Student Mental Health, Academic Stress and Good Ways to Avoid Burnout

Illustration by Marcus Leung

By Tiffany Fu, Yovela Yan & Skye Erickson
Published on January 28th, 2022

Tiffany Fu

When tackling an obstacle, you may find it hard to get yourself out of a negative mindset. This applies to coping with the academic burdens many students have to carry. Are my efforts on studying a subject that I’m not so skilled at going to pay off? Will I fare well in this exam? Ah, no; I’m going to fail.

This phenomenon is exacerbated when you’re dealing with tasks that hold both incredible significance & exceedingly intense degrees of stress, such as public exams, and you might be so occupied with fighting your workload that you don’t even notice these thoughts existing inside your brain.

Ignoring these thoughts can have serious downsides, including severe damage to our well being. There is, however, a way to pacify this “damage”, which is what sets the positive & optimistic students apart from the ones who are exhausted, physically and mentally.

Perceiving academic stress in a positive light is, in my opinion, one of the best methods to avoid burnouts, and I know quite a few students who try their best not to put pressure on themselves despite the heavy workload and high expectations of teachers and peers. It’s always acceptable to be exhausted and tired, but enjoying the process of learning and finding a balance between academic and non-academic activities can definitely help. Never give in when you get a disappointing grade in a test or assignment - quickly think of ways to solve the problem behind it, and try out these solutions as soon as possible.

Conversely, for those who view it negatively, academic stress will only serve as a detrimental influence on their mental health. Most of these students are those who have yet to learn the skill of developing an effective habit of constant reflection and growth, thus placing themselves at a disadvantage when they deal with the seemingly eternal presence of stress for the rest of their years of schooling, and perhaps even upon completing their education. Sadly, this is the case for many pupils in Hong Kong, regardless of the school’s differing education systems.

Always remember to relax, reflect and set realistic goals for yourself once in a while - this is the most effective way to handle the academic stress you face, while simultaneously maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Yovela Yan

I think of stress as invisible rocks lying on our shoulders. While with an appropriate amount it can motivate us to perform better in our daily lives, an excessive amount will have a detrimental effect on our mental and physical health. We’d all collapse with too many rocks on our shoulders.

In 2012, the Commission on Youth Secretariat conducted a survey on youths aged between 15 and 24 years. In the aftermath, they found more than 30% of the respondents had felt stressed out, all because of a wide array of reasons, such as ‘tests, grades, homework, peer and parental pressure’ (Wang-Kin Chiu, Ka Chun Ng & Ben Y. F. Fong, 2016 ). For example, a high school student feels anxious that the level of their current academic success will affect the next step in their lives.

For me, as an IB student, it is inevitable to have to live with pressure. Everyday, there are numerous presentations, projects and essays lining up for us to finish. Students not only have to cope with academic stress, but are also forced to reach parents’ expectations to get good grades and be top of the class. Consequently, students have to buckle down and spend a whole lot of time, as well as energy, into studying. Teachers and parents constantly tell us to work harder, otherwise, we will: not be able to get into the university we want, lose job opportunities, and be regarded by society as ‘losers’.

Despite this, if we live under extreme stress for too long and keep on studying even when we feel exhausted, our body will burn out like an overworked machine. But even machines have to be repaired from time to time. So, it is of paramount importance to take enough rest and let our body reboot itself so that we can function better afterwards.

Here are some tips to avoid burnout and retain a positive relationship with stress:

  • Give yourself a mandatory day off per week and not think about anything related to school; just a day to let your body and mind rest (e.g. spend some time with your family and friends, go to the countryside…)

  • Exercise more often, research has shown that exercising helps to alleviate stress and release chemicals like endorphins and serotonin, which can improve your mood.

  • Stay positive, look on the bright side amidst difficulties -- don’t let things get you down! Believe in yourself, you can do this!

  • Reduce your expectations, set goals that you can actually achieve, and reward yourself afterwards so that you will be more motivated to reach your goals next time.

Skye Erickson

Burnout is something all students dread. Typical symptoms include physical, emotional, and behavioral ones, such as: changes in sleeping habits, self-doubt, detachment, procrastination, frustration, and exhaustion, to name a few (“Preventing Burnout”). Not to be confused with short-time frustration over a certain assignment, burnout is a build up of stress and fatigue that results in the feeling of not being able to cope with life or your workload. Anyone who experiences prolonged periods of extreme stress, not only through work, but also things like strained relationships or other areas of life, can experience burnout. Although it is difficult to explain, chances are, you will recognize it if you experience it.

Stress is another common trend among students, and is something that can be both positive and negative to one’s work ethic and well-being. Positive in the sense that it can be a good motivator to get work done, however, negative in the sense that it can affect people’s well-being and happiness.

Nevertheless, although burnout and stress may seem like an unavoidable part of being a student, regardless of whether you take AP’s, IB, A levels, or anything else, there are still ways to mitigate or even fully avoid it. The typical advice you hear from online websites is to exercise, eat a balanced diet, take breaks and have a nap every now and then. Albeit banal, these are all completely true, and are generally the baseline for having a balanced and healthy life.

Chances are, I can’t say anything that you haven’t already heard once before. However, for those who need a reminder of ways to try to alleviate stress or prevent burnout, here is some advice I gathered from my peers:

  • No one gets everything done at once, so if you are getting stressed from not being able to complete everything you need to do in one evening, it’s okay. Prioritize what you need to do and then finish everything else when you can.

  • Use a planner/schedule/calendar and look to the future; With a plan, you can prevent being surprised by any deadlines which could potentially add more stress to your life.

  • Organize social activities; although this seems like it may be counterproductive, taking a short time out of your day for doing things you like with people you enjoy being with will help you relax and take your mind off anything stressing you out.

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