take this blog post to tackle the genuine issue of student burnout. Over the following few pages, we explore what burnout is and how to self-evaluate for it, and offer strategies for mitigating or avoiding the condition.
Join us as we tackle self-care for students. For further reading, we suggest two companion articles to this one: how to balance your studies and mental health, and how to develop an individual education plan that doesn’t overtax you.
What Is Burnout?
“Burnout” is often tossed off casually in conversation. “Soccer practice and a test in one day?! I’m burnt out,” you might hear someone complain. But the condition has a textbook definition that extends beyond temporary exhaustion. For an authoritative definition, we turn to Toronto’s leading psychiatric teaching hospital, CAMH:
“Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. (It) can make one feel emotionally drained and unable to function in the context of work and other aspects of life.”
As we can see, burnout isn’t a passing feeling. It’s an accumulation of stress over time that manifests in decreased performance and compromised mental health.
Signs, Symptoms and Causes
Diagnosing burnout is challenging, since the condition often exists concurrently with other issues: stress, anxiety, overexertion, etc.
But broadly, we can point to a few signs and symptoms:
- Decreased ability to focus on your studies
- Continual feelings of fatigue when faced with school or other tasks
- A sense of distance from your studies, as though you’ve “given up” or “checked out”
- A lack of enjoyment and excitement in your studies, especially with topics that used to pique your interest
- An outsized sense of frustration, like kicking yourself for missing a few questions on a unit quiz
- And a general feeling of impending anxiety
Please note that these symptoms shouldn’t replace the counsel of a health professional. If you feel that your burnout is negatively affecting your studies and personal life, please reach out to a trusted guardian and/or mental health professional.
As for the causes of burnout, they can be as diverse as the symptoms. Causes might include:
- Poor time management resulting in cram-and-crash cycles
- Lapses in basic self-care practices like diet and rest
- A pervading fear of failure brought on by unrealistic expectations (internal or external)
- Feeling “out of one’s depth” in a course or course material
- A school and personal schedule that doesn’t accommodate breaks and relaxation.
- And more…
In the following sections, we’ll use these causes to guide us toward self-care strategies for students. We’ve broken up the strategies below into three categories: avoiding burnout with self-care, avoiding burnout with time management and communication, and avoiding burnout through realignment. Hopefully, by tackling the problem from a few different angles, we hit on some self-care tips for students that apply to your situation.
Avoiding Burnout with Self-Care
As mentioned, burnout is partly caused by lapses in basic self-care and adequate relaxation. Therefore, the antidote is straightforward – more self-care!
Okay, we understand that it’s not quite that simple for some students. You might wonder how on earth you’re supposed to factor in “me time” when there’s a final exam right around the corner. But we encourage you to recenter yourself, prioritize your health and well-being, and slow the pace down a little – even in the face of scary or intimidating academic deadlines.
Here’s how to start creating your self-care checklist for students.
The Fundamentals: Sleep, Exercise and Diet
We’ve said it many times before; we’ll probably say it many times again. Your physical needs affect your mental well-being. In particular, sleep, diet and exercise exert a sizeable influence on your overall sense of focus, productivity and self-confidence. Don’t let these fundamental self-care practices slide!
At the top of your self-care checklist for students, ensure that you are getting the following:
- Enough quality sleep for your age range
- Three square meals centred on veggies, healthy fats, carbohydrates and protein – topped up with healthy snacks in between
- Some form of physical exercise based on your ability
You might be surprised by what these fundamental strategies do for your overall mental equilibrium.
Mindfulness: Yoga, Meditation and Breathing Exercise
Beyond your basic physical needs, you have to tend to those higher functions – what some philosophers might call the spiritual self. And the best way to achieve this is through mindfulness practices.
Mindfulness isn’t as wishy-washy as it might sound. Neuroscientific studies into the brains of mindfulness practitioners found some serious hardwiring differences, including increased plasticity, fronto-limbic engagement and pre-frontal cortex changes. In everyday terms, mindfulness can make your brain more open, self-aware and emotionally regulated.
There are a few ways to practice mindfulness, but they each revolve around self-awareness and breathing. Consider yoga for a double-whammy of mindfulness and exercise, or try quiet breathing exercises and meditation.
Time Away: Incorporating Vacation, Mental Health Days and Personal Time
Self-care doesn’t have to be a chore. It doesn’t have to involve putting yourself to bed early and sticking to an exercise schedule. Sometimes, it’s just about making yourself happy.
How do you feel happy? Do you recharge your batteries in social situations or with alone time? Are you thrilled by a family vacation, or do you prefer the solitude of a movie night indoors? Whatever makes you happy, incorporate that into your school schedule. Trust us. This isn’t a trick.
One of the reasons you chose to learn at your own pace was so you could have the flexibility to prioritize yourself. If you sense that school is starting to burn you out, capitalize on that flexibility by taking time away. Call it a mental health day or call it a holiday – whatever you call it, it will probably help!
The Little Things Add Up: Creature Comforts and Proven De-stressors
We’ve covered the significant self-care strategies for students above; now, let’s explore all the other little things you can do to calm your nerves, restore your energy and point you in the right direction.
Here are a few de-stressors that work for some people. Try one or a combination of the following to determine what works for you:
- Vitamin D and light therapy
- Soothing soaks in the tub
- Gratitude journaling
- Unplugging your devices and getting out into nature
- Listening to music
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Rewarding hobbies like drawing, cooking or knitting
Not all of these will work for you, and that’s okay. Self-care for students takes trial and error. Just be open-minded, and consider using some of these strategies as you create a productive learning space.
Avoiding Burnout with Time Management and Communication
In our list of burnout causes, we pointed toward poor time management and “feeling out of one’s depth.”
Poor time management can cause burnout by condensing your work into short, exhausting spurts of studying (what we usually call “cramming”). These tense cramming periods do a number on your nervous system, leaving you feeling drained afterwards. Likewise, feeling helpless can burn you out by wearing on your self-confidence and motivation.
You can combat these burnout causes by prioritizing effective time management and open communication. Here’s how.
Chaos and Structure: Prioritizing Effective Time Management
As humans, chaos tends to bother us. We’re inherently skeptical of uncertainty, and we don’t like feeling caught off-guard. Conversely, structure comforts us. These can be literal structures (our homes, for instance) or mental structures like schedules and plans.
Effective time management is a foolproof strategy for taking the “chaos” found in a pile of assignments, tests, readings and school activities – and turning it into a sensible structure. Time management schedules allow us to see what we need to get done, plan accordingly, and leave some wiggle room for all those self-care strategies mentioned in the prior section.
We have a few helpful resources on our blog about time management. But in a few words, time management involves creating long- and short-term agendas that structure your courses into bite-sized pieces. That way, you never bite off more than you can chew!
Communication: Finding the Support You Need to Power Through
One way to exacerbate burnout is to try doing everything by yourself.
Imagine if a medical student tried to treat a hospital full of patients without the aid of his doctoral mentors, nursing support staff and administrators! Not only would the student fail to serve their patients adequately, but they would burn themselves out. Likewise, this applies to your studies. Stubbornly going it alone will do a disservice to your coursework and to your mental health.
Find the support you need by practicing proactive communication. If you struggle with your Shakespeare unit, contact your English teacher with questions. If you can’t wrap your head around electrochemistry, message your SCH4U teacher. They’re here to help you, so you might as well capitalize on their knowledge and experience.
And if you run into trouble during a late-night study session, you can always use OES’s 24/7 tutoring services. As a leading Ontario online high school, we have a vested interest in your success. What we don’t want you to do is lose confidence, get frustrated, work in circles around the problem and eventually burn out.
Avoiding Burnout Through Self-Reflection, Realignment and Renewed Goals
Finally, burnout can be caused by external and internal pressure. Who among us hasn’t felt the weight of pressure on our shoulders? Most of the time, we spin this pressure into motivation, allowing it to spur our ambition. But what happens when that pressure ceases to be motivating, and starts being the opposite – an obstacle on the road to success?
In those cases, we need to take a step back and reassess our goals and priorities. In this section, let’s explore the importance of sensible goal-setting and perspective.
Realignment: Remembering What’s Most Important
Perspective is everything. Sometimes, we make “mountains out of molehills,” assigning great consequence to one facet of our life, while relegating the rest of our life to the back burner. This can happen with school.
We aren’t saying your education isn’t important – that’s farthest from the truth! What we’re saying is that you shouldn’t ascribe life-or-death importance to your studies – and, in the process, neglect your mental health, social life, family life, passions and hobbies. Try to view each facet of your life as coexisting in harmony. This should give you the balance you need as a student to avoid burning out.
And try not to equate a bad grade with the end of the world, either. You will always have opportunities to amend your grades and academic standing with our upgrade courses.
Renewed Goals: Creating Sensible Goals
Finally, burnout can be a by-product of unreasonable goals. To take an extreme example, if you set a goal to “become the first teenager to land on the moon,” you might work yourself to the bone trying to achieve it before 19 – even though, between us, it’s probably not going to happen. Then what are you left with? A year or two of hyper-focused work, neglected social life, some dashed confidence and depleted energy.
Instead, what if you were to say: “I want to achieve a personal best grade in physics; that way, someday, I can enter an aeronautics program and contribute to the research that puts people up in space.” Now, that’s a reasonable goal! You can establish a schedule around that goal, emphasizing your grade 12 Physics studies, and communicating with your teacher/tutor to ensure that you’re grasping everything in the course.
If you need help setting high-level goals pertaining to your dream career, OES can help. Through our personal education plan, we can help you assess, strategize and plan an academic pathway to your future.
Keep these self-care tips for students in mind as you enter your next semester of study or close out the existing one. Through a mixture of self-care for students, effective time management, proactive communication, realigned perspective and achievable goals, you can keep your energy going throughout the academic year – and beyond!