The science of burnout and stress

As students return to campus, the academic side of student life will occupy their minds – and with that comes the inevitable conversations around burnout.

For students, burnout can feel like an uncontrollable obstacle to academic, professional or personal success. According to an Italian study published in Psychology of bordersone-third of university students surveyed met burnout criteria.

“Burnout is now a diagnosable syndrome,” said Dr. Andrea Grabovac, associate clinical professor in the department of psychiatry. She explained that the criteria for burnout include emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of not achieving professional goals.

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

She noted that this subtype is characterized by feeling overwhelmed and exhausted from too much work and a lack of interest or a different attitude towards studies. Students may struggle to feel less effective and incompetent.


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. But with the burnout that ‘bounces back’ after a few days, which we in some ways expect or rely on, that doesn’t really happen,” Grabovac said.

Stress can also impact executive functions like self-control, working memory, information processing and decision-making, according to Tier 1 Canada Research Chair Dr. Adele Diamond. 1 in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience and Professor of Psychiatry at UBC.

When it comes to burnout, Grabovac pointed out that its impact extends beyond everyday life.

“It’s these ongoing deficiencies that really affect, not just quality of life – I mean, it’s super important – [but] also works. »

Cortisol is so last season. Dopamine is in

Stress is often associated with increased cortisol levels, but Diamond explained that increased cortisol levels in the brain aren’t always a bad thing.

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

Diamond cited exercise as an example of a beneficial situation where cortisol increases.

“So cortisol goes up when you’re exercising, but you’re not stressed…Now often, [you] get excited when you’re stressed, but you’re not always excited because you’re stressed. Sometimes you get excited for good things, but cortisol will still 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. Because the prefrontal cortex has difficulty clearing dopamine even under mild stress, it must rely on secondary dopamine regulatory mechanisms. This makes the prefrontal cortex particularly sensitive to increased dopamine levels.

Forget astrology. Are you a MET or a VAL?

If you’re the type to crumble under pressure, Diamond explained, you might have an enzyme in your prefrontal cortex to thank for it.

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

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

Since dopamine increases during times of stress, it has been hypothesized that stress should push VALs to optimal dopamine levels and they should function better in stressful situations, while METs should struggle more when ‘they are stressed.

Although previous literature observations have not fully supported this model, an experiment in Diamond’s lab attempted something different. In their experiment, they placed students with either variant in a mildly stressful situation – students in the stressful state had someone looking over their shoulder while they completed a test, while those in the calm state wrote the test alone.

This experience, which is summarized in a 2020 article published in Cerebral cortex, revealed an exciting observation. Not only did VALs perform better under stressful conditions, but METs performed worse, just as the model predicted.

Cool the burn(out)

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

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

For third-year sociology student Gen Lee, who spent her first year entirely online from her home in South Korea, the feeling of exhaustion is all too real. She credits music and changing her routine with helping her through and recover from stressful situations.

“The little changes I make [in my daily routine]it helps my mood, it helps my motivation, and I think it’s 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 alleviate burnout. “I exercise or go for a walk. I come from Vancouver to really take my mind off school.

Asked how post-secondary institutions can alleviate stress for all students regardless of their physiological and external reactions, Diamond highlighted the benefits of having multiple assessments rather than one exam and grading without the use of a curve.

“I don’t think it’s good to put more stress on students than is absolutely necessary. I don’t think it’s a good idea to justify yourself and say, ‘We’re preparing for the real world’ or anything like that,” she said.

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

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