Beating Burnout: An Online Survival Guide for College Students

Whether you’ve heard of burnout before or not, you could be at risk as a college student. Learn how you can spot the signs, find out what you can do to avoid the symptoms, and gather valuable resources to help you combat burnout while you’re in school.

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Karen Gross

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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.

last updated

Last Updated: 07/12/2021
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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.

What is burnout?

Burnout occurs when you face chronic stress over an extended period of time, manifesting in apathy, fatigue, detachment, and lack of interest in academics. Whether you feel perpetually stressed by carrying the weight of group projects or the thought of writing another 12-page paper fills you with dread, know that you’re not alone. The National College Health Assessment found that 80% of students reported feeling overwhelmed, while 40% said it was difficult to function.

How can burnout affect college students?

Burnout can manifest in specific symptoms in college students, including decreased motivation that leads to a drop in academic performance. They may also lose interest in social activities, neglect friendships, and face physical symptoms such as increased anxiety and depression. Many students facing burnout report feeling disinterested in school subjects and student groups that used to fulfill them, as well as trouble sleeping and changes in appetite.

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.

Signs & Symptoms of Burnout

As you review the common symptoms of burnout, do a quick inventory of your mental, emotional, and physical feelings to see if you or someone you know exhibits any of these signs.

Exhaustion

Exhaustion is the feeling that you’re tired all the time, no matter how much sleep you get. You may experience this in the form of physical, emotional, and/or mental exhaustion, but each feels like you have nothing left to give.

Lack of motivation

If you find yourself lacking the motivation to see friends, attend class, or participate in social activities, it could be a sign of burnout. You may lose interest in things that previously brought you joy and fulfillment, or you may find it difficult to wake up and start your day.

Lack of creativity

Lack of creativity can appear as trouble completing tasks that didn’t give you trouble previously, especially those that require original ideas or imagination. You may find yourself procrastinating or feeling dissatisfied with the work you produce.

Increased irritability

When you feel frustrated about your inability to focus or effectively engage with peers and course topics, it’s natural that you would eventually feel irritable as well. You may feel disappointed in yourself or critical of your academic performance, resulting in annoyance or a quickness to anger.

Inability to focus

Also known as foggy brain, an inability to focus often points to burnout. No matter how much you try to concentrate your efforts–be they on school, work, or personal responsibilities–you may feel disconnected from the task at hand, unable to get your brain to work, and unable to wrap up tasks in a satisfactory manner.

Loss of interest

Loss of interest is a classic sign of burnout, especially when it affects things you previously loved and cared about. If you used to always look forward to your Friday afternoon art class but now feel like you have to drag yourself there, only to feel disengaged, this is likely burnout.

High frequency of illness

If you find yourself getting ill more frequently than usual, it could be your body trying to tell you that it also feels burned out. Whether you continually get colds, begin having digestive issues, or suddenly develop hives or rashes, each of these (and more) could mean your burnout is manifesting in physical symptoms. However these symptoms can also be the signs of other physical illnesses, too, so you must pay close attention and seek medical care as needed.

Feelings of anxiety or depression

Whether you experience anxiety or depression for the first time or existing mental health challenges seem to be getting worse, both are signs of burnout. If you suddenly feel anxious in class or around people or lack any interest in things you previously loved, you could be dealing with burnout or the beginning of a serious mental health episode requiring prompt professional care.

Preventing Student Burnout

One of the best ways of handling burnout is taking proactive measures that can stop burnout before it truly settles in. Take a look at these tips for keeping burnout at bay.

Know the warning signs

As discussed above, the signs and symptoms of burnout can take many forms and varied gradients. Because of this, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the common warning signs for both yourself and others. The earlier you identify burnout, the quicker you can address it—and know if it progresses to a serious mental health issue.

Take care of your physical health

It may seem like a no-brainer, but making sure you eat healthy foods, get enough rest at night, and make time for exercise all go a long way in preventing student burnout. You should also monitor your alcohol intake, as too much can interfere with your sleep and act as a depressant.

Take care of your mental health

Our mental health requires constant upkeep to ensure we stay in healthy headspaces. Taking care of your mental health can involve staying away from or removing yourself from situations that cause anxiety, saying no to activities, balancing together and alone time, exercising regularly, and seeking counseling.

Learn to set boundaries

Only you know how much stress, busyness, and persistent effort you can handle before burnout sets in. Setting boundaries helps you honor your needs and protects you from situations and people who exacerbate feelings of burnout. Figure out what boundaries work best for your health and stick to them.

Don’t overcommit

In college, it can sometimes feel like every moment of your day is planned out. Whether filled with classes, intramural sports practice, student club meetings, or group project work, try to find a balance between involvement and rest. Only commit to activities outside class that bring you joy, and don’t feel bad saying no to those that don’t.

Power down when possible

Stepping away from technology, even if only for a few hours, can help remove some of the urgency that 24-hour news cycles and constantly updating social media platforms add to your life. Try putting down your tech and go for a long walk with a friend; it can do wonders for your stress levels and general outlook.

Don’t be afraid to seek help

If you feel yourself experiencing higher levels of anxiety or depression, starting to lose interest in things that previously interested you, or pulling away from friends and family, ask for help. Many college campuses provide mental health professionals and counseling services available to all students.

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.

Step 1
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.

Step 2
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?

Step 3
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.

Step 4
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.

Step 5
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.

Step 6
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.

Step 7
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:

  • Implement a dedicated learning space and modify or renovate it to ensure it functions as a comfortable, inspiring area. Add photos of loved ones, buy a plant, and make sure you have good lighting.
  • Set – and review – your goals. Reminding yourself why you’re studying online in the first place can help you look to the future and get excited about where all your hard work will lead.
  • Step away from the computer frequently. Even if only for 5-10 minutes every hour, this can help you to reset emotionally, mentally, and physically.

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.