College burnout! Like hitting a wall, it’s a phenomenon that will affect many students at some stage of their academic journey. But instead of a wall made of bricks, it’s a wall made of books and assignment deadlines. Continually banging your head against that wall could leave you stressed, fatigued, and lacking motivation. You may end up asking yourself, “Why did I even bother going to college in the first place?”
What is college burnout?
Originally studied in social-service workers, burnout was recognised by the WHO in 2019 as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ that can affect any occupation. While being a student may not be a professional role, for many it is the equivalent of having a full-time job. And, in fact, there will be many students working while paying for college. Furthermore, besides coursework, there are many other plates to be spun; extracurriculars, nights out, managing relationships, all usually while away from the built-in support of your family. Spinning this many plates should make you feel like a superhero, but, instead, you feel more like a hot mess.
Meanwhile – in the world outside – there’s a rental crisis, a climate crisis, a cost-of-living crisis. You name it, it’s a crisis. The world is falling apart, and you still must hand up your assignment on time. What’s more, with your crazy schedule, you can barely fit in time for a nervous breakdown. It’s enough to make you weep.
So, exactly what is burnout? And is it different from stress? Well, kind of.
Burnout begins with stress. A single demanding situation might cause some stress, but you’ll probably get over it. However, prolonged exposure to demanding situations can lead to burnout. If you’re not careful, the endless exams, assignments, and the pressure to be successful, all while dipping your toes into the adult world for the first time can take its toll.
Whereas stress is a large component of burnout, what marks burnout as different is the following.
First, burnout leaves you exhausted. You wake up every morning feeling like you were hit by a truck, then you proceed – bags under your eyes, coffee in hand – to drag yourself through the day.
Second, burnout leaves you feeling cynical. One day you wake up – still feeling you were hit by a truck – only now you’re contemplating the futility of existence and the meaninglessness of academic pursuit.
The third marker of burnout is feeling of inefficacy. Instead of being smarter, you begin to feel dumber every day. No matter what you do, it never seems to be enough. Coursework begins to look like Mount Everest and all you’re wearing is a pair of flip-flops.
If you’re nodding along to any combination of these three, it’s time to take a step back and start practising some self-care.
Dealing with college burnout
Since burnout starts with stress, let’s first look there …
- Self-care means different things to different people. Find what works for you and make it a regular part of your routine. If taking bubble baths while wearing your favourite tutu and singing ABBA is your thing, go for it.
- Sleep is the magical elixir that can cure all stress. If you’re having trouble sleeping, check out Matthew Walker, professor of all things sleep.
- Occasionally, take a break from the books. But, don’t turn binge-watching your favourite show into a week-long Netflix marathon. That’d be procrastinating.
- Have you become a pro-procrastinator already? Then checkout Tim Pychyl, expert on how to overcome procrastination.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise is a great way to relieve stress and improve your mood. Did you know, for example, that scientists recently discovered that ‘runner’s high’ results from the release of natural endo-cannaboids in our system? Why smoke weed when you can get high for free?
Though the last point may seem frivolous, it has a serious intent. Studies on burnout show a difference between adaptive and mal-adaptive coping strategies. Adaptive strategies tend to tackle the issue head on, whereas mal-adaptive strategies are avoidance strategies.
While hitting the bong may relieve stress in the short-term, it may limit your ambition in the longer-term, ensuring issues pile up. The same applies to all your coping strategies. Review them, and ask yourself ‘Am I tackling the issue, or am I avoiding it?’
Because burnout is different from stress, we should also consider some burnout-specific solutions. Because burnout makes us cynical, and because cynicism eats away at both our desire to engage and our motivation. To resolve burnout, both must be addressed.
Motivation is like our personal cheerleader, always urging us on, always reminding us why we started this journey in the first place. And, having elevated levels of motivation gives us the energy to push through tough times. If we lose motivation, we lose momentum. Therefore, when motivation slips, we need to find a way to get it back. How do we do that?
Have you ever seen a cheerleader dancing solo? No, of course not. Every cheerleader is part of a squad. Motivation too needs a squad. And this is arguably the most important remedy for college burnout – social support. This is where family and friends come in. They can provide a listening ear, offer advice, and a fresh perspective on our challenges. They also give us a much-needed break from the rigours of college life, helping us maintain a healthy work-life balance.
With this in place you can remember what it was that motivated you to enter college in the first place. Never forget the dream. It is the lodestar to which we can orient ourselves when times get tough.
Talk to someone
In speaking to family and friends, if you’re struggling, be honest. Express yourself and your emotions honestly. Stress and burnout build like steam in a pressure cooker. If you’re too young to remember what a pressure cooker is, believe me, you don’t want the pressure to get too high. For us humans, one way to relieve the pressure is through honest expression in a supporting environment. Maybe it’s a roommate, or a study partner, or perhaps someone you’ve just met that you really connect with. Whoever it is, be totally honest with them about how you’re managing the stress of college.
And don’t forget, your college itself can provide social support. When cynicism makes us disengage, the best strategy is to move in the opposite direction. Engage with professors and lecturers; ask for advice, ask for extensions, and ask the college what social and mental health support they can provide. Engage, never isolate, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
And if you are considering starting therapy privately, why check out our counselling services here.
In conclusion, overcoming college burnout first requires tackling stress, then a combination of internal motivation and external support. With a clear sense of purpose and a supportive network, you can navigate the challenges of college and come out the other side with your degree and a newfound appreciation for the power of motivation and social support. What’s best, the skills you learn in managing college burnout are skills you’ll carry throughout your career
And always remember, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. Laughter is the best medicine, so keep a sense of humour about it all.