Thursday, January 23, 2020

I Didn't Revise for My Mocks (and Why I'm Glad I Didn't)

Often as students, particularly the high-achievers or stubbornly ambitious, we are guilty of pushing ourselves too hard. The nature of the education system certainly doesn't help this behaviour either, what with the expectations for each student to perfectly balance their academic work, social life, extra-curricular, and more often than not a part-time job too. It is therefore no surprise when the pressure that usually keeps us motivated occasionally clutches our minds a bit too tight.

It is no exaggeration to say that this Christmas the pressure and stress of exams not only clutched onto my brain, but pulled it out entirely before promptly launching it down the M62. As a usually determined and successful student who would despair at the thought of receiving a C in an exam, this feeling was completely surreal. I couldn't fathom why nothing felt like it was going in, and why all I wanted to do was sleep. All the flashcards, mind maps, and practice papers in the world couldn't have prepared me for those mocks (which were going to take place the first two weeks after the Christmas holidays), but being the foolishly headstrong person I am, I figured if I wasn't going to remember things the easy way, it would have to be the hard way of relentlessly pushing myself day after day until I felt ready.

Two days into this brain-storming bootcamp it happened, I burned out.

Extinguishing a gentle flame? More like a teacup of water thrown at a car bomb.

I'm still not entirely sure exactly how to describe what happened to me, other than it was the full English breakfast of breakdowns, complete with tears, snotty tissues, torn up worksheets, all served on a plate of total despair and worrying thoughts. But seriously, I hadn't felt that low in years and a persistent queazy feeling in the pit of my stomach told this was more than a bit of pre-exam stress. 

What does it mean to burn out?

"Burning out" can happen when constant stress, be it academic or something else, causes us to feel helpless, disillusioned, and completely exhausted. It often strips us of our motivation, can affect our appetite or sleeping habits, and can even lower our immunity and make us more susceptible to illness. Burning out is not an immediate thing, and more often than not masterfully creeps up on us when we least expect it, but once it happens can be a dangerous detriment to mental health. To make matters worse, the emotional and physical exhaustion brought on when burning out can leave us falling into a spiral of needing to work to the relieve stress of the burnout, while the burnout prevents us from working, subsequently creating more stress. If you're like me and perhaps have a slightly unhealthy relationship between your academic success and your idea of self-worth, then burning out couldn't feel more sh*t. (I have linked some further articles on burning out here and here.)

Learning when to step back

Feeling like I had been stripped of one of the few things I prided myself on had a serious impact on my mental health. I began to incessantly picture the disappointment on my teacher's and parent's faces as they talked about my mock grades, how I'd have to justify myself to the "smarter" girls I constantly compare myself to, and if this meant the possibility of getting into my chosen university was hanging in the balance. After ruminating back and forth over my options, it became clear that I needed to take a step back, put down my pen, and stop revising. This was not an easy decision to make, in fact I was pretty terrified at the thought of purposefully not doing any work. In my case and largely down to happenstance I ended up having a big cry in front of my usually tiger-but-now-pretty-guilty-looking parents, which resulted in a small-but-needed amount of reassurance from them that my mental health had to become the priority. But largely it was my own choice and something I felt I needed to do even without their approval. The next week and a half was a strange and uncomfortable mix of complete euphoria at my first proper break since finishing GCSEs, and random bouts of doubt and anxiety when I thought a little too hard about what my mock results would look like. But I can say with 100% certainty that I am so happy and proud of my decision.

The be all and end all? Not in the slightest.

The first few exams were pretty miserable, and I inevitably ended up doing some last minute cramming, but I ended up returning to Sixth Form with a smile on my face, a holiday filled with good memories (including my birthday!) and a better understanding of myself and why it is so important to practice self-care. It is important to note here that self-care was not a hot bath and a face mask (though I did do those) but rather a gritty reality check on the unhealthy dependencies I had with my exam grades. It was a time to set boundaries, reset my sleep schedule (she types... at 12am), and rebalance my mood and energy levels with exercise and socialising. However, most importantly, I made a doctors appointment to talk about both my mindset before the burnout and during the burnout. To anyone that is struggling with their mental health and school only seems to be making it worse, I cannot emphasise enough how important this. An A on an essay is only a short term distraction from any unhappy feelings that hide under the disguise of "normal school stress". If you feel things are getting too much or your mind is going to dark places, don't be afraid to reach out to family, friends or specialist support. 

More often than not if we brush off these feelings and choose to fight, struggle, and crawl to results day, a slip of paper in our hands with 3 little letters will not suddenly magic these terrible feelings away, no matter how much we like to think it would. Ultimately, over the holidays I learned that mental health must be a priority above any and all academic achievements, in order to know that in the future I can and will continue being successful and more importantly, happy.


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