College life is many things. On the one hand, it is a time of excitement, exploration, and a profound stepping stone for the development of both yourself and your career path. On the other hand, being a college student comes with many new challenges. During college, you learn to balance academic performance with extracurricular activities, while also adjusting not only to new adult responsibilities but also to living away from your family and normal support network.
Learning to balance academics, self-care, a rapidly expanding social network, finances, and everything else in life at the same time is not an overnight process. It is almost guaranteed you will experience a setback here and there. That’s OK! It’s all part of learning to be successfully independent. What you want to watch out for is how you perceive and respond to the intense amount of pressure and expectation from yourself or others. Over time this pressure and all the demands facing you can lead to stress and overwhelm resulting in a phenomenon called “burnout.”
In this article, we will take a closer look at the signs of college burnout, what can cause it, and techniques for how to manage and overcome this common yet detrimental pitfall.
What Is College Burnout?
College student burnout is a state of exhaustion or high stress resulting from being overwhelmed by the many demands and commitments students face. Burnout can show up in a number of ways. Most notably, a sharp decrease in motivation over an extended period of time. Since this will often happen toward the end of the school term, burnout can quickly lead to a drop in grades and academic performance.
Other noticeable signs and symptoms of college burnout may include:
- Prolonged exhaustion or fatigue (physical, mental, or emotional)
- Withdrawing from class participation and connection with other students
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Apathy or indifference
- Difficulty sleeping
Why Does Burnout Happen?
Burnout has always been a common experience during college. However, the reported rates of college student burnout have risen significantly since the pandemic. The complications of online learning, less connection with peers and family, and a general sense of uncertainty became added stressors to handle.
College burnout can occur for many reasons. For many college students, the normal pressures of college life are combined with also living away from their families and support network for the first time. It can feel like a lot to deal with on one’s own. People of any age and life stage can experience burnout, as everyone encounters challenges in some way throughout life. Many normal stressors of life over a prolonged period can contribute to the experience of burnout. Some examples of what can cause burnout include:
- Job stress
- Family stress
- Financial stress
- Pressure or high expectations from self or others
- Struggling to achieve academically
- Uncertainty or fears about the future
- Relationship dynamics and changes
- Low self-esteem
- News overload
How To Deal With Burnout
When you notice you are getting close to being burned out or you are already in the throes of just feeling “done,” it’s time to take a step back to look at what might be causing these feelings and ways to get back on track.
Monitor Your Media Consumption
We are living in a time of high exposure to news and media, which refreshes on a constant 24/7 coverage cycle. While staying informed and aware of what is happening in the world around us is important, too much news from “out there” can be a harmful distraction to your internal emotional and mental balance.
There are some helpful ideas to keep in mind when consuming the news. First, remember that there is a heavy emphasis on negative stories or “bad news.” These are what tend to draw the most attention, which news outlets depend on. Along the same lines, consider that headlines are written with the same goal: to get your attention. Read headlines and articles and watch news stories with a critical lens and consider that every source of news has a slant or some form of bias. Consulting more than one reliable news source on a story (even if they have different slants) can help you form your own perspective. You might also try setting a timer or subscribing to a news digest so you are able to quickly get the synopsis without getting sucked into the narration and rhetoric.
While negative stories have always existed, our high exposure to shocking events from around the world can be a constant emotional burden and deprive you of the ability to distinguish between the state of the world and your actual real-life experience. If you notice you are becoming overwhelmed by the news, it might be time to unplug completely for a while. Focus on what you can control in your own life, reach out to connect with people you care about, and take time to appreciate the good things around you that you might forget to notice.
Another entity constantly vying for attention is social media. Similar to the news, it is always refreshing and always available at our fingertips. Do you find yourself accidentally scrolling during the time you meant to dedicate to more productive goals? Do you notice your thoughts and feelings being pulled all over the place as your attention is dragged from one post to the next? Social media can be more mentally and emotionally draining than we realize, so it is important to monitor its use. As with the news, set limits on the amount of time you spend on social media and take time to unplug.
A common pitfall to watch out for is the tendency to compare your own life and appearance with what you see people post on social media. Many people feel unnecessary pressure for their lives to measure up with what they perceive others’ lives to be as they are portrayed on the screen. This can contribute to burnout as well.
Remember that the majority of what people post is edited, filtered, and curated to look more exciting and more perfect than it is in reality. The nature of posting online is to receive attention, which all humans crave in some way. However, keep in mind that these posts do not represent real life, complete with mundaneness, hardships, failures, and the beauty of being present in the moment. Try not to compare your real life with what others might have you believe is theirs.
Take Care of Yourself
You probably already know that your stress can be decreased by eating well, drinking plenty of water, and exercising regularly. However, simply knowing this does not make the difference. Your stress and consequent burnout will be best helped by actually practicing these things. Try to choose healthy meal options, drink plenty of water throughout the day, and take time to fit in some active movement several times per week.
Reduce Stressful Triggers
Another great way to overcome burnout is to take control over the stressors which you can control. Practice your skills in time management, organization, and setting priorities. These skills will help streamline what you need to accomplish, while conserving your time, energy, and mental capacity. You can also reduce stress by pacing yourself with the time you need to finish tasks and by asking for help when appropriate or needed. Reach out to your professor, a counselor, or a trusted friend when you need support in developing these skills.
Take Time to Relax
As a college student, you are facing many demands every day from attending classes, completing assignments, practicing in the arts or sports, nurturing your relationships, managing your finances, and much more. It’s no wonder burnout is such a common occurrence among college students. All of this can take a serious toll on your mind and body. It is important to take time to let yourself relax.
When you are constantly on the go or feeling the pressure of everything you need to get done, it can feel very difficult to properly relax. Encourage yourself to stick with it. For example, if you choose to try mindfulness meditation, you might find it nearly impossible to focus for more than 1-3 minutes. Give it time. The next day, you might be able to sit in meditation for a full 5 minutes. After a week or two, you might be comfortable for 10 minutes or more. If you return to this practice over and over again, you will increase your ability to focus on relaxation. This will be a great benefit to your mental and physical well being.
Here are some other ideas you can try for stress relief and relaxation:
- Deep breathing
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Spend time in nature
Many of these practices have phone apps or videos online you can use as guidance. Everyone is different, and what might work for one person may not work for the next. Try a variety of techniques and guides until you find the options that are most helpful to you.
Get Quality Sleep
A consistent good night’s sleep is one of the best ways to combat burnout and getting too overwhelmed. It is also easier said than done, particularly as a college student. While sacrificing sleep can be tempting when you are piled high with commitments and deadlines, the tiredness will catch up with you. Try your best to prioritize your sleep.
If you are getting yourself to bed, but still having trouble falling or staying asleep, you are not alone. Inability to sleep can occur from stress or physical discomfort. Here are some tips you can try:
- Have a regular sleep schedule - Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day.
- Make your room dark and quiet for bedtime.
- Do not watch TV or look at screens leading up to bedtime or while you are in bed.
- Open up to someone you trust to get things off your mind or chest.
- Avoid exercise right before bed.
- Enjoy relaxation music or guided relaxation recordings.
If you can’t get to sleep, read a book or do another relaxing activity rather than laying there stressed out about not getting to sleep.
Hopefully, the ideas and suggestions in this article will be helpful to you the next time you are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or already burned out. Above all, remember that you are not alone. What you are experiencing is common and you can overcome it! You do not have to let your grades suffer and throw away all the hard work you have already put into your academic journey. When you get yourself back on track, you will be proud to know that you have grown, becoming stronger and more capable of dealing with stress and burnout in the future.
If at any time you need additional support, be sure to visit the BYU-I Counseling Center and take advantage of the many resources and workshops they offer for mental health and stress relief.