6 Signs You May Be Experiencing “Duck Syndrome” Right Now

Do you ever feel like you’re drowning in obligations and can barely stay afloat? Or like you can’t keep up with the demands of life, and everything feels way too overwhelming? You may even be struggling with physical ailments like exhaustion, fatigue, and headaches, or mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, or burnout. Maybe you aren’t exactly sure what’s happening, but you know that your body doesn’t feel right. If this sounds like you, I promise you’re not alone. As a first-generation college graduate, traveling keynote speaker, full-time magazine editor, and wellness expert, I’ve been exactly where you are (multiple times), and I know firsthand that the 24/7 “grind” doesn’t always feel good. 

If you’re feeling depleted right now, you might be dealing with a little something called “duck syndrome.” While it’s not a formal diagnosis, duck syndrome is the idea that, like a duck, you appear to be gliding smoothly on the surface of the water — but you’re paddling super hard underneath just to stay afloat. Duck syndrome is particularly prevalent for high-achieving college students who appear to have it all together. But the truth is, we’ve all likely felt the effects of duck syndrome in some way — regardless of age, job industry, or background. 

Duck syndrome can be a challenging experience, and while the experience itself will look different for everybody, there are usually some telltale signs that it’s time to take a breather. Fortunately, there are also many ways to combat it and start building healthy habits that ultimately boost your long-term well-being. Here are six signs you may be dealing with duck syndrome right now, and some words of inspiration for getting through the muck:

You feel constant pressure to succeed.

Whether it’s achieving the perfect GPA, landing your dream internship, or simply curating the perfect photo on Instagram, it’s easy to feel pressured to succeed at all things, all the time. Maybe you grew up in a household where academic or professional success was highly valued, or maybe you’re studying in a competitive environment where you feel like there’s no option to fail. If so, I hope you can give yourself permission to define success the way you want to — not the way society wants you to — and make more time to engage in the things you genuinely love. There is plenty of time to reach your dreams, and you deserve to reach them on your own terms.

You find yourself comparing your success to others. 

Let’s be real: It is way too easy to compare yourself to others these days, especially since we have access to everyone’s highlight reels on Instagram and seemingly perfect “day-in-the-life” videos on TikTok. If you’re struggling with duck syndrome, you may find that you’re secretly comparing yourself to others and their timelines — from school, work, internships, creative pursuits, even down to your favorite hobbies. Maybe your roommate did better than you on a test and now you’re doubting your skills, or it seems like everyone has amazing dating lives, but you’re terrified to open Bumble and feel totally doomed. 

If you’ve ever had these intrusive thoughts, let this be your invitation to “zoom out” on the grand picture of your life. Everyone moves at their own pace, and everyone’s journey is different. Your timeline is unique and something to be proud of. Give yourself permission to move at your own pace. 

Even though you’re hustling round the clock, you still feel “behind.” 

One of the most common markers of duck syndrome is working incredibly hard 24/7, yet feeling like you’re behind in some way (even though you’re not)! As a college student, I remember pulling back-to-back all-nighters in the library, studying til’ the wee hours of the morning, and trying to cram my never-ending to-do list into every single day — just so I could do college “the right way.” Looking back, I was doing way more than I actually needed to (and probably could’ve used better sleep all those years)! If you’re a hardworking student who feels like they’re always behind, let this be your reminder to breathe, rest, and know that you’re exactly where you need to be. Work will always be there, and your health and wellness come first.

You feel exhausted by your schoolwork, internship, job, & other responsibilities. 

If you’re a college student right now, I’m guessing your to-do list is pretty long…and sadly, having a jam-packed schedule is one of the biggest risk factors for duck syndrome. I remember being in college and filling my plate with every major, class, extracurricular activity, study abroad trip, leadership position, and social outing under the sun; which led to a stellar resume, but a not-so-great lifestyle. If you’re feeling exhausted, burned out, fatigued, or mentally drained from your schedule, it may be time to set some healthy boundaries and seek support. I promise you don’t have to do everything all the time. 

You’ve started feeling restless, on-edge, unfocused, & unmotivated.

I’ll never forget my junior year of college when one of my teachers emailed me to ask if I was doing OK. I had been in his psychology class for just over half a semester and was truly enjoying it. However, after dealing with sleep deprivation and tremendous stress from a difficult course load, I had been pretty quiet and withdrawn in class in the weeks leading up to his email. The simple check-in from my teacher was enough to help me realize that I was smack dab in the middle of duck syndrome without even realizing it! If you’re feeling stressed out, restless, on-edge, unfocused, unmotivated, or even bitter and cynical about your responsibilities, it may be time to pause and practice self-care.

You want to withdraw, quit your obligations, pause your busy schedule — or just take a nap! 

If you’ve ever felt like throwing your agenda out the window and moving to a remote island for the rest of the semester, you’re 100% not alone! When duck syndrome hits, it can feel like you’re literally drowning with responsibilities. If you notice that you want to withdraw from your loved ones, quit school or your job, or draw the blinds and watch Netflix forever and ever, you might be in the throes of duck syndrome. However, you’re absolutely not alone, and there are many things you can do to start caring for yourself more intentionally.

Whether you or someone you know is going through duck syndrome right now, please know there is hope and light just around the corner! From the science of resilience and happiness to learning how to set boundaries and practice intentional self-care, there is an array of options out there for you — and it’s all about finding the practices that resonate with you. This is one of the many topics I speak about on college campuses around the world. Join me for Stress, Success, and Duck Syndrome where we’ll talk about all things mental health and wellness — and put a practical plan in place so that duck syndrome doesn’t get the best of you.