Looking at the road ahead while running on empty

I sit in my room as the minutes tick by, the weight of my extensive to-do list suffocating my motivation. Just thinking about the assignments I have to do and the projects needing to be finalized exhausts me.

You can walk into any high school and find dozens of students off task in class, on their phones, talking to peers, laying with their heads down, and your first thought might be that they’re lazy or don’t care about learning. But in reality, the pressure of assignments, jobs, internships, projects, applications and social stress can become an overwhelming cloud in the minds of students.

Burnout, defined by Miriam Webster as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration,” rapidly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic but minimal action has been taken to decrease it.

As a student at the end of my junior year, the pressure of thinking about college, jobs and internships has quickly escalated. As the deadline for dual enrollment applications crept up, I had to think about what makes me special and how I stand out when I couldn’t think past finishing my classes.

It seems like every assignment submitted leads up to a test, which leads up to an exam, which makes my transcript, which decides my future college, leading to my career. Every little thing piles up on top of each other making a pile that clouds out my brain. How do I start one task knowing that I can’t complete them all?

I sit in my AP Chemistry class thinking about AP US History, in history thinking about my art project, in art thinking about my other homework. And then I get home and sit thinking about what I should do, but the exhaustion of stressing about each thing piles up and creates a wall in productivity. The wall gets too tall to climb over, so even taking out small bricks like completing assignments or taking tests can’t break it down.

My window of productivity is from 8:45-3:35 Monday through Friday, where my only job is to get things done. But once the eyes over my shoulder disappear, my motivation goes with it. Deadlines become an incentive — I’m only able to get things done once I’m held responsible.

The University of the People reports some of the symptoms of academic burnout to be: Feeling exhausted no matter how much sleep you get, increased pain and tension in your body, higher frequency of illness due to stress and exhaustion, and feelings of anxiety or depression, to name a few. These are extreme symptoms that are rarely discussed in school and have very few solutions. The same article lists seeking help, making important changes, managing stress and recognizing symptoms as ways to overcome burnout. 

These solutions feel very inconclusive for the intensity of the symptoms and what they can do to the mental health and grades of teens. While many adults may be aware of burnout, it’s easy for teens to feel alone in their struggle when it isn’t discussed. 

For me, I have to get through burnout as if I’m riding a wave. I have to let the deadlines pass and get done what I can for the stress to subside. The best thing for me in the thick of it is to talk to my friends. When talking to adults gets overwhelming, talking to friends in similar situations can often help feelings of isolation in your struggle. I have also discovered that being physically active helps me handle stress. This spring I started going to power yoga classes a few times a week to release built up tension and distract myself.

Neal Catalano of Shortridge Academy explains, “Many teens believe that facing their problems alone is a sign of being emotionally self-reliant and independent from others. Teens may view asking parents for help as a form of overdependence at a time when they want to break free of their parents’ influence and become their own person.” For students who are used to being academically independent, it’s difficult to admit that the pressure is too much.

Asking for help has always been difficult for me. I’ve always tried to be independent and that conditioned me to believe that I should be able to address all of my issues on my own. When I encountered struggles, my first instinct was to push through on my own. However as I grew up, I started experiencing issues that became too taxing to handle alone. 

When I lost my grandpa in the fall of 2020, I realized there was a lot I couldn’t handle on my own. Trying to work through the end of the semester and handle my grief and the stress on my family weighed on me and changed my view on school.

Before the pandemic and the academic stress that came along with it, my goal for every class and assignment was to get a 100%. This changed a lot as the stressors of my environment changed and I realized that my grades didn’t define me. This change in view affected the way that I handle assignments too, if I don’t feel like I need to get a perfect grade, I can just put it off and it won’t matter. While the change in mentality initially helped me with stress, over time it added to it because it limited my motivation.

My junior year being more academically demanding caused me to struggle with balancing stress and motivation. The relaxed deadlines and grading of online school transitioned into tests and due dates that became hard to keep up with. This was a predictable challenge because of the change in academics during my high school years but without the instruction on how to handle it and awareness that I was not alone, it became an overwhelming obstacle in my academic career.

Tory Ratajczak

Tory Ratajczak was the Managing Editor and Co-Copy-Editor during her fourth year with BluePrints Magazine. She is pursuing a career in veterinary medicine.

Avatar photo