2 Ways to Protect Yourself From Academic Burnout
Academic pressure can lead even the best of us to the brink of exhaustion.
Posted March 28, 2023 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Academic burnout isn’t just a poor report card—the bigger losses are the motivation and ability to focus and think creatively.
- Mindfulness lets you disengage from your work during your nonwork time, which gives your cognitive faculties time and space to recover.
- Amidst the chaos of classes, tests, and assignments, it is natural to lose sight of why you chose the path you’re on in the first place.
Lots of young people come to therapy confused about why they aren’t performing academically despite having the skills to do so. They may say things like the following:
- “I used to score well in all my tests right up to college, but now it’s like I can’t read a single page without getting distracted.”
- “Learning new things always pulled me in. Why does it feel like such a burden lately?”
- “I want to study and perform well, but it feels like my brain has hit the brakes. When will I go back to my normal self again?”
If your academic performance and interest have been deteriorating, you might be experiencing academic burnout. It’s important to note here that academic burnout isn’t just characterized by a poor report card—the bigger losses are your motivation and ability to focus and think creatively.
Here are two ways to protect yourself against academic burnout, especially if you still have a lot of school ahead of you:
1. Remind yourself of your "why."
The structure and stress of your academic program and environment might push you to become mechanical about your studies. For instance, in many cultures, poor academic scores invite shame and reprimand. Societal standards may also push young people to choose academic paths against their will.
Amidst the chaos of classes, tests, and assignments, it is natural to lose sight of why you chose the path you’re on in the first place. Research published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Contemporary Research in Business confirms that intrinsic interest in your subject can prevent academic burnout.
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to rekindle the curiosity you once felt for your studies:
- What is it about my studies that makes me happy or stokes my passion?
- What do I wish to have mastered by the end of my program?
- How does my course help me come closer to the person/professional I want to become?
Asking yourself direct and pertinent questions about your own studies might seem rudimentary, but it can produce important insights about what motivates you, what needs to change, and at what point you should pause and recalibrate.
2. Allow yourself to make mistakes.
Aiming to get a perfect "A" in every single class of every semester might be the shortest route to an academic burnout. Robbing yourself of the opportunity to experiment and learn from your failures often costs you more than not getting a perfect GPA.
This, however, does not mean that you have to be unambitious or unfocused—it simply means that perfectionistic academics often miss the point.
According to a study published in Personality and Individual Differences, maladaptive perfectionism has strong correlations with academic burnout. To avoid emotional exhaustion and hypersensitivity to criticism caused by academic perfectionism, one must allow oneself to make mistakes and learn from them.
It can be difficult to allow yourself to fall every once in a while, especially if you have perfectionistic tendencies. This is why another study published in Personality and Individual Differences prescribes mindfulness as an effective shield against academic burnout.
According to the study, mindfulness lets you disengage from your work during your nonwork time, which gives your cognitive faculties time and space to recover.
Citing previous research, the study conceptualizes mindfulness in terms of the following five facets, which can help ease academic stress:
- Nonreactivity to inner experiences. If a bad grade triggers you to ignore your relationships and pull back-to-back all-nighters, mindfulness can help you rein it in. Extreme reactions happen when you let your inner experience dictate your behavior, whereas mindfulness provides you with a window of peace to make healthy and informed decisions.
- Describing. When you call out unhealthy tendencies for what they are, it dispels the romanticism of the perfect grade card. Identifying and labeling maladaptive perfectionism will help you realize that the means do not justify the end.
- Nonjudging of experiences. Sometimes, knowing that you deal with academic stress in maladaptive ways can lead to even more shame, creating a vicious cycle. Accepting your experience and reactions with a neutral state of mind can help you move forward with rationality.
- Observing. Noticing how your mind and body react to intense academic stress can help you predict what you might do next. This step requires self-compassion and patience, but will eventually lead to greater self-awareness.
- Acting with awareness. Once you understand your triggers and behavioral patterns, you are equipped to make small changes in your life. This can be done through better and lighter study schedules, joining a study group instead of isolating yourself, or reaching out to a mental health practitioner for support.