Managing Burnout and Stress

I don’t want to be the harbinger of doom, but it’s almost inevitable that at some point in your uni career you’re going to feel like you’ve hit a wall. Feeling that apathy towards your work, a lack of motivation, and a sinking sense of exhaustion.

It might surprise you, but burnout is pretty common even amongst first year students. So managing stress is one of the most vital skills you’ll need to learn through your degree. We'll go into it in this guide here!

Why do uni students burn out?

In terms of pace, uni is not like high school. In high school, you’ll usually have long stretches without assignments or exams, or days where you spend hours in class learning ‘filler content’, like watching documentaries or filling in worksheets. In uni, you don't get that.

As an example, in my most recent term of first year I had nine assessments due over the nine weeks of term, and sometimes a few due on the same day. On top of that, there’s the weekly cycle of class attendance, homework problems and labs, readings and extra study - and this isn’t even counting anything outside of academics!

Now this is not meant to scare you off -- I personally enjoy uni way more than high school -- it’s just to point out that the pace of uni can be pretty relentless. It’s a normal uni experience to take a few days off your ‘normal class workload’, maybe to work extra on an assignment or do something outside of uni, only to find it incredibly difficult to catch up later. Even during ‘flexi-week’ in week 6 (a week without classes or assessments due), you’ll find that you’ll spend a lot of time catching up and dealing with work due in week 7.

Add to that work, a social life, and anything other responsibilities you might have, as well as the global pandemic and lockdown draining people’s spirits. It’s tough work. And it’s no surprise people end up burning out so often.

Managing burnout

1. Setting realistic expectations

Many of you, having gotten into UNSW CSE, are probably used to receiving extremely high marks in your high school days. For comparison, the average uni student is receiving around a 65 in courses, especially if they’re harder courses, meaning there’s usually some sticker shock when you receive your first few grades.

But here’s another key way uni is different from high school - your marks matter significantly less. Hiring companies will usually only note your WAM if it’s absolutely cracked (think 85+) or if you’re literally failing uni. For anything in between, it’s your skills and your passions that will be most important, not your mark in some random course. From personal experience, your classmates will also be less competitive about marks than in school, and there’s less social pressure to do well.

That’s why I recommend you don’t set your expectations too high for university. Ambition’s not a bad thing, but don’t pressure yourself to the point where it affects your mental health. It’s okay to leave the hardest stage of your assignment unfinished because it would take literally days to get done, or to take a lower level of a course (like MATH1131 instead of MATH1141) because you’re not interested in the higher level content. Small decisions like this are what will lighten the load for your future self.

To add onto this, note it’s not a sign of failure if you drop a course because you feel like it’s too much work, or if you decide to enrol in less courses in the year. It’s not a race to finish your degree as fast as possible - in the grand scheme of things, an extra half-year at uni is worth it to protect your wellbeing.

2. Practical self care

It’s easy to throw out tips like ‘go for a walk’ or ‘listen to some calming music’ or ‘retail therapy’, but these things are rarely more than bandaid solutions. Instead, take self-care steps that will actually improve your life.

If you’re feeling stressed, it’s a physiological reaction to things piling up in your life. This means a great way to destress is to clear out some things from the pile. Sit down, take out a notebook, and list down everything that’s stressing you out, no matter how small, uni-related or not. Then look at that list and decide: which of these things can you deal with immediately? Which of these can you ask for someone to help with, and which can you avoid dealing with at all?

By doing and crossing off the smaller things that are stressing you out (replies to emails you’ve been putting off, small bits of homework, tidying your desk, and so on), you free up the mental load and gain motivation to tackle the bigger tasks later on.

If your stress is less of a task-based thing and more of an ongoing presence in your life, try another list - what actually relieves stress for you? Don’t just write down things you think should relieve stress, like hot baths and playing League of Legends, but what actually helps you relax and take your mind off things. Exercise, socialising and creative hobbies are pretty common, but you know yourself best. Keep this list around so when you’re feeling stressed, instead of sinking into a slump you have a concrete list of resources to pull yourself out of it instead.

3. Reach out

Finally, if you’re experiencing burnout, it’s important to look outwards too. You’ll find that most people around you are kind and willing to help if you ask, whether you need to rant, advice, or more tangible help. Remember, lots of people are going through the same thing, so don’t be afraid to lean on each other!

And if you want to see a professional, UNSW offers counselling and mental health services for all students. Even if you think your problems are small, if they’re causing you distress I’d recommend giving them a shot anyway - they’re free, so there’s nothing to lose! Check it out here.

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