When I was 14, I had a mental breakdown.
Here’s what happened: I embraced the pressure from sources all around me and internalized it to the point that I based my whole life on my educational achievements. I became the epitome of the perfect student through sleep deprivation, long hours of studying and ditching any hobby that didn’t contribute to my success. My drug was recognition and accolades and, like a drug, the high couldn’t be sustained.
Rather than slowing down a little, I came to a stop. I stopped running cross country, writing poetry, singing in the choir and watching dumb reality shows with my family. My vivid and fulfilling life gradually faded into a cyclic grayness filled with a rinse-and-repeat of school and sleep. Everything depended on my next test, my next paper, my next grade. Finally, it became too much. Cue the breakdown and me sitting in my room unable to move, overwhelmed by my life.
Burnout, especially for college students, is a serious issue. It’s defined as “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” This was what I experienced due to my pressure to achieve, and I’m not alone. The American Freshman Survey reported that 30 percent of U.S. college students experienced burnout symptoms in 2017.
The tipping point is usually not a single large event like finals week or a huge project, but the buildup of consistent stressors like late-night homework binges or juggling club meetings with sports practices. Like me, many students are not trained to handle these stressors properly and managing the pressure becomes too much. The result is a collapse that creates emptiness, an indifference toward school and life and more serious issues like depression.
I associated the apathy of my burnout with school itself rather than my perspective on it and this crippled my education. I believed that school had turned me into the robotic, gray person that I hated and this cost me a huge amount of joy. Reclaiming my love of school over the past year has been amazingly fulfilling for me. Instead of pressuring myself to achieve, I remembered that learning can be an experience filled with wonder and excitement rather than exhaustion and stress.
Three specific strategies helped me recover from burnout and regain my love for education. First, stay positive. Keep up dynamic mental talk that reinforces your idea of yourself as a strong, smart and powerful person rather than believing negative thoughts.
Second, make sure that you keep up with basic maintenance. Eat healthy food, get enough sleep, drink water and exercise. I promise that you have enough time to keep yourself in good shape.
Finally, say no. Instead of feeling obligated to do it all, pick a few of your real passions and embrace them. Don’t let the compulsion to perfect everything stop you from enjoying a few things. Always make time for fun with friends and space for yourself. It’ll give you some much-needed perspective and balance in your education.
Many MSU students grew up with the television show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Fred Rogers said, “I don’t think anyone can grow unless he’s loved exactly as he is now, appreciated for what he is rather than what he will be.” Rather than pushing ourselves so hard that we flame out, we need to love ourselves as we are now. Ignore the pressures, embrace the journey and remember that college is about loving what we learn instead of what we accomplish.