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How to Avoid College Burnout

To avoid burnout in college, try to stay engaged, develop good study habits and time management skills, set realistic expectations, learn to say "no" and practice self-care.
Students discussing ways to avoid college burnout

Everyone has to deal with stress. In balancing work and personal lives with academic expectations, college students face even more stress. It’s easy to become overwhelmed when you have a lot on your plate. Recognizing signs of burnout, knowing how to handle your responsibilities and making sure you’re taking care of your mental health can make college stress more manageable.

Three experts from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), Academic Advisor Debra Willan, Academic Advising Team Lead Christina Purington-Montenegro and Director of Academic Advising Nicole Rutherford, have decades of combined experience supporting students throughout their degree programs. They provided their insight and advice  on how to avoid burnout — and how to deal with burnout if you’re already feeling pushed to your limit.

What is Burnout?

Burnout can progress gradually, but it usually begins with feeling overwhelmed.

Nicole Rutherford, director of advising at SNHU“Most people feel overwhelmed when the estimated time needed for their tasks and priorities exceeds the amount of time available for completion of those tasks and priorities,” Rutherford said. “People can also feel overwhelmed when unpredicted circumstances are forced to take precedence over previously determined priorities.”

Whether it’s a family emergency or an unexpected bill, when a wrench is thrown into the works, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by life. While brief periods of stress are normal, prolonged stress can have negative effects.

According to Psychology Today, burnout is a state of mental, emotional or physical exhaustion resulting from extended or repeated stress.

Healthline, a medical information publication, noted the following symptoms of burnout:

  • Exhaustion
  • Irritability and pessimism
  • Lack of motivation
  • Sense of dread
  • Sleep and appetite changes

If you're experiencing some of these effects, burnout might be the cause. But it's also important to consider whether these symptoms could signify another issue.

How are College Students Affected by Mental Health?

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) said, “Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health problems on college campuses.”

  • 85% of college students said they had felt overwhelmed by everything they had to do at some point in the past year.
  • 30% of college students reported that their level of stress had a negative effect on their academic performance.

It’s important to understand the importance of your mental health and pay attention to your emotional well-being. Sometimes what feels like being overwhelmed can actually be depression.

Mental Health America (MHA) strives to educate students on how to tell the difference between general stress and a more serious mental health issue. “Depression is more serious and long-lasting than stress and requires a different kind of help,” said MHA.

  • 28% of college students reported feeling so depressed at some point during the year they had trouble functioning.
  • Only 8% sought help to be treated for depression.

“Depression causes powerful mood changes, such as painful sadness and despair,” the MHA said. “You may feel exhausted and unable to act.” 

If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, make sure you speak to a doctor.

I don't feel burnout as a student because of THIS  #shorts

How to Avoid Burnout

There are many personalized ways you can deal with stress in college but there are a few things that can help every student.

1Stay Engaged

“Taking an elective that really interests you or becoming involved with a club or group that involves your passion is really refreshing and helps pull you out of burnout mode,” Purington-Montenegro said. “It’s important to be self-aware of when you start to feel tired and to make a change within your schedules to freshen things up.”

2Develop Good Study Habits

“Establishing good study habits and creating a weekly schedule will help students to stay on track,” Willan said. You can start developing good study habits by finding a good place to study with limited distractions, having a tidy study area and being organized.

Christina Purington-Montenegro, an academic advising team lead at SNHU For college students, time management is key. Purington-Montenegro and Willan suggest using a time management calendar so you can visualize your schedule and never waiting until the end of the week to get things done. “On Mondays, be sure to check what your work is that week, so you know what’s coming and can plan accordingly,” Purington-Montenegro said.

Rutherford recommends setting aside some time for breakfast. “It’s important to start out the day with not only a healthy meal but a healthy mindset,” she said. 

During breakfast, she said you can plan your day. As you’re looking over your schedule, you’ll need to set priorities.

“Determine which tasks are necessary and which are not,” Willan said. “By pinpointing what they truly need to focus on, students can reduce stress, stay on track with their work and work more efficiently.”

3Learn to Say “No”

Balancing work, home and school can be challenging. When you find yourself stretched in too many directions, you need to be able to say “no” to some commitments.

“Being aware of their limitations and saying ‘no’ can be an extremely helpful tool,” Willan said. Prioritize your tasks and responsibilities and be realistic about what you can accomplish.

“Often, when people are stressed or feel like they have too much on their plate, they will cut corners to get things done,” Rutherford said. By not committing to everything people ask you to do, you’re able to narrow your commitments down to what you know you’re able to do and do well.

4Set Realistic Expectations

Rutherford reminds students it’s okay not to get perfect grades.

“Oftentimes, students will have stress related to achieving their own high standards," she said. "While high standards are certainly excellent to have, it’s important to be realistic — and forgiving of yourself when you need to be.”

5Practice Self-Care

An icon outline of a person walking outdoors, toward two trees.As you’re organizing your schedule, remember to pencil in time to practice mindfulness and tend to your needs. “It is important to remember that time away from your obligations is just as important as time spent fulfilling your obligations,” Rutherford said. “Breaks will help you maintain your momentum.”

Set aside time for self-care every day to let your mind relax. The more balanced your time, the less you’ll be stressed and the better you’ll be able to tackle whatever comes your way.

How Do You Stop Feeling Burned Out?

According to Medical News Today, it usually takes at least a few months to completely recover after a period of burnout or short-term stress, but it can take longer for those dealing with more severe burnout.

If you're feeling burned out, here are a few ideas to help you move forward toward recovery:

  • Change it up. “If you’re already experiencing burnout, I recommend reviewing your time management and mixing it up,” Purington-Montenegro said.

    She suggests working on your homework during a different time of day or on a different day of the week to break up the monotony.

  • Reevaluate. “It is always important for college students to acknowledge how they are feeling if they experience burnout,” Rutherford said. “If a student is feeling burnout, they should take a step back and assess: Are they able to put a healthy amount of time and effort into their commitments?”

    If the answer is no, make some changes that leave you feeling more balanced and your responsibilities more manageable. The more you’re able to accomplish, the better you’ll feel.

  • Reach out. “Students can reach out to advisors, instructors, family members or friends for support,” Willan said. “Advisors work with students to put tasks into perspective, break down larger tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces, set priorities and create a time management plan that they are comfortable working with.”

    Willan said instructors can also help students who are struggling with assignments. If academics are an issue, speak with your instructors. If your home environment is stressful, let your family know. 

“You are never alone in feeling stressed or burned out,” Purington-Montenegro said. “These are feelings that most students experience, and sometimes it’s just due to a busy term or difficult course.”

She said to remember that burnout is a phase, like everything else.

A degree can change your life. Choose your program from 200+ SNHU degrees that can take you where you want to go.

Ashley Wallis is an Army veteran and writer with a BA in English Language and Literature from SNHU. She is currently living in the Denver area.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.