College Coping: Stress & Burnout

Caring for your health in college proves challenging for many students—particularly those struggling to adjust to a new schedule and lifestyle away from home. Moving into adulthood, allowing physical and mental wellness to become a low priority can have adverse consequences.

By Kaley Ciluffo — July 16, 2022

College Coping: Stress & Burnout

Caring for your health in college proves challenging for many students—particularly those struggling to adjust to a new schedule and lifestyle away from home. Moving into adulthood, allowing physical and mental wellness to become a low priority can have adverse consequences. Though easy to disregard and take health for granted, it’s important to know how to manage emotions to avoid burnout. A consequence of both physical and mental neglect means many students are not equipped to recognize what burnout looks like or even that it exists. For students trying to balance and maintain social, academic, and personal lives, it’s easy for the scales to tip.

Burnout is one of the main factors that reduce performance among students. Burnout is a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion caused by prolonged periods of excessive stress. Prolonged stress manifests as mental unwellness and lack of motivation, procrastination, or avoidance in every aspect of life—work, social, and academic. Noticing, for example, that smaller tasks, once completed with ease, take much longer than normal could mean you’re experiencing burnout. Burnout has numerous consequences. It’s important that students not only recognize burnout but understand how to mitigate, cope with, and move through it.

Long-Term Consequences of Burnout

Poor mental health directly correlates with burnout. In high-stress times, negative mental health decreases one’s effectiveness and performance. For students, this means that they’ll likely experience trouble concentrating or difficulty remembering information. Failing to address burnout in undergrad may also lead to complications post-grad. Burnout-related mental health problems correlate with high turnover rates, especially for those entering helping professions, such as teaching, social work, and nursing. Those working through burnout are also more likely to make critical mistakes that implicate the lives of others. This is why it’s so important to recognize and act when experiencing burnout.

No, You’re Not Just Stressed

It’s not unusual for someone to casually say they’re burnt out. While it’s important to talk through stress, oversimplification of burnout means that the severity and consequences of it become something to push through. Someone who experiences stress may see or understand what they need to do to get out of it, and they’ll take action to get there. Burnout, however, is a persistent feeling of emptiness because of exhaustion. Someone who experiences burnout will not have any motivation or see a straightforward way to move through their emotional responses. Burnout manifests as a persistent feeling of ‘stuckness.’ Everything will feel difficult. Unlike stress, you won’t feel like you’re drowning in responsibilities. It will feel like responsibilities are drowning you.

Signs of Burnout

Among other things, three important signs signal potential burnout. We at SAGE Scholars, however, are not mental health professionals. If you notice any of these signs, we encourage you to seek out mental health resources and draw from your coping strategies.

Exhaustion — mental and physical. You’ll feel like you can’t think clearly, and everything will feel tiring. Any positive associations with your work don’t exist, and things that were once joyful will feel like they require extra effort. In a constant state of exhaustion, it becomes difficult to stick to or maintain a routine. Exhaustion will deplete you physically too. You may notice that you have trouble maintaining fitness or feel like you can never have too many cups of coffee.

Cynicism — when feeling the effects of physical exhaustion, it’s easy to slip into a cynical mindset. This mentality may result in isolation or emotional detachment from important things in your life, like school. While you may show up, you’re not fully present and leave the space feeling even more tired. Detached and negative emotions make working feel impossible and also impacts your ability to call on the community during difficult times.

Inefficiency — the third component of burnout. Inefficiency causes quick tasks to become increasingly time-consuming and contributes to you not functioning at your normal productivity level. This component of burnout creates situations where work not only piles up but also becomes overwhelming to the point where you lose motivation even to begin.

Preventing & Coping With Burnout

Because burnout isn’t taken seriously, it’s difficult to both recognize and accept when you experience it. If you fail to hold yourself accountable for your feelings, you’re only creating more problems down the line. While many brush off burnout as tiredness, the obvious way to reduce burnout is to stay mentally well. Though you may not feel like engaging in physical activity while burnt out, start small. A simple walk can improve the quality of your physical health while assisting your mental state. Getting enough sleep, drinking water, and eating well are also small things you can do to reset your body and mitigate the impacts of burnout. Ultimately, prioritizing yourself is key. While you may not meet all of these small goals daily, there are some less obvious strategies you can utilize that will help you move through burnout.

Making Time for Yourself

During times of burnout, you must prioritize your well-being. That may mean changing social circles or eliminating negative people from your life. Holistic self-care looks like many things. Relieving burnout by making a schedule that incorporates and schedules hobbies and things that you enjoy. Typically, we use schedules to remind us of everything we need to do for others. By adding ourselves as a priority into this mix, we create pathways for us to follow through on our physical and mental wellness. Scheduling a phone call with a friend, setting aside time to read a book, or even bake provides an alternative way to remain accountable to ourselves. It also gives you something to look forward to and helps keep you motivated to complete other necessary tasks.

Revisit Goals

By revisiting what we want in life or what we’re working toward, we remember our why and can readjust where necessary. Small daily goals, coupled with monthly, quarterly, and yearly goals, can help us experience the gratification of accomplishment and make sure that we’re surrounded by people, places, and things that can help us meet these goals. People constantly change, and your goals should be too. Taking intentional time to revisit what you want from yourself and your future can provide an opportunity for a necessary shake-up that reignites your enjoyment and reminds you why you do what you do.

Spend Time With Your People!

Spending time with those who know you best provides a helpful way to alleviate burnout. When you’re with your people, you can be your most authentic, eliminating any pressure to act or perform a certain way. Those who know you best also know how to provide distraction and do things that bring you joy. Especially for those with burnout, you may not feel like doing a lot. Spending time with people who truly know you means that their company is enough, and there’s no constant expectation of conversation or finding entertainment. Those closest to you can also hold you accountable for implementing the changes that can move you through burnout.

Burnout can leave you feeling less than your ideal self. Knowing how to recognize the signs and move through burnout can keep you from digging yourself into a hole that requires more work to escape. Recognition and understanding of how our culture makes stress and burnout synonymous will help you take steps to care for your holistic wellness. Most importantly, if burnout persists, please seek appropriate mental health resources.

Kaley Ciluffo

Kaley Ciluffo

Kaley is a current Ph.D. student in Critical Psychology. In 2021, she earned her M.S. Ed at the University of Pennsylvania with distinction. Prior to matriculating at Penn, Kaley earned her B.A. and Master of Political Science from Villanova University in 2020. Kaley’s research continues to build the Healing-Centered Mentorship framework that emerged from her master’s thesis. She seeks to understand, broadly, how students may achieve posttraumatic growth in unconventional ways.
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