Published on April 7th, 2014 | by Nichole L. Nelson

Burnout: Why Being a Good Student Was Bad for My Health

I snap up my head and look to the front of the room. My eyes begin to focus, but he’s still blurry to me when I ask groggily, “Um, what was the question?”

My headaches always seem to get worse during Biology. I read the chapters assigned to me before class, and in this case I’ve outlined the entire chapter in detail because that is also my assignment. I feel confident that I won’t miss anything if I just put my head on the table and close my eyes. The noises shuffles, scribbles, coughs, sniffles, whispers, and even his voice all seem fifty times louder than usual because of my migraine. But I’m so exhausted, I begin to fall asleep anyway.

Most teachers leave me alone because of my grades. Some, like my History teacher, think I’m just bored, which is partially true, at least in class, because I learn everything the night before.

My Biology teacher never leaves me alone, though. I ought to know better. After I hear my name called like I am in trouble, I realize he thinks he is onto a trick and has asked a question to see if I was paying attention.

He repeats his question with an extra edge in his voice.

I answer correctly. He rephrases my answer but admits, “…basically, yes.”

The room is spinning. I feel like I am about to vomit. A piercing pain is my brain. Everything looks so bright. Everything is loud now that I am alert again. I groan as I put my head back down.

But being correct doesn’t let me off the hook.

“Nichole, would you please sit up?”

“I—no. I can’t, really. I have a bad headache.” I will faint if I keep my head up.

“Why don’t you go to the nurse?”

“Because I already take Advil, and I would be in there all day, every day. I can’t miss that many classes.”

Why Being a Good Student Was Bad for My HealthThankfully, I have the reputation of being honest and not a smart aleck, because the edge in his voice goes away. “Really? Well, put your head down, then, but at least keep your eyes open, okay?”

This is a huge concession in this strict private school, and I don’t like conflict anyway. I agree to the compromise and struggle to keep the tears back as I realize I will get no relief this time. I can’t focus as I long for the bell to ring. I’m relieved when I can go to the next class and be ignored while I put my head on my desk, close my eyes and shield my lids from the outside with the crooks of my elbows. If I can fall asleep, even better, because I’ll be up until 2 a.m. working on all my assignments and up again at 6 a.m.

My Biology teacher isn’t as heartless as I thought. He talks to my mom about my chronic headaches, and she begins taking me to a round of doctors. After a blood test reveals that I am not anemic, everyone involved is concerned about a brain tumor. Everyone except me. I am too something to be afraid.

So the next test is an MRI. It isn’t hard for me to lay still as my body glides through the tube. It is actually nice to be expected to do nothing but lie here.

The doctor examining the results seems perplexed. There is something notable about the parts of my brain that are lit up—he is probably just giving me a lesson on the brain—but he doesn’t see a tumor.

Another day, a specialist examines my posture. Is the way I walk causing alignment issues? My mom tells me to stand up straight to see if it makes a difference with my headaches. It doesn’t, but that is still the end of the doctor’s visits, because there is no one else to see. Besides, my Biology teacher doesn’t bother me as much anymore, so I muddle through my classes for the rest of the year, and my high school career until graduation.

It isn’t until after graduation that I realize what had been wrong with me, because very suddenly I am well again. I haven’t had a headache since my classes ended.

Just months after graduation, I bump into my former History teacher, who is so amazed that I’m not pale, boated, pimply, purple eyed, and—something—anymore that he remarks, “Wow, you look…good. You look…healthy and…happy.”

Normally I’d be sensitive to that kind of candor, but I am thankful for the insight. “Thanks,” I say, “You know, I feel good.”

A name for my problem: burnout

That something—that numbness I felt in high school—was burnout. It doesn’t surprise me that no one understood my problem. I was known to be sensitive and gloomy but that was chalked up to teenage hormones by my parents, my introverted personality by my friends, and my faulty relationship with God by my religious teachers. No one, including me, ever put my glumness together with my headaches in the same category, but they were both symptoms of burnout.

In retrospect, it’s no wonder I burned out. I had little control over my schedule and was overworked. When I tried to tell my teachers and principal that I needed study breaks because I was taking advanced courses and working to save money for college, they told me that my job as top student was tough and that I needed to buck up.

Some recent studies suggest that teens need more sleep than adults and that students are susceptible to burnout and suicide. Women are also more at risk for depression. As a female student getting little sleep, my situation was the perfect cocktail for illness.

Now, almost 15 years after I graduated high school, there’s more awareness and resources for mental health issues. But burnout may still not be diagnosed in the U.S., since it is not in the the standard guide for classifying mental disorders.

So how do you self-diagnose burnout in order to treat yourself or tell a professional healthcare provider you suspect burnout?

What is burnout?

Burnout is brought on by long-term stress or overwork, or lack of acknowledgement, fulfillment, and support in what you do. It is physical and mental exhaustion that reduces your ability to function and be sharp. It has both physical and emotional repercussions, including illness, depression, and suicide.

(I want to take a moment here to say that if you’ve ever thought seriously about suicide, get help right away. Self-harming thoughts are not something you can ride out on your own. Suicidial thoughts are very serious, so do not hesitate to get counseling if you begin to think about suicide—or call a hotline, if the thoughts are immediate.)

Certain personality types, those that overachieve, are more prone to burnout. People experiencing burnout tend to be cynical and critical of themselves and others, but it is a symptom. Burnout can lead to depression which might show up as being be anxious, irritable, moody, and/or lethargic.

Do I need help?

Yes. Don’t accept well meaning advice that all you have to do is decide to change, be brave, be positive, or face life one day at a time—or some other platitude, even if it’s religious. When you’re burned out, and especially if you’re depressed, you are unable to help yourself. That is part of the definition of depression. Don’t stick it out, hoping you can get through it or outgrow it. Find someone who will actively be on your side.

What kind of help is available for burnout?

Burnout can lead to major depressive disorder, which may be treated by a combination of talk therapy (stress coping techniques) and medication (antidepressants). It’s important to get to the root of the problem and relieve the circumstances causing the burnout. Make sure you are getting nine hours of sleep if you are in high school and at least seven if you are in college. Have a manageable course load in tandem with your work schedule if you also work. If your high school doesn’t allow you to manage your time (I was forced to take unnecessary electives, for example), ask your parents to get involved or even consider alternate schooling methods.

In a society where over-achievement is rewarded with praise, the advice to slow down or ask for help may seem counter-cultural. But I didn’t need to “buck up” in order to push myself beyond my limits and neither do you. Be aware of the pressures you face as a student and be sensitive to your health issues. Accept that you have certain limits and allow yourself to reap the rewards of hard work in a way that is reasonable and healthy. Don’t ride out burnout and depression on your way to a diploma or degree; make sure you get to graduation in one whole piece and enjoy it as you go.

Image by Ben Kersey

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