College burnout can occur while trying to balance academic performance, extracurriculars, and for many, a new and exciting social life. Finding ways to prevent college burnout centers on striking a balance between obligations and desires, all while learning how to “adult.” Dealing with burnout in college is often challenging, but with the right tools, it’s possible to manage.
What Is College Burnout?
Burnout is a state of chronic stress or exhaustion that many college students may feel as a result of the many demands they face. They may find themselves overwhelmed and exhausted by their workload, disconnected or cynical about their classes, and may suffer from reduced academic efficacy, all factors contributing to “burnout syndrome.”1
For many college students, this is also their first experience attending classes, taking part in extracurriculars, maintaining an active social life and having a full or part-time job, all while being away from home for the first time without the built-in support of family.
College Burnout Symptoms
A college student experiencing burnout may feel disconnected from their academic experience, appear unmotivated, and may find themselves skipping classes or not completing assignments. College burnout often looks very similar to what an adult experiences with job burnout, because for many, being a student in college is the equivalent to having a full-time job.
Symptoms of college burnout include:2
- Overwhelming mental fatigue or physical and emotional exhaustion
- Increased use of substances such as alcohol and other drugs
- Lack of interest in activities, feelings of indifference
- Poor academic performance
- Class absenteeism
- Difficulty connecting with professors and/or with other students
- Apathy or emotional unavailability
- Lack of motivation or passion
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Difficulty sleeping or relaxing
Causes of Burnout in College
College students are quickly challenged with juggling a number of new responsibilities, many of which can be overwhelming to deal with simply on their own. They are often away from home and their support system for the first time, grappling with academic and extracurricular expectations and navigating new social situations, all while balancing schoolwork, jobs and relationships in a brand new environment If not properly managed, these responsibilities can become extremely stressful, eventually leading to burnout.
The following are causes of college burnout:3
- Social disconnection or lack of access to peers
- Graduation depression or anxiety
- Loneliness due to social isolation
- Stress from working a part time job
- Stress from family dynamics
- Financial stress
- High expectations for self
- Pressure or expectations from others
- Struggling with grades
- Uncertainty about future
- Job search fears or employment difficulties
- Student loan repayment
- Housing concerns after college
- Relationship changes
- Unmet hopes for one’s college experience
- Low self-esteem and/or low self-efficacy
How the Pandemic has Affected College Burnout
Burnout in college has been high, especially during the pandemic, due to completely new teaching and learning styles, as well as disrupted access to the normal social and peer activities that are often part of one’s college experience.4 A lack of access to resources, social connection, and the grief associated with unmet expectations of a “typical” college experience have amplified the number of students experiencing college burnout.
How to Deal With Burnout in College
It can be beneficial for college students to create and maintain a daily stress management practice to help manage and prevent burnout. Dealing with school stress is difficult, but by understanding how to cope when you’re feeling overwhelmed, and reminding yourself that you can recover from burnout, you can begin to create a plan that works best for you.
Here are nine tips to help deal with and prevent college burnout:
1. Get Physical
There are many mental health benefits of exercising, and data suggests that students who engage in regular physical activity even tend to have better academic outcomes.5 Utilize your university’s fitness center to exercise, join a gym, go for a walk, hike or run, or engage in at-home workouts that you enjoy.
2. Change It Up by Studying Abroad
If it’s an option for you, consider taking part in a study abroad program. Perhaps things have just gotten stale for you where you are, but you don’t want to transfer to another university or take a semester off. Dealing with college burnout can be abated by taking a semester abroad to do something totally new and different, and this time will enhance your resume and cultural awareness.
3. Consider a Gap Year
If you’re just about to start college and are already feeling burned out from high school or simply need more time to mature and to grow before starting college, consider a gap year. A gap year is a time period in which a student takes a year to work, travel, or do something other than study. A gap year can offer time for self-exploration and can provide you with a greater awareness of who you are and what your goals are before starting college.
4. Develop an Emotional Self Care Practice
Have you ever taken inventory about what makes you feel the most emotionally stable? Recovering or preventing emotional burnout may mean taking a few steps back to examine how you actually take care of yourself versus how you wish you would take care of yourself. Build a plan of emotional self-care techniques to go from current you to aspirational you. This plan could include weekly therapy, daily walks, coffee with friends, or starting a new hobby. Take the time to explore what your self-care regimen looks like.
5. Find Someone You Can Be Honest With
Maybe it’s a roommate, maybe it’s a study partner, or perhaps it’s someone you’ve just met that you really connect with. Whoever it is, make sure you can be totally honest with them about how you’re managing the stress of college. They may also have tips or tricks you haven’t considered, so creating this trusted resource can be really helpful.
6. Don’t Skimp on Sleep
The concept of an “all nighter” often originates in college, in which one goes a night (or more) without sleeping in order to study or complete assignments. But prioritizing sleep and getting enough of it is critical to your academic and personal success in college.6 Though it can be tempting to stay up studying or spending time with friends, college students who engage in healthy sleep have better overall habits and academic outcomes than those whose sleep schedules are haphazard.
7. Utilize Your Campus’ Mental Health Resources
Most college campuses offer counseling services for students, at least for a brief period of time, and can offer recommendations for finding therapy in the local community if needed or desired. Take advantage of what is already part of your tuition and research what your university offers for mental health resources.
8. Consult With the Campus Learning Support Center
Though these services may primarily exist for students who require specific academic accommodations, it is likely that your academic support center on campus can offer suggestions, tutoring, or tips for time management, academic planning, and study skills. Consider asking for this kind of support.
9. Take Time to Process Your “Why” for College
College burnout can befall us when we’re going through the motions, taking the classes and studying for the tests, but haven’t really considered why we’re doing what we’re doing. Have you really thought about why you’re studying or what you’re majoring in, or was it something someone told you you’d be good at? If you’re not clear on why you’re putting the energy into what you are, it’s easy to lack motivation. Ask yourself what your “why” is, and use that to keep yourself focused.
When to Seek Professional Help
If you’re experiencing college burnout for a prolonged period, spanning a month or full semester, it may be time to reach out for professional help. If burnout transitions into depression or anxiety (even if it’s “high-functioning”), if you’re feeling hopeless or experiencing feelings of despair, or if you have any thoughts of suicide, it’s time to take things seriously. Basically, if you’re wondering if it’s time for therapy, it probably is. Luckily, many colleges have an on-campus counseling center that can support you through this process.
Types of therapy that can be helpful in managing college burnout include acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) or therapies that employ stress management, self-compassion and mindfulness practices. Visit an online therapist directory to find a therapist specializing in one of these areas who is a good fit for you.
Recovering from college burnout can be difficult, but it’s possible to recreate a new and healthy relationship with college, your studies, and yourself. Engaging in activities that help you build self-awareness and provide a better understanding of your learning style will help you thrive as a college student.