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Stay Balanced: Effective Ways to Combat College Burnout

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in college, but you have the strength to persevere. Learn effective strategies to avoid burnout and stay motivated on your path to success.

Author: Shannon Daigle
Editor: STEPS Staff
A person sits at a desk looking at a computer monitor displaying graphs and charts. They rest their forehead on their hand, appearing stressed or tired. The desk has a lamp, a potted plant, a coffee mug, and a notebook. The background is a dimly lit room.

The pressures of academia can leave any student at risk of burnout. A study conducted by Handshake found that more than 80% of 2024 graduates have experienced symptoms of burnout – such as exhaustion, lack of motivation, or heightened feelings of negativity and cynicism – at some point during their academic journey.

A certain amount of stress is to be expected in college, but burnout is markedly different. Rather than a temporary overwhelming feeling, burnout is characterized by a pervasive and persistent state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that can leave you feeling detached, unmotivated, or chronically stressed.

Knowing the signs and symptoms of burnout can help you notice its effects earlier, so you can take measures to cope and get the support you need. Our guide will help you:

  • Understand the causes and common symptoms of burnout
  • Learn effective burnout prevention strategies
  • Get valuable resources on burnout and burnout support

Understanding Burnout: Causes and Symptoms

Students can experience burnout for many individual reasons or from a combination of several contributing factors at once. Some of the most common factors affecting academic burnout are related to the pressure of balancing studies alongside life’s other obligations.

In this section, we’ll cover the causes and symptoms of burnout and take an in-depth look at each one. Knowing the common triggers and effects of burnout can help you recognize potential signs in your own life that would lead you to seeking help.

Causes of Burnout

  • Academic Pressures – Even if you were an excellent student in high school, college can present an overwhelming academic challenge. With longer, more in-depth assignments, it can be difficult to juggle the workload and get everything done on time. Depending on your major, you might find yourself in a hyper-competitive environment or under pressure to perform at a high level. Exams can be particularly difficult, leading you to sacrifice time and sleep to cram for a final test.
  • Personal Pressures – Many students are stepping into partial or full adult responsibilities at the same time they become college students. Even if you’re earning your degree online, you are also balancing your personal obligations and relationships alongside your studies. Trying to manage it all can leave you feeling like you have a never-ending to-do list, and you’ll never be able to slow down. However, pushing through personal pressures without making room to rest can lead to burnout.
  • Social Pressures – For most students, college presents an exciting opportunity for an entirely new social life. But there’s also societal pressure to navigate new social situations, find friends quickly, and succeed in a prescribed way. While some students find this pressure exciting and motivating, it can be difficult to experience and make adjustments, especially when you’re also facing peer pressure to party, stay up late, or blow off class to have fun. Finding balance can be challenging, and pushing yourself to the limit can spark burnout.
  • Lack of Support – Making room in your schedule for classes and study sessions can be a challenge even with a strong support system. If you don’t have the advantage of friends and family in your corner, it can be hard to meet the demands of work, childcare, and home life on top of your classwork. Many students decide to compromise their sleep, physical health, or downtime just to get everything done, which leads to burnout.
  • Environmental FactorsAccording to the American College Health Foundation, students’ perceptions of their learning environment are critical in promoting mental well-being and reducing rates of mental health disorders. It’s especially important that schools provide a culture that supports diversity and inclusion. When students feel unsupported by their educational institution, it becomes difficult to engage in the learning experience and feel true support. This can leave students with feelings of depression, hopelessness, and reduced satisfaction.
  • Emotional and Psychological Factors – The National Institutes of Health report that as of 2022, 43% of students were diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder. This might stem from unrealistic expectations of their performance or disillusionment with the reality of the college experience. However, if you are already experiencing mental health struggles, the pressures of becoming an online student can add to your mental load, potentially adding stress and contributing to poor mental health, which leads to burnout.
  • Overcommitment – Many college students commit to obligations and engagements with good intentions, then find they don’t have the time to follow through. So, they overwork or throw other areas of their lives out of balance to keep up appearances and maintain obligations. This can be especially challenging for online students who don’t have to be accountable for attending fixed-time classes. Avoiding over-commitment that leads to burnout requires intention and additional forethought.

Symptoms of Burnout

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Physical symptoms

When students experience burnout, it can manifest itself as physical symptoms. As studies and other obligations pile up, it can be hard to step back and take a moment to relax. As a result, many experience symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, or physical exhaustion. Some people experience insomnia or disturbed sleep, while others might have an excessive need for sleep. You might notice that you’re getting sick more easily or more often than you usually do. Swings in appetite are also a common physical symptom of burnout; many experience an increase or decrease in appetite, resulting in weight loss or gain.

Emotional symptoms

Emotional symptoms can also serve as a warning sign of burnout. Keep an eye out for a loss of interest in normal activities and routines. Burnout makes it difficult to connect with others, so you might feel a need to withdraw from your typical social life and spend more time alone. It might start to seem like every day is a “bad day,” and overwhelming feelings are a constant companion. You may become hopeless about your grades, start skipping class meeting times, or have difficulty participating when you do show up. You might also feel more irritable and quick to anger.

Behavioral symptoms

When people are struggling with burnout, it can be incredibly difficult to maintain their typical behavior and function. They may experience symptoms similar to depression, like hopelessness or sadness. Some people experience anxiety. As these symptoms become more intense, students may abandon daily activities, such as attending class or keeping up with assignments. It may be impossible to concentrate and study, leading to a drop in grades. Sometimes, it’s even difficult for people with burnout to maintain simple daily routines like bathing or getting dressed. To cope with these feelings of anxiety, students might turn to drugs or alcohol.

5 Effective Strategies for Managing Burnout

There are several actions you can take if you notice the signs and symptoms of burnout creeping into your everyday life. Time management, self-care, and mindfulness are all effective ways of improving your mental health. The goal is to mitigate the effects of burnout and prevent it from taking over. However, if you find yourself in urgent need of support, don’t hesitate to reach out to a trusted friend, professor, or counselor for help.

Let’s dive into some effective strategies that can help you self-manage burnout and improve your student/life balance.

Strategy 1: Improve Time Management

  • Create a Schedule: Keep a calendar to help you plan adequate time for school, work, and your social life. Whether you go analog with a paper calendar or planner or go digital with an app, keep track of deadlines and commitments. Blocking 30- to 60-minute increments of time for studying or working on projects can also be effective.
  • Set Priorities: Figure out which tasks are most important and break larger projects into smaller, actionable pieces. Try categorizing your obligations according to importance and urgency, or use the ABC planning method to sort the “must-dos” from the “nice-to-dos.” Identify your most important tasks and tackle them first.
  • Avoid Procrastination: Leaving assignments to the last minute – and then trying to do all the work at once – is so common that it has a name: student syndrome. Start assignments early and work on them over time. Take inspiration from the Pomodoro Technique and set a goal to focus on work for 30 minutes at a time.

Strategy 2: Practice Self Care

  • Sleep Well: Sleep can majorly affect your mood, energy, and ability to cope with stress. Adults should get at least seven hours of sleep each night, so aim for seven to nine hours of rest. Establish a consistent routine and a relaxing bedtime environment to get more sleep and keep burnout feelings at bay.
  • Eat Healthily: If you’ve been filling up on junk food and running on coffee, it can eventually take its toll on your physical and mental health. A healthy diet of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins improves brain function and mood. So, skip the fast food runs and avoid excessive caffeine and sugar intake.
  • Exercise Regularly: According to the Mayo Clinic, depression and anxiety symptoms can improve with exercise. Adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, but even mild exercise can have a positive effect on your mental health. Try walks, running, yoga, or sports to lower stress and elevate your mood.

Strategy 3: Seek Support When You Need It

  • Reach Out to Professors: You can let your professors know at the beginning of the semester that you may struggle, or you can alert them when you feel burnout approaching. They can offer extensions on assignments, direct you to additional school resources, or provide academic advice.
  • Utilize Campus Resources: Colleges and universities are well prepared to equip students for success. If you’re finding it hard to manage your studies, seek out resources through your school for help strategizing, studying, and getting the support you need. Take advantage of academic advising, tutoring centers, and mental health counseling services offered by your school.
  • Talk to Friends and Family: Leaning on friends, family, and close confidants can relieve negative mental health symptoms and increase positive outcomes. If you’re experiencing stress or burnout symptoms as you work toward your academic goals, share your feelings and concerns with people you trust. They can provide much-needed emotional support and practical advice.

Strategy 4: Practice Mindfulness and Stress Reduction

  • Make Mindfulness a Regular Task: Finding space in your schedule for mindfulness doesn’t require much time out of your day, but it can have a hugely positive impact on your mental health. Try meditation, journaling, or exercises like the 5-4-3-2-1 method to ground yourself, stay present, and manage stress.
  • Use Stress-Reduction Techniques: Lower anxiety and increase focus with stress-reduction techniques like visualization, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation. Incorporating these methods into your routine can reduce burnout risk by promoting calmness and mental clarity, helping you manage stressful situations and stay centered throughout the day.

Strategy 5: Learn to Recognize Your Limits

  • Set Realistic Goals: When you’re working on your education, it’s tempting to overcommit yourself or strive for absolute perfection. Instead, establish achievable academic and personal goals. Rather than focusing solely on the end result, break down each goal into actionable tasks and mini-goals. Then, set everything out on a reasonable timeline, so you know exactly how you’ll achieve results.
  • Practice Self-Compassion: Perfectionism is a tough standard to maintain, so remind yourself that it’s okay to make mistakes and honor the efforts you put forth to get where you are today. Practice small acts of self-compassion each day by eating healthy, taking a walk, or simply allowing yourself to take a break when you need one.

Additional Resources for Burnout Prevention

Books and Articles

  • Addressing the Decline in Graduate Students’ Mental Well-Being: This academic article discusses how competition, academic pace, and lack of sufficient support can influence graduate students’ mental well-being. It also recommends potential solutions at individual, institutional, and national levels that can improve students’ mental health.
  • Factors Associated With Academic Burnout: This study of about 23,000 students delves into the
    many factors that contribute to academic burnout, from living expenses to academic pressure to gender. It also offers potential strategies for mitigating and reducing student burnout.
  • Psychological Distress, Burnout, and Academic Performance in First-Year College Students: This 2022 study explores the prevalence of psychological symptoms and burnout reported by freshmen and the relationship between these symptoms and academic performance in health and non-health sciences students.
  • Stress-Free Student: In this book, author Derek L. Zboran shares tips and techniques to help stressed-out college students make the most of their time. Here, you’ll find time management advice from an experienced student who figured out the best way to manage his time in college.

Online Resources

  • Active Minds: Active Minds is the country’s leading nonprofit organization working toward mental health education and awareness for young adults aged 14-25. With more than 600 local chapters, Active Minds has a goal of improving young people’s mental health through peer-to-peer dialogue and interaction.
  • Anxiety & Depression Association of America Support Groups: AADA maintains a database of support groups for people navigating all kinds of mental health struggles. On their website, you can search for available support groups by topic or state. Virtual meetings are also listed in the database.
  • Campus Mind Works: Provided by the University of Michigan’s Eisenberg Family Depression Center, this site offers mental health support and resources for students. You can access support resources and tools, find treatment services, and read articles about how to pursue better mental health in college.
  • College Mental Health Tookit: The Mental Health Coalition created this website to provide college students with the resources, services, and support they need to smoothly transition to adulthood. The toolkit contains information on college students’ mental health and how to promote well-being.
  • Headspace Student Plan: Headspace is a popular mental health app that includes mindfulness tools like guided meditations, breathing exercises, and mental health management tools. Students can subscribe to the app at a discounted price and gain access to convenient mindfulness practices.
  • The Jed Foundation: The Jed Foundation is a non-profit that promotes mental health and suicide prevention in teens and young adults. On their site, you’ll find a mental health resource center with information about common emotional health issues and articles on how to manage symptoms and find support.

Helplines

  • 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: The 988 Lifeline exists to provide people experiencing distress with 24/7, free and confidential support, prevention, and crisis resources. The 988 service also provides specialized support for Spanish-speaking callers, LGBTQ+ youth, and veterans.
  • The Crisis Text Line: The Crisis Text Line is a global nonprofit that provides free and confidential 24-hour text-based mental health support and crisis intervention. By texting HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the US, you can talk live to a trained crisis counselor about what you’re going through.
  • NAMI Teen and Young Adult Helpline: The National Alliance on Mental Illness allows young people to connect with another young adult or teen with shared experiences to get information, resources, and support in difficult times. The NAMI helpline is available Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline is free, confidential, and available 24/7, 365 days a year. If you or someone you know is experiencing mental and/or substance use disorders, you can get support at 1-800-662-HELP.
  • The Trevor Project: The Trevor Project, dedicated to suicide prevention in LGBTQ+ youth, offers free, confidential, and secure support via chat, call, or text with trained counselors. LGBTQ students can reach out any time they are struggling with issues like coming out, identity, depression, or suicide.

Interview with a Burnout Expert

A woman with long brown hair, wearing a denim shirt and jeans, sits on a chair and smiles at the camera. There are plants in the background, creating a cozy and natural ambiance.

We sat down with Ivy Ellis, LCSW, who is a mental health therapist and the owner of Empathic Counseling Center in Evanston, Illinois. She specializes in helping people experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and burnout.

1. Can you describe the primary differences between normal academic stress and clinical burnout in college students?

Academic stress is similar to anxiety. You may feel the physiological symptoms of anxiety like racing thoughts, heart pounding, difficulty breathing, or tense muscles. It tends to be centered just around academics, and you are still able to be productive and enjoy other parts of life. Clinical burnout mimics depression. You may feel like you are “running on empty” and have difficulty getting excited about any area of life or even starting small tasks.

2. What specific behaviors or patterns might be present in students who are beginning to experience burnout?

If students are beginning to experience burnout, they may start sleeping more, missing classes, and withdrawing from friends. Even small tasks start to feel overwhelming, and self-care goes by the wayside.

3. How does burnout typically affect a student’s academic performance and engagement?

Burnout typically causes students to struggle in school. They are increasingly tired, easily frustrated, and have difficulty concentrating, so it just becomes easier to avoid class and schoolwork. Less class attendance and work completion contribute to lower grades.

4. How might burnout impact a student’s ability to engage in extracurricular activities or maintain social relationships?

Burnout causes students to feel hopeless about other areas of their life. They often think, ‘What’s the point?’ They might cancel social engagements because they need any additional time to recharge. They might also feel disconnected from their peers who are more actively engaged with academics and activities.

5. What are the potential physical and mental health consequences of prolonged burnout?

Prolonged burnout reduces your overall health. You are more prone to illness, like colds and flus. It also contributes to increases in mental health disorders, like anxiety and depression, because of a reduced ability to cope and increased unhelpful behaviors.

6. Are there practices like time management, organizational skills, or self-care that might be particularly helpful to students when mitigating burnout?

When students become busy with social activities, school, extracurriculars, and jobs, self-care is the first to go. It is important to schedule ‘relaxation time’ and any important self-care tasks like showering, laundry, etc. It is also important to seek help early on. Advocate for your needs with teachers. Schools often have support centers who can help support organization and time-management, so be sure to take advantage of those.

7. How can students balance the demands of academic performance with the need to take breaks and relax?

This is why a schedule is so important. People often think of taking breaks and relaxing as a ‘waste of time.’ But in fact, that time is allowing you to continue managing all of the demanding tasks of school. School is a marathon, not a sprint.

8. Are there particular warning signs that students should communicate to their peers, professors, or campus counselors to seek timely support?

If students are skipping class or falling behind in their work, that is an important sign that they should communicate with professors or counselors. Other signs include sleeping excessively, neglecting their hygiene, or withdrawing from friends.

9. What are some coping techniques for a student who may be on the brink of burnout but also has important deadlines approaching?

Break everything down into smaller steps. Try to work for a half hour, and then take a short break. Breaks are really important when you are on the brink of burnout. Scrolling on your phone does not help! Instead, do something during a break that actively recharges you, like stretching, listening to guided meditation, or reading. It is also important to address the foundational aspects of health — make sure you are getting the proper sleep, nutrition, and movement.

10. How can students create a supportive and healthy environment for themselves and their peers to reduce the risk of burnout?

Make sure you have support! It is important to be proactive in setting up your team. Communicate with your professors, counselors, peers, and any other supportive people on campus to make sure you have resources available to you before burnout sets in. It’s also important to be open about your struggles. Everyone has them, and it is helpful to feel like you are not alone during this amazing but also difficult period of life.