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It is no secret in the world of higher education and academia that stress and burnout are a significant part of daily life. It’s often seen as just another part of the college or graduate experience, almost an expected rite of passage. If you aren’t stressed, you aren’t doing enough. And if you are stressed, you need to keep it under control and focus to get everything done.
Obviously, and unfortunately, this creates an incredibly toxic learning environment. Many students are unable to deal and ultimately turn to extremely damaging coping mechanisms or drop out altogether. New research indicates that graduate students, in particular, are at risk for developing mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Luckily, studies such as these are shining a bright light on issues that have been kept in the dark for far too long. Educational institutions are working harder than ever to combat concerns such as student stress and burnout, and are coming up with a variety of promising ideas and campaigns. Many of these aim to help students before problems ever begin to arise.
Burnout as a Condition
It may come as somewhat of a surprise to some, but burnout is now considered a medical condition. It is described as a chronic feeling of exhaustion and dread associated with long-term workplace (or classroom stress). Those who suffer from it, even at low levels, often struggle to concentrate on their work or have dull headaches after a day in the office.
New studies suggest that burnout is happening at a faster rate than ever before, especially in high-stress environments such as the medical or social services fields. Nearly a quarter of all full-time employees are feeling burnout at least occasionally. Often it stems from unreasonable deadlines, extreme workloads, and poor management support.
Many of these same factors contribute to student burnout. Things such as excessive deadlines, piles of reading and homework, unforgiving professors, and financial concerns on top of the stresses of moving away from home and living as an adult for the first time can lead to chronic stress. Feeling completely overwhelmed and without a support system can happen easily.
Coping with Stress and Burnout
In order to cope with all of the stresses associated with college, many students turn to activities that could have lasting negative consequences. For example, many will turn to addictive and dangerous substances that give them brief relief. There was an estimated 450% increase in the use of tranquilizers such as Xanax and Valium in college students between 1993 and 2005. Those numbers are estimated to have continued to increase.
Alcohol use is another normalized coping mechanism for many college students. An estimated 31% of college students show signs of alcohol abuse. What’s more, highly stressed students are often affected by a number of indirectly related health issues, including being more prone to risky behavior such as drinking and driving. Risks can be especially high during the end of semesters when there is a great deal of stress related to finals and graduation followed by parties and celebration.
Some students may not outwardly discuss the serious impacts of the stress they face, so it is important to be aware of warning signs. These include things like extreme exhaustion, irritability, loss of interest in other activities, insomnia, detachment, or regular illness. Convincing students to get help can make a significant and positive difference in their lives.
Positive Change on the Horizon
Fortunately, there are many people working to build awareness and support for students who may feel the effects of burnout. Many institutions are working to help students create a better work-life balance that can help them to manage stress in a healthy way. Work-life balance helps distract the brain from the stress of school work and focus on something else for a while. Doing so actually makes it easier to be more productive throughout the day.
Students can do a lot to self-assess their mental health situation and take a step back if necessary. For instance, they can build an awareness of different signs and symptoms of mental health conditions and talk with peers about them. Many students fear the social stigmas of visiting a counselor, but being willing to do so could profoundly help them work through stress and burnout.
Rather than turning to dangerous and addictive substances, some students have also helped alleviate stress and anxiety by using more natural drugs. For instance, they might use a substance like CBD oil, which is an extract of marijuana or hemp that contains legal traces of THC. Preliminary research suggests that CBD can do a lot of good in reducing social anxiety, pain, blood pressure, and general stress.
Although there are many stereotypes suggesting that college is all fun, games, and parties, it also has a very real stressful side. Many students go into school unprepared to deal with these stresses and turn to unhealthy mechanisms to cope. There are ways to positively deal with stress such as keeping tabs on mental health status, speaking with friends and counselors, and taking time for activities that foster a healthy work-life balance.