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Why Do We Get Academic Burnout?

Burnout is often considered a necessary part of the University experience. Sleep is but a luxury good, being behind on lectures is fashionable, and if you don’t have a caffeine addiction now, you’ll probably develop one sooner rather than later. None of these things are fun. While we all have moments when we’re completely overwhelmed by the demands, both academic and personal, of university life, the consequences of burnout are not to be underestimated: persistent levels of stress and exhaustion have been shown to disrupt creativity, problem solving, and working memory.

I had my first brush with burnout last February. On top of the inevitable gloom imposed by the Scottish winter, I was slipping behind in my modules, lacking in sleep, and just generally feeling dispirited. It was a bizarre and revelatory experience — one I had never expected to encounter. I was stuck in a self-sustaining loop of getting behind on work, adopting unhealthy work habits in an attempt to counteract the issue, letting my wellbeing suffer as a result, and ultimately falling even further behind. But this perpetual cycle isn’t just a symptom of burnout, it is an intrinsic property of it. Research from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden suggests that occupational stress can actually alter neural circuits, causing a cycle of neurological dysfunction. Indeed, when compared to a control group, people diagnosed with burnout had, on average, significantly weaker connections between the amygdala and brain areas linked to emotional distress, indicating a difficulty in managing negative emotions.

A key explainer of burnout is expectations. Entering university, most of us unintentionally place a lot of pressure on ourselves to succeed, both inside and outside of academics. All of us achieved highly to get to where we are today, so it is only natural that we seek continuation when entering higher education. But this isn’t secondary school; no longer is it possible to ace exams with minimal preparation or get top marks on an essay you wrote on the bus — the tools we become so accustomed to growing up splinter when pitted against the academic intensity of a university. This can lead to uninspiring grades and the disappointment that comes with them, culminating in burnout and a reduction in perceived self worth. This imposter’s syndrome is particularly acute in the current student population: a recent study by StudyHub found that above 40% of college students suffer from the fear of being found out as fraudulent.

Another key initiator, and also consequence, of burnout is a reduction in meaningful social contact. When faced with academic toils, there is a certain temptation to lock yourself away from the outside world in an effort to crunch through your to-do list; I know this because I’ve attempted it — to grossly unsuccessful effect. Not only was I unproductive, I was unhappy. The notion that the culprit behind burnout was work proved to be dangerous: it distracted me from the other causes of my troubles and cultivated an inner sense of guilt whenever I did things I enjoyed. Richard Gunderman, a professor at Indiana University, instead describes the incremental onset of burnout as “the accumulation of hundreds or thousands of tiny disappointments, each one hardly noticeable on its own”.

Part of my problem was the pandemic — online learning was a burden that most of us are only too eager to forget about. Even when the lockdowns ended, the persistence of hybrid learning meant that most of last year was spent inside. I remember listening to lectures on double speed while resting my head against my desk, frustrated with both myself and the circumstances surrounding my learning. In some ways the pandemic fallout still lingers with us today. This December will see a return to in-person exams, and thus a return to a kind of stress that many of us haven’t dealt with for years. It will magnify not only the wish to succeed but also the fear of underperforming, exalting the feeling of not being good enough.

While there is no singular fix to burnout, there are ways to guard yourself. Sleep and exercise stand as the obvious remedies but I will instead point to something more personal — genuine, dumb human interaction. As December looms closer, remember that old adage: pub?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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