Most students will recognize the need to have more time in a day. Balancing study and social life while still getting enough sleep, is a serious skill. While many of us manage to do all these activities within 24 hours, rushing through life does more harm than good. If coffee is your best friend to survive the day and you often feel restless or stressed, then it is highly recommended to read further…
The abundant choices at the supermarket
University psychologist Aniko Kiss sees students struggling with this on a daily basis. “Every day I have meetings with students who suffer from chronic stress or emotional exhaustion. It is an increasing issue among students.” According to Kiss, students are often not able to choose between the endless available activities. She compares it with going to the supermarket. “At the supermarket there are abundant products to choose from. However, you do not buy everything you like. This is the same with choosing between different activities, only in this area we did not learn yet on what to put in our basket.” With activities Kiss is referring to extra-curricular work, part-time jobs, social meetings, sports, taking care of others, having enough rest and sleep and all the other endless activities you can undertake.
To your body it does not make a difference whether you like the activities you undertake or not. You might enjoy working at that café or doing committee work, but it still takes energy. To your mind, the number of activities that you could do each day are endless. However, your body functions with limits, the same way a day has limits: exactly 24 hours. If you continue living a rushed lifestyle without taking moments to rest, you can become the victim of chronic stress or emotional exhaustion. If not dealt with, it could eventually lead to a burnout.
From regular fatigue to a severe burnout
When people talk about a burnout they generally mean people who are emotionally exhausted or experience chronic stress. Psychologists, on the other hand, define a burnout as an even more serious state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion, where you are simply not able to do anything. This could even take one to two years to recover from! When you have a burnout, you are not able to come out of bed, experience apathetic feelings, wake up crying and more.
“To diagnose a burnout is not as black and white as determining whether you are pregnant”, Kiss explains. Psychologists think using a spectrum: from regular fatigue to a severe burnout, and all the stages in between. Kiss explains that she has only witnessed a handful of cases where students reach the burn-out end of the spectrum. However, students that deal with chronic stress or emotional exhaustion are common, which is a concerning development as this can easily develop into a burnout.
Neglecting the body
But how come that many students face these psychological problems? In essence, these are all problems that go back to the issue of the abundant choices at the supermarket. Many students have difficulties with setting short-term priorities. What needs to be done today or this week, and really cannot wait? This is an important question that you should ask yourself regularly. Going to lectures, working, doing sports, going out: it all affects your body. Demanding too much from yourself, and hereby neglecting your body, will eventually take its toll.
You might feel like you are perfectly capable of juggling all these tasks at once without breaking down. However, be aware that you are playing with fire. Emotional exhaustion gradually sneaks upon you as it is a complicated hormonal process of adrenaline, that keeps you going, and other hormones that will keep you awake.
The burnout profile
Rate yourself on a scale from 1 to 10 on the following personality traits (10 meaning it fully applies to you): ambition, perseverance, sense of responsibility, perfectionism and compassion. According to Kiss, FEWEB students score particularly high on ambition reflected in their focus on resume-building. Did you actually rate yourself pretty high on ambition, or even on all characteristics?
These five personality traits together from the burnout-profile. Do not freak out yet, these are good traits to have! However, in combination with difficulties to prioritize and other disadvantageous life conditions, it increases the risk of becoming emotionally exhausted. The five characteristics are again mainly about the mind, and neglect the body.
But what signs are important to look out for? Feeling tired and drained all the time (even though you rested), frequent muscle pains, short-temper, concentration problems, general restlessness, and the urge to drink coffee are some signs and symptoms of emotional exhaustion. Kiss explains that people are often not aware that they have these symptoms. For example, when you have a short-temper, you often blame other people for just being annoying (who doesn’t right?).
We all know the struggle: you have to retake an exam. All of a sudden, you have three or more exams in one week! You drink loads of coffee to stay awake and try to fit six weeks of studying into one week. When the results come back, there is a great chance you failed an exam. The next period, you again have a resit and feel a constant pressure to perform. Kiss sees many students caught in this vicious circle of resits. It is a common cause of stress and often one of the main factors leading to emotional exhaustion or chronical stress among students.
Screens, screens, screens
Honestly, how many hours per day do you spend in total looking at your phone, watching television and working behind your laptop? While scrolling on Facebook or watching fun clips on YouTube sounds relaxing, your brains are working overtime to process all that information. When asking Kiss whether our generation is better trained at processing lots of information, she responded not. “Maybe in the future our bodies will adjust (who knows), but that is definitely not the case right now”.
Spending a lot of time looking at a screen does not necessarily have to be a big problem. But when you feel constantly tired, restless or even stressed, this is a good activity to spend less time on. It is not only a significant mental effort to process all the information, but it also functions as an artificial adrenaline boost. Our brains experience the light from screens as daylight, meaning that watching Breaking Bad before going to bed is not the best idea.
Prevention is better than cure
While your university books praise time management as the way to have it all, Kiss claims that in practice it is often not the solution. “We often see that time management simply becomes an additional pressure”. Kiss emphasizes that it is more important to focus on short-term prioritizing. Today I can only do this, and this week only that. How cliché it might sounds, letting go is the key. “Working on your resume is understandable, but having a burnout is not exactly an advantage either when searching for a job”.
- Put your phone away for an hour or even better, leave it at home for a whole day!
- Do not only think what your body can do for you, but also what you can do for your body.
- Eat healthy and regularly, exercise, sleep enough and go easy on everything that is bad for you. Remember, it is all about balance!
- Keep an eye on each other! Does your friend look tired or stressed, tell them as they might not be aware of this.
Getting you back on track
Are things not going smoothly in your life and do you need some support or advice? At VUNET you can make an appointment with a study advisor or student psychologist. Furthermore, the student psychologists are busy planning a how-to-deal-with-stress workshop, so keep an eye on that!
Want to get more tips on how to prepare yourself for your future, check out our previous blog article here and read more about how to effectively use the social platform LinkedIn.