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In this article, we’ll help you diagnose and alleviate high school burnout, which is something more and more students deal with every day.
If you feel tired, down, or lethargic, don’t worry. This article has you covered.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a psychological condition or syndrome that is a result of persistent, long-term workplace stress. While it is not considered a medical condition, burnout was officially added to the International Classifications of Diseases 11 (ICD-11) by the World Health Organization in 2019.
This official definition refers to burnout as a “workplace phenomenon” that has not been “successfully managed.” Academic burnout – the kind that affects students – fits into this narrative because being a student is considered an occupation. Although it may not feel like it (since students are not paid!), high school students undergo similar stresses and structures as working people.
For example, high school students have a fixed schedule they are expected to follow. As with work, students’ schedules are relatively inflexible and allow for little accommodation, except for vacations, sick days, and personal days.
Many students also dedicate time to afterschool activities and must spend additional hours studying or doing homework after the school day has ended. In other words, they may have little time to engage in hobbies or activities they find fulfilling outside of those required or expected of them.
Relatedly, there is high expectation and scrutiny regarding student performance. These expectations span academic, extracurricular, and social aspects of student life.
This pressure to perform may come from multiple sources for students – internally, parents, other adults, peers – and it is something school shares with workplace environments. Lastly, high school is a long journey. If students are continuously feeling stressed during their four years due to some of the above conditions, they may be subjected to persistent, long-term (chronic) stress – the exact kind that can result in burnout.
What are stress and anxiety?
We know now that burnout is a consequence of ongoing stress. So what exactly is stress? In the context of academic burnout, we can think of stress as the body’s response to pressure, change, and/or challenging events. Stress can manifest physically, emotionally, and/or mentally. This means that stress can affect many things, including physical health, thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
Symptoms are wide-ranging. They may include – but are not limited to – body aches, changes in sleep, changes in diet, and feelings of fatigue. Stress also differs for everyone. For example, one student’s response (stress) regarding a less-than-ideal grade will be different from another’s.
According to this survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), 45 percent of teens report that school is a source of stress for them. One common, possible response to stress is anxiety. The APA defines anxiety as “emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes.”
Although there are many different types and causes of anxiety, we highlight them here because they are common in students and may be related to burnout. In fact, 2001–2003 interview data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) found that about 31.9 percent of adolescents had anxiety. This number could be even higher since anxiety often goes untreated.
Do only teenagers suffer from burnout?
No! If you are reading this and are beginning to feel worried or alienated, it may comfort you to know that teenagers are not the only ones affected by burnout. As mentioned before, the WHO’s classification of burnout encompasses all working peoples. Furthermore, burnout is a consequence of chronic stress – and nearly everyone experiences stress.
Perhaps even more encouraging is that the latter part of the WHO’s definition states that burnout is a result of stress that has not been “successfully managed.” Why do we say this is encouraging? Two reasons. The first is that this indicates there is a way to prevent or ameliorate burnout (i.e., by learning to better manage stress). The second is that, if you start in high school, you are getting a head start.
Learning out how to manage stress and prevent burnout now will definitely help later down the road when you are in college or dealing with your first professional job. The next few sections will focus on identifying the signs of burnout, preventative measures, and recovery strategies.
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What are the signs of burnout for a high school student?
To frame this section, we will again rely on the WHO, specifically on the three dimensions the WHO states burnout is characterized by. For each dimension, we provide examples of what it may present or look like in high school students. Please keep in mind that our list is not exhaustive.
In addition, just because you or your student show these signs, it does not definitively mean that you are suffering from burnout.
“Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.” For high school students this might mean:
- Always feeling tired or never feeling rested enough, even with adequate diet and amount of sleep
- Under-sleeping, over-sleeping, and/or experiencing insomnia, which is a chronic condition where individuals have trouble falling or asleep or trouble going back to sleep after waking up at night
- Feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and/or hopelessness for “no apparent reason”
- Physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, body pains, nausea, etc., which are not otherwise explained
“Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.” For students “job” equates to school and academics, so it might look like this:
- Loss of motivation for schoolwork and school life
- Feeling unhappy and/or dissatisfied with school, regardless of your actual level of personal accomplishments or successes
- Not caring or giving attention to activities or responsibilities you used to be excited by or that you considered important
- Increased negative talk or thoughts about school; feeling resentful and as though you do not have any positive feelings toward school
- Wanting only to engage, or to primarily engage, in non-academic/school-related activities compared to before
Reduced professional efficacy. For students this might look like:
- Underperforming in areas you usually excel in or know you do better in
- Difficulty focusing or concentrating on tasks; taking longer than usual to complete your activities or responsibilities
- Being more forgetful or “spaced-out” than usual
Some other possible signs of burnout include increased nervousness or irritability, loss of appetite or poor diet, and anxiety, among others.
How can I prevent burnout?
Preventing burnout is all about managing stress successfully. The key word here is managing, not eliminating. We do not aim to eliminate stress because it is a natural part of life that most everyone can never fully rid of. It is natural that, as a high school student, you may feel pressure.
After all, your future is partly influenced by your current choices and performance in school. In some ways, stress is good since it indicates that you care about something. But it does not mean you have to let your stress become so big that it leads to burnout. The following are some ways you can try to better manage stress and prevent burnout:
Set attainable goals
Part of stress is psychological. If you always feel like you are in a rat race, that you never feel “caught up” or doing enough, then you will be frustrated and feel unsuccessful, even if you have accomplished a lot. Be reasonable (and kind) with yourself. Set realistic goals that you can check off your list and be invigorated by.
Always allow time for “the basics”
The basics mean sleep, diet, and “free time” to relax and do something that you enjoy (and is not a requirement).
Figure out how many hours of sleep are ideal for you and maximizes your energy level. It may be seven, nine, more or less. Then, make sure your schedule allows that that many hours of sleep.
It may be helpful to create a bedtime routine if you have difficulty sleeping. A routine acts as a signal for your body, telling it when it should start slowing down for rest.
The same goes for diet. No matter how busy it gets – no matter how little time you feel you have – always make sure to keep up a robust diet and to find time to eat right. Food is fuel. If you do not have enough fuel, your body may be negatively affected and its ability to handle stress (and to fend off illness) may decrease.
Next, free time. Free time may not seem important to you in the short-term (i.e., “I have to finish XYZ and go to XYZ, so how can I possibly stop and play video games for 45 minutes?”), but it is different if you frame it in the long-term. Free time is absolutely necessary because without it you run the risk of running yourself into the ground. This would set you back far more than if you took 45 minutes to relax.
For your free time activity, we suggest choosing something that is enjoyable and, for the lack of a better word, “mindless.” What we mean by “mindless” is that it should be something you will not worry about achieving or completing well.
For example, take playing the piano. Playing piano may be something you take seriously and practice regularly. But for your free time, if you choose piano, then do not use your free time as serious practice time. Instead, play songs you have already learned and perfected – to simply enjoy. “Mindless” free time gives your brain and body a break from its usual worries and responsibilities, allowing you time to rest and recover.
Think deeply about what makes you personally happy
Much of high school may feel like a “must” or a requirement, but this does not mean that you cannot customize some of your experiences. Aligning the “musts” of school with things that you care about is one way to help keep you motivated and energized.
For example, do you care deeply about social justice? Find a club that focuses on those issues and make that one of your core extracurricular activities and learn as much as you can in your history courses. For example, if you are able to choose an essay topic, use that opportunity to write about a cause you care about.
Related to the above, consider dropping activities that do not align with your goals
Sometimes there are a lot of conflicting messages about what you must do in high school. You must join this to get into XYZ. You must do that to stand out. As a result, you may find yourself in too many clubs and doing too many things that are unsustainable.
Some of these messages may be true, but you should choose carefully to avoid having too much on your plate. In general, colleges prefer depth over breadth – meaning they value dedication to one or two clubs or activities over shallow involvement in many clubs.
Exercise can help
There is science behind this. In short, exercise causes your body to produce endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals that alleviate stress and pain, and they can increase feelings of happiness. If possible, work occasional exercise into your weekly schedule. It does not have to be a big thing.
You could go for a walk or a bike ride. Or maybe you can take a break from a long study session to do some squats or walk up and down the stairs a couple of times. If exercise happens to be something you enjoy, perhaps it can be one of your free-time activities.
Avoid comparing yourself to peers
This is a tough one. Comparison is tempting and difficult to avoid when you are surrounded by other high-achieving people. Comparison works two ways and both are detrimental. The first way boosts your sense of esteem at the expense of others, those you may deem as less successful as yourself.
This may lead to increased cynicism and negativity about people. The other way makes you feel small and makes you question your abilities compared to those you think are more This cycle is unhealthy and contributes to stress.
Celebrate and recognize your successes
One way to alleviate comparison is by turning it inwards. Think about your personal journey and progress, and, again, consider what makes you personally happy. If you have improved, grown, or accomplished something, recognize it, and be proud of it – no matter how “small” you think that progress is. Everyone’s successes will be different because each person has different goals and ambitions. Focus on yours!
Get comfortable saying no
Being overwhelmed or over-tasked can lead to burnout. When someone asks you for a favor or that you take on another responsibility, take a moment. Pause, breathe, and ask yourself: what is my current workload?
How am I feeling about it? Will taking this on mean I will not have time for “the basics?” Does it align with my long-term goals? Will it increase my stress significantly? Consider these questions, weigh the pros and cons, and then make your decision. Lastly, do not be afraid to say no if you feel it is too much.
Identify your negative thought patterns
Many times, people’s internal critic is overly harsh or simply untruthful. Think about how you react to successes and failures. Do you tend to downplay successes? Do you tend to perseverate on something or make a “failure” bigger than it is? Do you sometimes hold beliefs that contradict objective facts? For example, a student may tell themselves, “I am no good at math,” even though they received As for their math classes.
This (false) belief could stem from many sources – such as comparison. Perhaps they believe they are “no good at math” because their friend received a higher grade than they did.
Whatever the source, this belief is not true, but their mind may jump to this conclusion whenever someone earns a better grade than them. Introspection and identifying your internal critic’s patterns are important. This way you can stop them and keep going forward.
Rely on others
Lastly, do not forget the option to reach out for help! When people feel stressed, they may withdraw and alienate themselves from others. Reaching out and depending on another person may help alleviate stress.
How do I recover from high school burnout?
We believe the most important factor for recovery is time. Give yourself more time off your responsibilities. This is difficult in a high school context where things continue to move along according to a fixed school schedule. We have some suggestions to accommodate this:
Trim your responsibilities
At least for a little while, figure out the most important, essential responsibilities you must maintain, and take some time off the others. For example, perhaps you are part of a sports team and three clubs. Consider going on a hiatus from 1-3 of those activities. Be respectful and plan for the hiatus by informing the clubs or team you plan to take a break from.
Express to them that they are important to you, but you are doing this for a short time for personal or self-care reasons. This will give you extra time to rest and recover. It is key here that you do not then use this extra time to put more work into the responsibilities you maintain. This would defeat the purpose of resting!
Identify the source(s) of your burnout and adjust accordingly going forward
Burnout happens for many different reasons. Take time to think about why it happened to you. If it was because you become easily stressed, explore coping methods to see if they help, like meditation or yoga. If the stress resulted because you lacked personal “you time,” incorporate more of it in your schedule.
Try to think positively
This might sound hokey, but burnout tends to increase negativity and cynicism in people. As part of your recovery journey, try cultivating positivity in small, genuine ways. Maybe you could try appreciating one thing every day. Or, if that feels too scripted or forced, try simply being open to the possibility that things could get better. Slowly, you may start feeling that you enjoy your usual activities again.
Seek professional help
We are advocates for mental health care. As we mentioned before, many adolescents are affected by stress and anxiety. Many therapists and counselors specialize in helping students with stress anxiety by developing and learning coping skills, talking through life stressors, and giving a different perspective.
Many of the preventative measures of burnout may help with recovery, too. Consider trying some of the recommendations listed above, such as implementing a sleep routine, morning ritual, and exercising.
A note on burnout in the COVID-19 world + increased remote learning
If you came to read this article because you are worried about burnout due to the transition to remote, online learning, know that you are not alone. It is normal to experience burnout while remote learning (there is even a higher chance of burnout with remote learning).
Remember, stress is the body’s response to change. Transitioning from in-person to online learning is a huge change. The state of the world during the pandemic is another huge change. Although you may not be fully aware of it, your body is attempting to adjust to these changes. You may be emotionally, mentally, and physically challenged by these changes, which is why there is an increased chance for burnout.
Another reason students may be more susceptible to burnout with remote learning is that there is less balance now. Students thrive and enjoy school for a variety of reasons outside of learning – their relationships with mentors, chances to socialize with friends, being around other people’s energies and vibes, and their extracurricular activities, which may involve exercise and movement (all good for the body!).
With remote learning, every one of these other school-related opportunities and activities is stripped away. All students have left is the academic piece. While students may very well enjoy learning, it can begin to feel monotonous and overwhelming. It is also not as good or healthy as when academics are balanced with other aspects of school.
Not to mention, classes are not nearly as engaging remotely as they are in person. Because burnout is more likely to occur with remote learning, it is even more important to pay attention to how you are feeling. We hope our preventative strategies will be helpful and that you will continue to take care of yourself!
Final Thoughts: High School Burnout
Remember that mental health is a long-term process. You always have to take care of yourself.
That’s why you should pay attention to signs of burnout and take them seriously. It’s good to push yourself, but also invest in your mental health in order to boost your productivity and results.
This will help you in school and in life. Good luck!