The back to school burn: The science of burnout and stress

As students come back to campus, the academic side of student life will be heavy on their minds — and with that comes the inevitable conversations around burnout.

For students, burnout may feel like an uncontrollable hindrance to academic, professional or personal success. According to one Italian study published in Frontiers Psychology, one-third of university students surveyed met the criteria for being burned out.

“Burnout is now a diagnosable syndrome,” said Dr. Andrea Grabovac, a clinical associate professor in the department of psychiatry. She explained the criteria for being burned out includes emotional exhaustion, cynicism and a feeling of not meeting professional goals.

According to Grabovac, there is a subtype of burnout specifically for students called “study-related burnout.”

She noted this subtype is characterized by feeling burdened and exhausted from overtaxing work and a lack of interest or a different attitude towards studying. Students may struggle with feeling less efficient and incompetent.

Stressed out

Burnout can occur when the brain experiences a prolonged period of stress.

“Most of us recognize that we can go through a period of stress and then we can recover from it. But with burnout that ‘bounce back’ after a few days, that in some ways we expect or come to rely on, it doesn’t really happen,” Grabovac said.

Stress can also impact executive functions like self control, working memory, information processing and decision making, according to Dr. Adele Diamond, Tier 1 Canada research chair in developmental cognitive neuroscience and professor of psychiatry at UBC.

When it comes to burnout, Grabovac highlighted its impact extends beyond day-to-day life.

“It’s these ongoing impairments that really affect, not just quality of life — I mean, that’s super important — [but] also functioning.”

Cortisol is so last season. Dopamine is in

Stress is often associated with increased levels of cortisol but Diamond explained increased cortisol levels in the brain are not always a bad thing.

“It’s a real misconception to equate cortisol with stress as so many people do,” explained Diamond. “Cortisol correlates with stress, but it’s very different than a stress response.”

Diamond pointed to exercise as an example of a beneficial situation where cortisol spikes.

“So cortisol goes up when you exercise, but you’re not being stressed … Now often, [you] are aroused when you’re stressed, but you’re not always aroused because you’re stressed. Sometimes you’re aroused for good things, but cortisol is still going to go up.”

A more accurate interpretation of stress on the brain is the impact of dopamine on the prefrontal cortex, the hub of executive functioning. As the prefrontal cortex has difficulty clearing dopamine even under mild stress, it has to rely on secondary mechanisms for dopamine regulation. This makes the prefrontal cortex especially sensitive to increased dopamine levels.

Forget astrology. Are you a MET or a VAL?

If you are one to crumple under pressure, Diamond explained you might have an enzyme in your prefrontal cortex to thank for that.

One of the secondary mechanisms the prefrontal cortex relies on to remove excess dopamine is known as catechol-O-methyltransferase. There are two major versions of this enzyme in the population that are associated with different stress coping.

People with a valine in the gene coding for this enzyme have a faster version of it, meaning that they have less dopamine in their prefrontal cortex than those with a methionine in the gene. Since the latter group, known as ‘METs’, tend to slightly outperform their ‘VAL’ counterparts in executive functioning tasks, their level of dopamine may be imagined as “optimal,” while VALs don’t have enough.

Since dopamine increases in times of stress, it has been theorized that stress should push VALs to the optimal dopamine level and they should perform better in stressful situations, while METs should struggle more when stressed.

Though observations from previous literature did not fully back this model, an experiment in Diamond’s lab tried something different. In their experiment, they put students with either variant in a mildly stressful situation — students in the stressful condition had someone looking over their shoulder while they completed a test, while those in the calm condition wrote the test alone.

This experiment, which is summarized in a 2020 paper published in Cerebral Cortex, revealed an exciting observation. Not only did VALs perform better in the stressful condition, but METs performed worse — just like the model predicted.

Cooling the burn(out)

According to Grabovac, practicing mindfulness regularly can help limit the chances of becoming burned out and mitigate the effects of burnout once it ensues.

“[Mindfulness is the] ability to feel sensations in the body with a high degree of accuracy,” Grabovac said. “Really identifying with the thought … thinking that these thoughts aren’t me.”

For third-year sociology student Gen Lee, who took her first year completely online from her home in South Korea, the feeling of burnout is all too real. She credits music and changing up her routine for helping her get through and recover from stressful situations.

“The little changes that I make [in my daily routine], it helps my mood, it helps my motivation, and I think that is a more manageable way to deal with burnout than trying to deal with everything at once.”

For third-year psychology student Jamal Armstrong, burnout was a time to reevaluate time management and separate his personal life from his school environment. Armstrong credits finding a way to distract himself from schoolwork as a way to mitigate burnout. “I either workout or go outside for a walk. I just take in Vancouver to really get my mind off school.”

When asked about how post-secondary institutions can mitigate stress for all students, regardless of their physiological and external responses to it, Diamond emphasized the benefits of having multiple evaluations rather than one examination and grading without the use of a curve.

“I think that it’s not good to impose any more stress on students than is absolutely necessary. I don’t think it’s a good idea to justify and say, ‘We’re getting ready for the real world’ or anything else,” she said.

“I think stress just doesn’t allow students to show everything they’re capable of and everything they know and that’s not fair.”