I Recovered From Burnout In University

I remember clutching my university offer letter with pride and elation. I’d been accepted into a prestigious law school in the UK! This was a chance to achieve all the success I had been dreaming about as a young girl. I wanted to be in the top 10 percent of my class and was willing to put in whatever hours it took to achieve that.

Looking back, this was an inordinate and unrealistic amount of pressure to put on myself. I’m half-Asian, and I think it’s part of the culture to try and be the best in everything you do. It is ingrained in us that we should make our parents proud and one way to do that is to achieve excellent grades.*

*This is a generalisation based on personal experience. I have numerous Asian friends whose families who don’t place any focus on achieving good grades.

The lead-up to the burnout

The first year of university is the year where most people make new friends. It entails a year of partying, socialising and enjoying newfound freedom away from your parents. I have no recollection of attending any parties or social events in my first year. Call me boring, but my logic was: if everyone else was wasting valuable studying time, let them! This meant I would have more of an advantage of getting ahead.

I spent every waking moment studying and my weekends were often spent in the library. On the odd occasion that I didn’t study, I would feel guilty. I was worried that if I didn’t pass an exam, it would be because I wasted precious study time. It would be my fault that I didn’t pass my law degree. I willed myself to study harder.

Naturally, all that studying meant I had little time to explore my surroundings. Phone calls with my family were rushed affairs. I also ate the most convenient food, which wasn’t necessarily the healthiest.

The burnout

As time went on, I started to panic when I didn’t achieve the grades I wanted. I convinced myself that I was going to be a failure. My brain often felt overloaded and I couldn’t grasp simple concepts. I started to get nightmares and panic attacks. I envisioned myself failing law school and returning home empty-handed with nothing to show for my efforts.

Every day, I woke up feeling scared and depressed. Things went from bad to worse when, one day, I couldn’t complete a simple legal essay. I was stuck in analysis paralysis and I couldn’t get out of it. My brain had decided enough was enough. I struggled to get out of bed, and I cried every day as I felt so down. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me.

The lowest point came one morning when I sat in bed crying, questioning the point in my existence. I fantasised about how nice it would be if took some sleeping pills and never woke up again, so I could just disappear forever. All the worries and fears would go away.

The next day, I went to see a doctor.

The journey to recovery

The doctor prescribed me antidepressants. I told myself that if I didn’t find a different way to resolve my issues, I would take the medication. I made an agreement with myself to try and fix the rut I had fallen into before considering other options like medication.

The first thing I did was to implement exercise into my everyday routine. It was non-negotiable. No matter how cold or rotten I was feeling, I forced myself to go for a run or a swim. This helped immensely. It created a routine and released endorphins (happy chemicals) into my system.

To overcome my fear of failure, I made myself imagine a worst-case scenario and devised a plan to mitigate it. I imagined failing law school and returning home with no qualifications. My parents’ disappointed faces flashed in front of me. I thought of having to tell my friends I’d failed. I allowed myself to go through the scenario in detail, then made a plan to overcome it, if it happened.

The recovery process

My plan would be to apply for another university and then try again. Maybe I would graduate and join the workforce later than my peers…. but so what? My parents would overcome their disappointment and my friends wouldn’t care either, as long as I was still on track to pursue my dreams. This way of thinking helped me realise the worst-case scenario… wasn’t that bad. There is always a way of overcoming failure.

The exercise and mental shift strengthened me, and I started making more time to eat delicious and nutritious food. I carved out time to explore the new environment I was in and make new friends. These new friends ended up sharing shortcuts and exam tips with me, which helped immensely in my exams.

Most importantly, I started to celebrate the small successes along the way. After my exams, no matter how badly I thought they went, I would buy myself a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, hike up a mountain and devour them while enjoying a spectacular view.

How I Managed To Recover From Burnout 

burnout-student-graduation Me at graduation

Before, I would tell myself that I could only celebrate once I completed my law degree with flying colours. This was unfair. I realised you need to love and reward yourself for your efforts.

I learnt how to recover from burnout when I discovered that the journey to success is just as important as the success itself. You can punish yourself along the way or make the journey as comfortable, fun-filled and interesting as possible.

Photography courtesy of Aisha Preece

Cover image by Lacie Slezak/Unsplash