Diary of a Recovering Overachiever

The Five Stages of Academic Burnout

Deena Rey Cameron

The holidays are coming up! Though typically a cause for celebration, this phrase may inspire dread for college students. As a student myself, I completely empathize. Nothing’s worse than hearing relatives fantasize about Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas gifts when your holiday season has consisted of all-nighters in the campus library and a mild caffeine addiction. While this may be a fairly universal experience, it’s essential to recognize that it may not be healthy. If you find yourself in a constant state of anxiety, stress, or exhaustion, you may be experiencing academic burnout. Burnout can be a slippery slope, so it’s important to recognize what it looks like for you.

Key Points:

  • Burnout is a serious problem and can affect all aspects of your health and wellness.
  • College is a significant lifestyle shift that can result in academic burnout, especially for overachievers.
  • Burnout can have disastrous consequences and a lengthy recovery period, so it’s important to know the signs!

What is Burnout?

Burnout is more than just feeling a little overwhelmed; it is exhaustion to the point of mental, physical, and emotional distress. Typically, the term ‘burnout’ is associated with people in high-stress work environments, but over time, the term has expanded to include academia.

Academic Burnout

College is one of the most dynamic experiences a person can have. In this transitory period from adolescence to adulthood, we are abruptly given the freedom we so desperately yearned for our whole lives, but not without cost.

As we take on the full freedoms of being an adult, we also assume unforeseen levels of responsibility. Trying to maintain good grades, establish a healthy social life, and ‘adulting’ all at once can be exhausting, especially in an unfamiliar environment.

College is stressful for anyone, but you may be more susceptible to academic burnout if you’re an overachiever. Luckily, burnout doesn’t happen all at once and can be prevented if you know what to look for.

Five Stages of Burnout

Academic burnout can look very different from person to person, so it’s important to pay attention and look out for the signs!

Here are the five stages of academic burnout:

1. Unrealistic Optimism

The first stage of academic burnout is a burst of optimism. Maybe your last semester went really well, or you’re feeling refreshed after a seasonal break. Either way, you feel good about this semester and decide to pack on the workload. This can look like taking the max amount of credits, taking on more volunteer or work hours, and pursuing leadership roles in college organizations.

2. Academic Validation

This stage is the calm before the storm. You start feeling anxious pressure but are likely in denial because you’ve been on top of your workload. Completing coursework feels like a high-stakes game of whack-a-mole rather than a learning experience. The academic validation outweighs any anxiety you may feel, so you begin to minimize your mental wellness.

3. The Reality Check

What goes up must come down! Eventually, something goes wrong. Maybe you got sick and missed a week of class, or you blanked out on an exam. Whatever the cause, you fall behind. The academic validation that was previously keeping you afloat vanishes, and you’ve come face to face with reality: you’re doing too much. This stage features self-doubt, disappointment, and possibly self-deprecation. You were already exhausted, but without the optimism or validation, your mental and emotional health now take a turn for the worst.

4. Withdrawal

After the reality check, you’re likely to either scale back or keep pushing yourself. It is important to note that neither approach will alleviate burnout symptoms without actively addressing the issues causing the burnout. During this stage, exhaustion, anxiety, disappointment, and stress begin to have a noticeable impact on your behavior. You might start excessively engaging in

self-soothing (which can escalate very quickly in college). You may also be less likely to respond to calls from home or avoid interacting with your chosen social group.

5. Burnout

Left untreated, the withdrawal stage progresses to full-fledged burnout. This stage is characterized by feelings of emptiness, decreased energy, emotional exhaustion, lower academic performance, and a compromised immune system. At this point, you’re in a chronic state of anxious distress, and even after you’ve finished the semester, the feeling doesn’t go away.

What Next?

By the time you’ve reached the last stage, things seem pretty bleak. Fortunately, hope is not lost! It is very possible to recover from academic burnout. If you genuinely want to recover, you have to be honest with yourself. Recognizing the problem is the first and most crucial step. Self-care, healthy coping techniques, and realistic goal-setting are all great ways to work toward recovery. Still, if you’d like additional help getting your mental wellness up to par, there is no substitute for therapy.

College can be challenging, but with the right support, you won’t have to choose between your mental health and academic achievement. As this semester comes to a close, remember that college is only one aspect of your life, and you deserve to enjoy your holidays too!

Nicky Cameron, LCSW
Licensed Holistic Trauma Relief Therapist
Emergent Counselling & Consulting LLC

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