The end of an academic semester tends to be stressful under normal circumstances. But this year, the end of this semester poses exceptional challenges. When colleges and universities shifted to an online format in the spring due to COVID-19, many of us may not have anticipated we would still be navigating virtual classes, meetings, and conferences nearly eight months later while we’re still dealing with the social and emotional ramifications of this pandemic. If you are feeling a lot of stress right now, that’s normal and understandable! So, what can we do to prevent or ease burnout at the end of this uniquely stressful semester?
When we have too many stimuli fighting for our attention at one time, we can feel overwhelmed and fatigued (Örün & Akbulut, 2019). This may exacerbate feelings of stress and burnout and lead to diminished productivity and poor learning outcomes (Buser & Peter, 2012; Sana et al., 2013). Now with the entire internet at our disposal during classes and meetings, it’s easy to get distracted and zone out under the guise of multitasking. Our minds do best when we focus on one thing at a time. So, in your next class or meeting, challenge yourself to turn your phone off and avoid browsing online. Give your mind the freedom to focus on one thing at a time.
Create a schedule for yourself
This is a time in the semester where the workload seems non-stop, and deadlines are everywhere. Providing structure and organization to your work and study plans can keep you on track to accomplish what needs to get done. At the beginning of each week, make a plan for what you want to accomplish each day. Be realistic with yourself about the goals you have (and the time you need to get the work done).
Don’t forget to carve out time in your schedule to take breaks. No one can work indefinitely! Building in short breaks throughout your day and finding time to relax each evening can replenish cognitive resources and allow you to be more focused and productive when it’s time to work (for review, see Toker & Melamed, 2017).
Check out academic Twitter
Even though social media can be distracting and frustrating at times, it can also be used to create a sense of community. Many students, researchers, and professors alike connect with one another over social media, and in particular, through Twitter. This use of Twitter is commonly referred to as “academic Twitter,” and in this space, academics at every stage celebrate their successes, share research findings, and commiserate together over the annoyances, burdens, and frustrations of the academic world. This virtual social connection can be affirming and uplifting when you’re in the midst of burnout (and if you are feeling lonely and socially isolated). It’s also a great way to learn about cool and exciting research. If you want to check it out, but you’re not sure who to follow, we recommend starting with SPSP (@SPSPnews) and the SPSP student committee (@SPSPGSC). You can also look to see if some of your favorite scholars are on Twitter!
Prioritize sleep and nutrition
While poor sleep and stress can go hand in hand (i.e., poor sleep is thought to exacerbate stress and greater stress can lead to poor sleep; for review, see Kahn et al., 2013), they don’t have to. The University of Texas at Dallas’ Counseling Center recommends developing good “sleep hygiene” to cope with stress. This can include staying off your phone and other electronics 60 minutes prior to bed. They also suggest avoiding alcohol and caffeine 4-6 hours before going to bed. Getting a good night’s sleep can help you focus during your classes and meetings and feel ready to accomplish what’s on your schedule for the day.
Additionally, what you’re eating can make your stress worse (for review, see Singh, 2016). Try to avoid foods that are high in fat and sugar, and focus on consuming complex carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and protein rich foods like eggs, lentils, and chicken, beef, or pork. These nutrient rich foods promote greater alertness, elevated mood, and lower feelings of stress.
Have patience with yourself
This is a stressful time, but you can get through it! Be patient with yourself as you navigate the last few weeks of the semester. Don’t be afraid to ask for additional help when you need it. Whether that’s turning to a close friend, partner, and/or family member or even reaching out to your professors or program head for support. Additionally, many colleges and universities offer short term counseling services for students. Even if you feel your stress or burnout isn’t “severe enough” to seek counseling, you can still benefit from gaining additional perspective, advice, and resources to cope with the end of the semester.
Buser, T., & Peter, N. (2012). Multitasking. Experimental Economics, 15(4), 641-655.
Kahn, M., Sheppes, G., & Sadeh, A. (2013). Sleep and emotions: Bidirectional links and underlying mechanisms. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 89(2), 218–228. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2013.05.010
Örün, Ö., & Akbulut, Y. (2019). Effect of multitasking, physical environment and electroencephalography use on cognitive load and retention. Computers in Human Behavior, 92, 216-229.
Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62, 24-31.
Singh, K. (2016). Nutrient and Stress Management. Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences, 6(4). https://doi.org/10.4172/2155-9600.1000528
The University of Texas at Dallas’ Counseling Center. (2020). Anxiety Toolbox Workbook.
Toker, S., & Melamed, S. (2017). Stress, recovery, sleep, and burnout. In The handbook of stress and health: A guide to research and practice (pp. 168–185). Wiley-Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118993811.ch10