Burnout: What it’s like to suffer the symptoms at school or university

Everyone gets stressed. It’s natural, and quite often a bit of pressure can keep us motivated.

Girl looking at lots of textbooks
If you’re feeling overwhelmed at school or uni, you might be burning out.

But when that stress gets so bad that you feel ill or incredibly drained, that could be your body giving you a sign that it's time to take a step back. This is known as burnout.

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about the particular stresses of being a millennial - like feeling a need to look great on social media, or the fact that more and more people are working freelance, which comes with the added pressure of having to find the next gig. Feeling overwhelmed by all of this has been dubbed ‘millennial burnout’.

The struggle is real

YouGov conducted a poll in 2018 for the Mental Health Foundation that found 74% of people in general felt so stressed that they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope. On top of that, only 7% of young adults said that they had never felt that way, indicating that this is an extremely pressing issue for younger people.

This upswing in discussion of the matter culminated in The World Health Organisation announcing in early 2019 that it now considers burnout to be an "occupational phenomenon" in their Internal Classification of Diseases. This means that, if you’re feeling burnt out in the workplace, it should be recognised as a genuine health issue.

So what actually is it? Louise Theodosiou, a consultant psychiatrist for the Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, explained: “Burnout tends to happen in situations where people are feeling under a lot of stress, and perhaps where there is very high levels of work.”

This can manifest itself in a number of different ways but, according to Dr Theodosiou, some common symptoms are:

  • feeling exhausted
  • feeling depleted of the motivation to perform to the standard that you were before
  • feelings of cynicism, such as feeling as though what you’re currently doing is pointless and won’t help you in the future
  • no longer enjoying a course or other activities that you once did
  • feeling isolated

Dr Theodosiou stressed that the WHO classification only applies to workplace burnout; however, she added the symptoms can arguably be felt in other areas of your life that bring you immense stress and pressure, such as school or university. Both of these can feel like a job at times, especially when you’re working towards important exams.

Dr Theodosiou explains what burnout is and who you can turn to for help.
Girl studying outside
Exam periods are particularly stressful, and combined with other responsibilities, they can make you feel extremely drained.

Dr Theodosiou said: “What students might find is that all of their peers are going through a similar period of stress, so this might mean that support systems that have been built up over the year... might not be as emotionally available as they are at other times of year."

This feeling like you’re not being heard, adds Dr Theodosiou, can make already prevalent symptoms of burnout become much worse.

At school, you’re juggling normal school work with chores and maybe after school clubs, as well as preparing for big, potentially life-changing exams for the first time. At university it has the potential to get even worse, as on top of that you’re throwing in all the stresses of living on your own for the first time and, potentially, one or more part-time jobs.

Your stories

My life was truly consumed by my degree

The physical symptoms of burnout can be extensive. Hana, 21, said that as a fresher at university she developed a twitch in one eye and a spasm in the other.

This she thinks resulted from a constant emotional drain: “I said yes to everything, and didn't ask myself whether I really wanted to do it, or whether I had the energy to. One day, I realised that I woke up every morning with a knot in my stomach, dreading a day filled with meetings and commitments.”

This pressure to be seen to be doing all things and to be thriving in them was a common theme. Not only that, but Marcia, 24, thinks it’s even encouraged by some universities. She said that on her multimedia journalism degree, her and her classmates were “taught to utilise every minute and take every opportunity by pitching stories… but they don’t realise how much time we need for ourselves.”

Arun echoed this too: “I think that overall good students who were excelling found it was almost impossible to keep up and it was so demotivating and cause a lot of people to end up hating the thought of something we had all previously loved.” He told BBC Bitesize that he felt “my life was truly consumed by the degree.”

Gauthier, 26, said that for him it was the added burden of financial responsibility: “You go from having your parents make all financial decisions for you, to being on your own, and this can be overwhelming for young people.”

Others such as Aishah, 27, who studied medicine, said it was because they wanted to be seen to be doing as well as their peers: “It is easy to feel that you aren't as good as them which leads to working harder and harder.”

However, she still thinks the university had a part to play, as in her view “I don't think we are taught how to study. It's simply about putting the graft in to get the results.”

She suggests “compulsory sessions for wellbeing” could be a potential solution, not only at university but in the workplace too. Such things are gaining popularity at school level, with mindfulness lessons being introduced at some primary schools to encourage mental wellbeing in pupils.

Boy studying on laptop in library
Go at your own pace - don’t feel as though you need to keep up with everyone else.

Seeking help

If you're feeling burnt out, Dr Theodosiou recommends looking into the pastoral arrangements that universities have for people who are experiencing any kind of mental health need.

But she also said that it’s important to have a professional figure out that burnout is actually what you are suffering from: “Speak to a professional, for example your GP, or maybe a counsellor or a therapist at the university… because what that person would want to do is to look for other reasons why you might be feeling tired or low or cynical.

“For example, the difficulties that you’re experiencing might be explained through a physical cause, such as being anaemic... It might be that you’re experiencing an episode of anxiety, or it might be that you’re experiencing low mood.”

Essentially, she said that it’s important that burnout isn’t equated with, or that is “unpicked” from anxiety and depression, as you need to make sure you’re getting the right treatment for your personal needs.

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