There’s a rush of excitement that comes with starting college. With all the new friends, new experiences, and new freedoms, we can sometimes forget that college also comes with new challenges. The day-to-day grind of writing papers, studying for exams, and preparing research projects can wear down even the most eager of students if they’re not careful. And while stress is to be expected in college, students need to make sure that stress doesn’t become something a whole lot worse: burnout.
From newly enrolled college freshmen to students wrapping up their post-doctoral studies, burnout can impact any student at any time during their enrollment. That means it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms before burnout starts to derail all your hard work. Whether you’re feeling burnout yourself or you believe it’s manifesting in a peer, the best way to prevent it is to know where it comes from. Keep reading to get the information you need to spot burnout in yourself and others, and to gather the resources and expert advice you need to combat it.
Defining Student Burnout
No student is immune to burnout. Yet before you can recognize its signs and symptoms, you must be able to define it. While there are many mental health challenges that can impact students during their enrollment, burnout is unique, and so is its treatment. Here’s where to start.
Recognizing & Preventing Student Burnout in College
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of burnout early on can help you get out of your slump so you can start feeling like yourself more quickly. Burnout takes many different forms, making it important that you stay vigilant for yourself and others.
7 Steps to Addressing Student Burnout
After identifying that burnout has already set in, it’s time to address the causes and get back to feeling like yourself. By following the steps outlined below, you can deal with burnout in healthy and sustainable ways.
Identify the source of your burnout
While sometimes the source of burnout is obvious, other times you need to do a little digging to get at the root. For instance, burnout doesn’t mean you just hate school. Students who love their studies can still experience burnout. If you find yourself in this situation, stop to think about what could be causing these feelings. Are you missing friends and family? Do you feel like you’ve stopped improving? Sit with this question for a while and see what comes to mind.
Start with baby steps
As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. In the same way, you won’t cure your burnout overnight, and trying to do so will only add more stress. Despite initial urges, resist taking outsized steps such as dropping out of college or giving up all your interests. Baby steps can look like making sure your physical and mental health are in check by eating healthy foods, renewing old friendships, getting adequate sleep, and doing enjoyable exercise. After that, reassess. Are you headed in the right direction?
Evaluate what needs to change
Getting to the bottom of your burnout can feel challenging for several reasons. First, if you’re already feeling exhausted and disinterested, the last thing you want to do is spend more time thinking about it. Second, it can be difficult to put a name to something you haven’t experienced before. If you’re struggling to understand what’s causing your burnout, look to professional evaluation services from your college’s mental health center.
Give yourself a break
One of the greatest gives you can offer yourself during a season of burnout is a break. Taking even a few days off can help you recalibrate and decompress, giving you the space to form a plan and set new intentions. If you can’t take advantage of an upcoming spring, fall, or summer break, look at your calendar and try to find a long weekend that allows you to unplug and only do things that make you happy.
Reconsider your path
After identifying the source of your burnout and evaluating what needs to change, you may conclude that your feelings of dissatisfaction relate to your major, your school, or some other aspect of your situation that you have the power to change. If this is where you land, it may be time to rethink what you really want. Consider talking to trusted friends, family members, mentors, and others who can offer you sound advice on how to proceed.
Implement positive thinking
Despite what feels like an insurmountable obstacle, it’s important to remember that burnout is only temporary when dealt with properly. While it’s okay to spend some time wallowing, staying optimistic is one of the best things you can do to weather this storm and move past it. Whether that looks like taping mantras to your bathroom mirror, reading a morning affirmation, or reminding yourself that burnout will end, try to stay positive in your thinking.
Develop a new routine
As you begin to come out of this season of burnout, remember the lessons learned and try to implement new routines that help you stay positive, engaged, and happy. Making self-care a regular part of your day is a great place to start, as is creating small pockets of joy throughout your day. This may include FaceTiming with friends and family, enjoying a meal you like, or setting aside textbooks in favor of an outdoor activity.
Digital Burnout: The Risk for Online Students
Online students may be at particular risk for burnout, given that all their learning takes place on a computer screen. After spending hours each day watching video lectures, conversing with peers and professors via forums, filming themselves carrying out various assignments, and fighting with uncooperative technologies, it’s natural that they would start to feel burned out.
Given the nature of distance learning, it’s even more important for these students to step away from their computers, ensure they make time for social activities away from school, and engage in healthy activities that replenish their minds and bodies.
A few important steps you can take as an online student to avoid and/or address burnout include:
How Does Burnout Affect Healthcare Students?
You can’t talk about burnout in the workplace without mentioning healthcare professionals. Because burnout so often impacts those in helping professions, it’s no surprise that those in the healthcare field are at heightened risk for succumbing to the symptoms of burnout. But many hopeful healthcare professionals might also wonder if they’re at risk while in school. The answer, unfortunately, is yes.
With 44% of US clinicians reporting to have experienced the symptoms of burnout, students training to enter the medical field often worry about their own mental health. In fact, students in healthcare programs may need to be even more vigilant. Healthcare students not only have the risk of developing burnout from working in a helping profession, but they are experiencing a lot of the same stressors as traditional college students. Between their studies and the nature of their work, understanding what burnout is and knowing how to recognize it is absolutely key.
Healthcare students must also be mindful of the other prevalent mental health challenges of the field. Understanding how burnout differs from issues like compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress will be crucial to finding the right treatments and strategies for prevention.
Expert Advice on Avoiding & Treating Student Burnout
Karen Gross is an author and educator, a former college president, and has been a senior policy advisor to the U.S. Department of Education. She is a certified psychological first aid provider and teaches in the Rutgers Graduate School of Social Work Continuing Education Division and at other schools as well. Her recent book, Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door, was published in 2020.
Q: What symptoms of burnout do students commonly not catch until it’s been going on for a while already??
A: Students often do not recognize the source of what is putting them under stress. They also often feel they are the only ones who are struggling. Then they may attribute their feelings to a wide range of possibilities, or they may try to sublimate the feelings and the source. And many young people have not had experience naming what they are feeling.
Leaving home (for those living on campus), increased academic workload, higher standards, lower grades than previously obtained, a loss of friends from home, the need to meet and develop friendships with new individuals, a questioning of whether they “belong” and whether they have selected the “right” college, dining hall cooking (and the absence of home cooking and the commonality of fast food) ALL can contribute to student stress loads.
The symptoms of burnout can go unnoticed initially; they may seem normal, just part of the college experience. At first, some students may feel tired; by contrast, other students may feel over-energized. Some students isolate themselves, while others overwork themselves. Students may seek contact regularly with those from home, while others cut off communication. Still others start to drink or use drugs or experiment as a pathway to relieving stress.
Q: Where can students facing burnout turn for help at their college?
A: There are a number of ways in which a student can seek help if they’re willing to do so and don’t feel stigmatized by seeking assistance. Actually, seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Peers can provide some help. Residential hall advisors are another source of assistance. Faculty advisors can be helpful. Most campuses offer quality mental health services; some have wellness centers. One key, wherever a student goes, is engagement. Students need to find one nonparental adult with whom they can connect and with whom they can talk comfortably. This doesn’t necessarily have to be one’s assigned advisor; it can be a professor or a coach or someone who serves food in the dining hall or provides maintenance services on campus. It doesn’t matter who the person is; students need to connect to someone.
Q: What sort of risks do online students face when it comes to burnout?
A: The previous comments focus on in-person learning. Burnout in the online context is more problematic. The key to remediating burnout is connection and a reciprocal relationship, and that is difficult online. There is something more detached for most students online when they try to seek connections that are genuine. There can be teletherapy and tele-consults with advisors, but these often are not ideal solutions. I often suggest that online college students, pandemic concerns aside, seek help from other noncollege advisors and support systems. Clergy, community organizations, favorite high school teachers, neighbors who have been to college, medical professionals, and former coaches can all serve as advisors and individuals with whom students can connect.
Q: What’s your best piece of advice for moving past burnout while in college?
A: First, many students experience burnout caused by stresses in college, and they need to appreciate that, while they may feel alone, they are not alone. Second, students need to recognize that burnout is temporary and that it’s something from which one can recover completely. Third, students need sleep–plenty of sleep. Fourth, students need quality food. Fifth, students need exercise, whether that’s as part of a team or intramural sports or a yoga or meditation class. Keeping one’s body active is key. Sixth, for some students, music (concerts, for example) provides an outlet, along with dancing. Seventh, and finally, I think there is value in self-reflection, hard though that is. Students need to ask themselves existential questions: Who am I? What makes me happy? What steps lead to my moving forward? What values are most important to me? Who are my role models? In the midst of burnout, it’s hard to pause and self-reflect, but it’s well worth doing regularly.
Student Burnout Resources
The American Medical Association provides these actionable tips for managing burnout while studying medicine and healthcare.
The American Institute of Stress knows a thing or two about burnout. This targeted guide offers plenty of good advice for recovering from it.
This interview with an American Public University professor highlights the unique challenges for online students regarding burnout and offers ideas for avoiding it.
College Info Geek put together this YouTube video with more than 320,000 views that looks at ways of taking care of burnout once you identify it.
CollegiateParent provides this guide to parents of college students dealing with burnout.
In this article in The Brown Daily Herald, students reflect on how the last year contributed to burnout.
The University of the People put together this extensive page on what burnout entails, how to spot it, and what to do about it.