What Is College Burnout?
- Students facing prolonged periods of stress and exhaustion may be experiencing burnout.
- Burnout can lead to poor academic performance and a loss of interest in social activities.
- As college students are used to high levels of stress, burnout can be difficult to recognize.
- If left untreated, burnout can cause serious health problems, such as depression.
Stress is a regular part of the college experience. Between part-time jobs, extracurriculars, and balancing several classes at once, the pressures of college life can be challenging. It's normal to get overwhelmed at times — but if you're feeling completely disengaged from your academic and social life, you may be experiencing burnout.
To better understand college burnout, we spoke with Dr. Lee Keyes, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama who previously served as a staff psychologist and as executive director of the University of Alabama Counseling Center from 1999 to 2019.
Dr. Lee Keyes
Dr. Keyes received his doctorate in counseling psychology in 1991. Between 1991 and 1999 he served as a staff psychologist and as executive director of the University of Alabama Counseling Center from 1999 to 2019. Dr. Keyes currently serves as a member of the Advisory Council and senior site visitor for International Accreditation of Counseling Services (IACS), and has also served IACS as the president of the Board of Directors in 2013-14.
What Is Burnout in College?
College burnout refers to an extended period of extreme fatigue and apathy that often results in a decline in academic performance. In college, burnout can be triggered by a variety of factors, but it's most often caused by overwhelming work demands and prolonged levels of intense stress.
That said, there are other lesser-known factors as well. "Having the wrong friends, the wrong level of support, the wrong major, the wrong goals, etc., will rather quickly lead to burnout, even when other functioning is adequate," explained Keyes.
“The contributions from chronic exhaustion or depletion … can arise from poor sleep and nutrition, alcohol and/or drug abuse, [and] chronic levels of stress.”
The term "burnout" is sometimes used loosely to describe feeling stressed and tired; however, it's actually a bit more severe than that — and harder to recognize. Rather than reaching a breaking point or a full collapse, students who are experiencing burnout often continue pushing forward when they're already in a state of exhaustion.
The negative effects of burnout carry over into every area of a student's life. Along with suffering grades, those who are experiencing burnout tend to lose interest in maintaining their social life, physical health, and overall well-being.
What Are the Typical College Burnout Symptoms?
College burnout can cause an array of serious health issues. "Chronic depletion can result in similarly chronic health problems, such as depression, infections, susceptibility to viruses, and even immune system issues and cancer," said Keyes. "With burnout, this trajectory can be altered when it is successfully addressed."
It can be difficult to know whether you're experiencing early signs of burnout or simply adjusting to the stress and responsibilities that come with college. According to Keyes, some of the major symptoms include "cynicism or 'letting go' of previously identified goals and relationships, feeling like a failure, and, when negative coping is involved, escapism through increased alcohol and/or drug use."
Below is a list of some of the most common burnout symptoms:
- You've lost interest in social and extracurricular activities
- Your grades are suffering and you're having trouble meeting deadlines
- You're feeling a lack of motivation to carry out everyday tasks
- You've lost enjoyment in your daily activities
- You're feeling more lonely than usual
- You've been increasingly irritable
5 Tips to Prevent College Burnout
If you think that you're experiencing some level of burnout, it may be time to start taking actionable steps to improve your mental and physical health. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to help alleviate stress and anxiety.
Recognize the Symptoms
Get to know the early signs of burnout so you can take action and make changes to improve your health.
Seek Out Help for Support
Colleges usually offer individual counseling or support groups for students who are struggling.
Eat Well and Exercise
Staying active and eating well are among the most important ways to protect your physical and mental health.
Get Adequate Sleep
While easier said than done, maintaining a healthy sleep schedule can keep you productive and improve your mood.
Spend Time Outdoors
Several studies have shown that spending time outside — specifically away from urban settings — can reduce psychological stress.
How to Recover From Burnout in College
The good news about burnout is that you can reverse it before it becomes a serious health issue. To do this effectively, you need to listen to your body and understand why you're stressed. Once you identify the sources, you can start to manage them.
"The first task is to identify being under stress," said Keyes. "Slow down, remove yourself from the 'noise' and negative coping so you can feel and think. Once sources are identified, each one will have multiple solutions arrived at through creative problem-solving."
Here are some other essential tips for recovering from burnout:
- Don't ignore the warning signs. Burnout can result in serious health issues if left untreated. Listen to your body, and don't keep pushing yourself.
- Develop a plan. "Develop a plan which includes identifying the burnout, its sources, and strategies for addressing it at every level of functioning," Keyes advised.
- Set aside time to decompress. When you're experiencing heightened levels of stress, it's important to devote time every day to resting and relaxing your mind.
- Evaluate your situation and make changes. If you're balancing a heavy course load with other responsibilities, such as a part-time job, you may need to scale back on some of your commitments.
When to Seek Professional Help for Burnout
If you're feeling completely overwhelmed with stress or helplessness and unable to perform your daily activities, you should strongly consider seeking professional help.
Keyes encourages students to "see a college therapist at [their] campus center. They know students best, and also know the nuances of campus life better than off-campus providers. Burnout must first be distinguished from other life problems."
Burnout is a very real condition that can affect anybody, especially college students. In 2018, 85% of college students reported feeling overwhelmed, while 50% said they experienced levels of stress that negatively impacted their academic performance.
So remember that you're not alone. Don't be afraid to reach out to your friends and family for help. Most importantly, always seek professional support if you feel you can't reverse burnout on your own.
Mental Health Resources for College Students
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