University stress and self-care: A story of burning out

Generally, the most stressful times to be a student fall around January and May – the twice-yearly exam and assessment periods and are notorious for breaking a student or two. We’ve all seen the ‘real-life Snapchat stories’ posted to UniLife and Lad Bible of guys crying in the library, but the reason we watch them and laugh is that at some point or another, we’ve all been there too. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve had a few teary experiences with assessments, the first of which was when I had got the train back to halls from the university library after a solid 7 hour study session around lectures, and I realised I had left my memory stick – loaded with completed essay – in the computer. They were tears of fury, and probably where I was coming down from a Pro Plus energy spike.

So, we see these things, and we laugh because we empathise. But is this a normal part of the university experience? And if we establish that it is, should it be?

Some would argue that yeah, maybe it should be. Being stressed is a normal part of life, it’s a bodily defence mechanism that lets you think and act faster than you would normally (albeit the triggers which bring it on have changed greatly from large predator animals to January deadlines). It’s simply a sign that you care. However, I take a bit of an issue with this. As a third-year student now, I’ve had my fair share of stress, and even as I’m writing this I have a dissertation proforma and a project proforma both due next week, and I have four regular jobs around my studies to try and finance myself, and I am by no means complaining. I work better under stress, I get things done on time and I enjoy ticking things off of a list. However, when you sleep through your alarms because you didn’t leave the library until 1 am and now you have a 9 am lecture, or your friends are so stressed that they’re having panic attacks about readings that you forgot to do for the next day, there’s clearly something going on here that needs to be addressed.

This is why I’m advocating that it’s officially A-OK to admit that you’re burnt out. Our culture is a meritocracy, and we all believe that if we take our foot off of the accelerator for even a second, we’re failures and we’re lazy. This is such a dangerous belief. I’ve seen the negative effects of this: friends breaking down at parties because they’ve been doing 13-14 hour workdays every day that week, and that they physically can’t relax without feeling lazy. Other students sleeping through lectures – not in the funny ‘just got in from a night out’ way – but in the ‘I haven’t slept for 3 days’ way. A 2016 study by YouGov reveals that over 27% of students have mental health problems, and while I don’t have the figures, from my perspective this has only gotten worse over the years. This isn’t even just a student problem – working weeks are longer than ever, and with the advancements of phones and other tech, you can be getting work emails even while you sleep.

So, it all seems pretty hopeless, doesn’t it? But it’s not. Practice self-care. Put down your revision or your essay plan, and just go for a walk. Treat yourself to a takeaway. Be lazy for an hour, sleep in, have a bubble bath. Anything that will let you take a breather from life, even if just for half an hour.

And know that there’s always someone to talk to. We’re all going through it.

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