College student studying.

Stress vs. Burnout: Addressing Burnout Among College Students

It’s no secret that college students undergo a tremendous amount of stress due to changes in schedule, routine, and lifestyle. Generally speaking, stress is a normal emotion during certain times of an individual’s life.

But what happens when that stress becomes too much for a student to handle? Continue reading this blog to learn about burnout among college students and how to recover from it.

What is College Burnout?

Feeling stressed every once in a while is actually healthy. Researchers have discovered that some stress may actually increase alertness and improve behavioral and cognitive performance.

However, if this stress starts to overwhelm an individual to a point where they have trouble carrying out daily activities and tasks, it’s no longer healthy and should be addressed.

College burnout develops when a student experiences chronic stress over an extended period of time. These students may develop burnout symptoms including fatigue, detachment, and an overall lack of interest in academics.

Burnout among college students is more prevalent than people think. According to the National College Health Assessment, 80% of college students reported feeling overwhelmed, and 40% reported it was difficult to function.

Students who develop college burnout can be impacted in a number of negative ways. The best way to avoid this is for parents, guardians, and professors to know the warning signs of burnout, in addition to the students themselves.

Stress vs. Burnout: What’s the Difference?

Before we dive into symptoms and warning signs, it’s important to understand the key differences between stress and burnout.

For example, if a student is assigned a big project, they may feel stressed and even overwhelmed while working on it. When the project eventually comes to a close, the feelings of stress will subside. Feeling stressed can be difficult, and it may take some time to find relief, but knowing that it won’t last forever is what makes it healthy and normal.

On the other hand, burnout is the accumulation of stress that a student may have disregarded over a long period of time. The build-up of this stress causes students to fall into a cycle of negative emotions and eventually withdraw emotionally, intellectually, and physically.

The line between these two experiences can seem blurred at times. However, taking a look at the different symptoms can make this distinction clear. Someone who feels stress, but not burnout, may experience the following symptoms:

  • Over Engagement
  • Reactive or overactive emotions
  • Sense of urgency and hyperactivity
  • Lost or diminished energy
  • Feelings of anxiety
  • Physical pain (headaches, stomach aches, chest pains, and/or difficulty breathing)

The main thing to remember when distinguishing between stress and burnout is that stress always has an end in sight, whereas burnout seems never-ending. If caught early, students in college can learn how to cope and manage stress before it turns into burnout.

Anxious college student sitting in class.

6 Warning Signs of Burnout

Every student is unique and therefore may present burnout symptoms differently. Below, we’ve listed the 6 most common warning signs to look for in a college student.

1. Exhaustion

Feeling tired all the time or suffering from extreme exhaustion is one of the first telltale warning signs of burnout. This means they continue to feel sluggish and drained no matter how much sleep they get. A person can be both physically and mentally exhausted. In both cases, they will have difficulty carrying out day-to-day activities.

2. Lack of Motivation & Interest

Burnout among college students usually leaves them feeling emotionally and mentally drained. As a result, they may show a lack of motivation to see friends, go to class, or participate in the social activities that they once showed interest in and enjoyed. In addition, these students may have trouble simply waking up and starting their day.

3. Lack of Creativity & Concentration

When a student starts having trouble completing tasks that were once easy for them, they may be experiencing a lack of creativity and concentration. This is especially obvious in projects or assignments that require them to have original or imaginative ideas. Oftentimes, this leads them to procrastinate or feel dissatisfied with their work.

4. Increased Irritability

Students struggling with burnout symptoms often become irritated and frustrated with themselves. They notice their inability to focus on coursework or engage with friends and activities. This feeling of being “stuck” causes them to feel disappointed in themselves and eventually lash out in annoyance or anger.

5. Frequent Illness

Getting sick more often than usual is one of the most obvious ways a student can tell they’re experiencing burnout. This happens because their bodies are trying to tell them that they are overworked and worn out. These illnesses can range anywhere from continuous colds to sudden digestive issues or even breaking out in rashes or hives.

However, it’s important to remember that being frequently ill could also be a symptom of a variety of other health issues. Any student who is consistently sick should seek the help of a medical professional.

6. Feelings of Anxiety & Depression

Many times, being emotionally and mentally drained can cause a student to develop feelings of anxiety and depression. This pertains to students who have pre-existing mental health disorders, as well as those who may be feeling these emotions for the first time.

If a student who already struggles with a mental health disorder experiences college burnout, their anxiety and depression may worsen. Other students may notice these symptoms for the first time such as feeling anxious while sitting in class or having negative and hopeless thoughts.

Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call us at 610-480-8919, or seek medical help at your local emergency room immediately. 

In both cases, experiencing feelings of anxiety and depression can be a sign of a serious mental health episode. Any student feeling anxious or depressed should seek the help of a mental health professional or program, like Malvern Behavioral Health.

College student talking to a therapist.

Strategies For How to Recover From Burnout

After a student accepts that they are experiencing burnout, it’s important for them to know that with the proper recovery, they will be able to feel like themselves again. The section below will review some of the best ways for students to recover and prevent burnout.

Seek Help & Learn to Delegate

Many times, college students feel alone in their struggles, and they don’t know how or who to ask for help. Burnout happens when a student has too much on their plate, which is why learning to delegate is imperative.

Students need to feel encouraged about seeking help from parents or guardians, professors and administrators, and mental health professionals. Student counseling centers can be beneficial for students because they can seek guidance from trained professionals who know how to help someone with burnout.

Lighten the Workload

A large part of learning how to recover from burnout is accepting that a student may have to take a step back. There is a lot of pressure on college students to decide what they want to do with their life and then figure out the best way to achieve that. This can result in students signing up for more classes or extracurricular activities when they don’t have the time.

Students need to understand that everyone works at their own pace, and they don’t need to overbook themselves to be successful. They may want to consider dropping a few extra classes or even taking a gap year.

Stay Active

Exercising and staying active are some of the best ways to battle burnout among college students. Keeping their bodies healthy will not only make students feel better physically, but it will also give them feelings of fulfillment and achievement.

These exercises don’t need to be strenuous. Simply getting outside for a daily walk or doing a few stretches every day can go a long way in making a person feel happier and healthier.

Practice Self-Care

Practicing self-care should be a priority for every college student, especially those trying to recover from burnout. A student’s mental and emotional well-being is just as important as their physical health.

Doing this can help students rediscover themselves and what makes them happy. College isn’t just about finding a career path, it’s also about finding independence and building self-worth.

There are many ways to practice self-care. Whether it’s meditation and mindfulness or journaling and art, the most important thing to remember is that it should be enjoyable and a way to feel some peace.

Prioritize & Set Realistic Goals

It’s easy for students to get discouraged when they aren’t meeting their goals. Learning how to recover from burnout is about understanding how much a student can handle. The best way to do this is to prioritize what matters most to them and then make a plan in order to achieve it.

Setting realistic goals will ensure students don’t get overwhelmed or discouraged. This will also work to help students establish a positive mindset and maintain a healthy balance between their academic and social lives.

Remember the Importance of Friendships

Hanging out with friends when free time is available allows students to get their minds off of academics/campus responsibilities and gives them the opportunity to relax with people who they enjoy.

Just having 1-2 close friends who someone can go on a walk with or share thoughts/feelings with, makes a huge difference.

Take Breaks Throughout the Day

As tempting as it feels, students who lock themselves in the library and try to work for the entire day non-stop, often end up being more unproductive and feeling isolated. Taking breaks is important because it gives an individual time to regroup.

For example, going for a quick walk, eating a snack, meeting a friend for lunch, or going to the gym are all activities that will help reduce burnout.

Group of college students studying together.

It’s inevitable that college students will feel stress from time to time. What’s important is that they know how to manage it and take care of themselves before the stress becomes unbearable. Learning how to do this will not only get them through their college experience but will also help them for the rest of their professional careers.

No student should have to suffer in silence. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health disorder, contact our team today to see how we can help.