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Preventing Academic Burnout — The Art of Saying "No"

Ianni Le

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Biting off more than they can chew is a common problem for college students, often because they are so driven and may underestimate the importance of their own mental health.

To a lot of college students, the idea of saying “no” to a work opportunity or extra credit assignment is a show of weakness they'll do anything to avoid. Driven by a thirst to prove themselves, students keep pushing past their breaking points, refusing to recognize signs of exhaustion.

This is how academic burnout happens.

Do you recognize your son or daughter in this picture? If so, they may be feeling unmotivated, detached, cynical and trapped by feelings of failure and helplessness.

This is why teaching your student when to say “no” is so crucial as it will teach them the importance of boundaries.

My Experience with Academic Burnout

My first experience with academic burnout, which is to say the moment when I recognized burnout for what it was, happened my last semester in college. I was juggling a full course load, including several capstone classes, and a part-time internship which initially made me a bit nervous.

However, after classes started and I got comfortable at my internship, I was thrilled to find myself thoroughly enjoying every class and my time at work. Unfortunately, this encouraged me to push myself even harder to make sure I excelled.

Come midterm season, I realized that I had made quite a few poor choices. I'd set poor boundaries at my internship, and what should have been nine hours of work a week quickly bled into 25 hours a week on top of schoolwork. My capstone classes were group work based, so I slotted in group meetings wherever I could fit them in, skipping meals before saying “no” to something that was asked of me.

Instead of turning down opportunities or taking a minute to breathe, I told myself it was okay to keep up the pounding pace because, even if I was exhausted, it would only be for a semester. I could rest once winter break rolled around.

By the middle of the semester, the quality of my work was suffering so much that I was forced to confront my exhaustion and the resulting sense of failure. Deep down, part of me knew this was happening because I was pushing myself too hard without enough time to recharge and rest, but the rest of me thought I could continue to compensate if I just worked harder.

Refocusing and Reprioritizing

My wonderful roommate finally decided to sit me down to remind me I needed to breathe. 

She herself had a long history of pushing herself too hard and recognized the signs of my burnout far sooner than I did. We barely saw each other that semester as I'd made a habit of stumbling home from late nights at work or in the library long after she had gone to bed. She knew I wasn’t taking care of myself properly and she wasn’t going to let me keep on like that.

In the end, my internship was where I decided to make sacrifices. I resolved to set firmer boundaries on the time I spent at work and accepted any consequent feeling of failure in favor of focusing on my schoolwork — and even carving out time to enjoy my last semester of college.

Explaining this to my internship supervisor was all the confirmation I needed that I had pushed myself needlessly from the beginning. They fully accepted and supported my need to refocus my time, especially as the semester began to draw to a close.

All that stress was, in the end, entirely self-inflicted.

How to Help Your Student Prevent Burnout

It may seem ironic, but academic burnout often develops when your student’s hard work pays off. After they've run themselves into the ground finishing the semester, they receive their grades and see how well they’ve done despite their exhaustion which, in turn, motivates them to follow the same pattern next semester.

As parents, it can be difficult to see why your student is so hard on themselves or even exactly how hard they’re pushing themselves (tired college students are the worst communicators after all). When they finally come home for break, absolutely drained, it’s all you can do to help them relax in any way possible, knowing that the coming semester will likely be no easier.

Many students don’t feel as if they have the power or even the right to say “no.” All their worry and stress comes from inside themselves as they will always be their own harshest critic, most especially when they're overwhelmed with feelings of defeat.

During this pandemic academic year, which is harder than any other year in college we can remember, it's more important than ever to support your student in seeking a balanced and healthy life.

As they embark on their second semester, set aside some time to talk with your student about how they value their own time. Are they setting aside enough time to actually enjoy being a college student? Do they feel as if they have a duty to say "yes" all the time? Maybe it’s not enough that they know “no” is an option; do they understand they should feel no shame when they say “no”?

Above all else, make sure that your student practices healthy coping mechanisms, especially when faced with failures and disappointments, and that they understand the unbelievable importance of boundaries. Use a cliche to explain it if you must! To set boundaries is to put your own oxygen mask on before you help others — because if you can’t breathe, you won’t be able to help anyone else breathe either.

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Ianni Le is a freelance writer and content creator. She attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, graduating with a degree in Media Design and English Literature. Ianni grew up in Shanghai, China and enjoys her dogs, books and food equally.
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