How to Deal with Academic Burnout and Stress

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Burnout and stress is unfortunately a common reality for many undergraduates, graduate students, and academic employees. Academia’s culture of overwork certainly doesn’t help this situation. But there are healthy ways to deal with, manage, and overcome burnout and stress. Read more to learn how. 

If you are a first-generation student of color in college or graduate school like I was, there is a good chance that you value your work-ethic and take pride in working hard. But it’s that same characteristic that can lead to you becoming chronically stressed and burnt out. 

I recall being an undergrad— back when I hadn’t yet developed a chronic illness— and priding myself on pulling all-nighters to write papers, working multiple part-time jobs, participating in numerous student organizations, and somehow still having enough energy to socialize with hall mates near my dorm. 

I also recall being a grad student, so excited to receive professional opportunities, that I said yes to all kinds of service requests and overextended myself to the point where I got sick and was never the same. 

Despite learning the hard way about the importance of stress-management, I still struggle to rest and prioritize my self-care. But I’ve found that the more we learn about burnout and stress, the better equipped we can be at managing them. 

What is academic burnout and stress? 

When I refer to academic burnout, I’m referring to an occupational phenomenon that emerges as a result of chronic job-related stressors. Academic burnout has three dimensions 1) a feeling of intense exhaustion, 2) detachment, and 3) lack of accomplishment. 

Academic stress is different from burnout in that it refers to the distress that students and academics may feel in anticipating a challenge. Experiencing stress is normal but too much of it can lead to burnout and that’s what we’re trying to avoid. 

What are the signs of academic burnout? 

You may be experiencing burnout in academia if you are: 

  • Feeling detached, unmotivated, hopeless, isolated, cynical, irritable, and fatigued
  • Struggling to focus, concentrate, and get things done
  • Struggling to sleep well and experiencing changes in appetite 

You may be struggling to get any work done. You may be isolating yourself. You may be getting easily irritated at things that did not bother you before. You may be sleeping too much or not enough and similarly, eating too much or not enough. And you may find yourself realizing that these feelings and challenges are not easy to shake. 

With the increase in personal and professional stressors brought on by the pandemic, it is now even more challenging to get work done, making all of us more susceptible to burnout. If you believe you are experiencing burnout, please keep reading for suggestions on how to deal with it and make sure to reach out to your personal and professional community for support. 

How To Deal with Burnout and Stress 

Here are a few suggestions to help you in managing stress and eventually overcoming your academic burnout. 

1. Identify if It’s Burnout or Something Else 

The first step is to figure out if what you are experiencing is burnout after all. Perhaps you are struggling to manage your stress no matter how much or how little work you have to get done. Perhaps you are experiencing a major change in your home or personal life, which is impacting your ability to get work done. Perhaps you are struggling with something more than burnout, such as depression or anxiety. If you are unsure if it’s burnout or something else, I highly recommend seeking the support of a mental health professional to help you identify the root cause of your symptoms. 

2. Reflect on Your Values and Priorities

Next, I recommend taking the time to reflect on your values and priorities. If you struggle to directly name your values, think about the times you’ve experienced joy. Look back on the experiences that have made you proud. What moments have left you feeling nourished and fulfilled? And what do these experiences have in common? 

Now, with your values and priorities in mind, take a look at what’s on your plate right now and ask yourself, what is essential? What absolutely needs to be done? Is there anything on your plate that you can say no to? Is there anything you can delegate? Is there anything you can receive support on? 

3. Articulate Your Limits and Set Boundaries 

Another helpful thing to do is to take a look at your energy levels or capacity and set limits accordingly. Are you no longer able to take on evening or weekend service requests? Are you saying no to opportunities that fall on days or times that you’ve set aside for self-care? 

If your workload is too high despite prioritizing and setting limits, talk to your advisor or counselor. Can you take a reduced course load? Are you able to shift or extend your academic timeline? And if you need a break, what do leave of absence policies look like in your program and institution? 

4. Create Healthy Routines 

No matter what you do, you might still find yourself feeling like you should be getting more done. This is understandable when you’re burnt out and not as productive as you have been in the past. But the goal is not to get back to your routine before burn out, but rather, to create new routines that are healthier and include time for rest, nutrition, exercise, hobbies, and anything else that aligns with your life values.

No matter what you include in a routine, make sure you also include time for reflection so that you can assess what is and isn’t working well for you and make changes as needed. Developing new routines, knowing your limits, setting firm boundaries, and practicing more self-compassion can play a big role in helping you to overcome burnout and manage stress. 

Fore more on this topic, check out the following two Grad School Femtoring Podcast episodes: 

Episode 42: https://gradschoolfemtoring.com/episodes/42-overcome-academic-burnout/

Episode 90: https://gradschoolfemtoring.com/episodes/90-navigating-burnout/ 

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