Avoiding College Burnout
Published on February 17, 2017 by Tom Westover
College is not easy. Even if you love what you are learning, your classes, your professors, and your classmates, the academic demand can often take its toll on your mental health and, in the worst cases, cause college burnout. Burnout is different for everyone, but most people reaching this point experience sleeplessness or excessive tiredness, apathy, mindless eating, and emotional distress that results in them becoming overly critical of themselves, antisocial, and chronically negative.
Instead of getting to this point, where you may consider leaving your learning program, there are several steps you can take to ensure that you do not reach the burnout level. A small level of stress is normal, and some studies have shown that low stress levels can be beneficial for your health as well as your work product. Knowing your maximum stress level and engaging in various practices to prevent burnout can help to keep pushing until you have your degree in hand.
To truly avoid burnout, you need to understand your stress limits. This is the point at which the stress you are experiencing begins to have noticeable negative consequences on your relationships, your work, or your physical health and mental wellbeing. If you stay in tune with your level of stress, you can implement stress-lowering strategies as soon as you feel yourself approaching your limit. Remember, every person is different, and based on your personality, your past experiences, and your current situation, every person’s stress limit is different. For example, a second career student who has spent time in the military, has worked a variety of demanding jobs in the past, and is happily married with three young children could likely process more stress than an eighteen-year-old student who is worried about supporting themselves through college, lives with four roommates, and recently broke up with his or her high school sweet heart.
In order to asses your stress limit, you should think about the three most stressful times in your life. Try and be as specific as possible in identifying what caused you the stress. On a piece of paper, list each situation. Then, write down how you felt at the time both physically and mentally, how long the stressful period lasted, and what you think ended the stressful time. As you develop your list, you will likely see patterns in your feelings, and you may even see patterns in what allowed you to get out of the stressful situation. Next, you should write a short paragraph describing your worst case scenario for the current semester. Envision what could cause you the greatest stress based on your current life situation and your current class schedule. The situation you choose should be bad enough that it would immediately land at the top of your three most stressful events list. You will then revise that statement to describe a stressful situation you may experience this semester that would not result in it knocking one of your top three most stressful events off of your list. With these two pieces of information in hand, you now have a clear understanding of your stress limits, and you will be prepared to acknowledge when your personal stress is reaching critical levels. It is at this point that you will pull out all of the stops and prevent yourself from reaching that level. Implementing the following steps in anticipation of your stress, can help prepare you to handle any stress you may face and may also result in actually increasing your stress threshold.
One of the most important steps to preventing college burnout is to stay engaged in what you are doing. When you become overwhelmed, it is immensely tempting to ignore what you have to do. Instead of plugging along and getting things done, you leave your book bag closed, your laptop uncharged, and disengage with everything. Fight this urge. It is essential to remember all of the items that are overwhelming you are still going to be waiting for you when you are ready to face them. A better strategy is to keep working on you to do list. Face it. Write down all of the things that you need to work on, and prioritize them. Try and work on the most urgent task for a least a little while each day. If you are struggling, set a ten-minute timer each hour and just work on the item during that window. Sometimes an evening of six ten-minute sessions seems more palatable than spending a full hour on something you are dreading. Using this strategy is a great reminder that every little bit of effort you put in pays off. At the end of the day, you have invested an hour into a project you have been dreading instead of being stuck at square one without having touched it. Stay engaged. Even if you only work on something for ten minutes a day, you are further along on completing your to-do list than you would have been otherwise.
Another strategy is to set up rituals for yourself that will ground you. These tiny movements of enjoyable routine can be immensely successful in helping you to put your current stressors in perspective. You should have daily and weekly rituals. For example, each evening you could commit to taking a relaxing bath with your favorite new scented bath bomb. Knowing that this is something you can look forward to at the end of each day can help you power through when you are tired and can help you reset your point of view. Other examples include playing video games for half an hour, reading a new book, painting your fingernails, using a beauty mask, going for a run, taking a nap, or doing yoga, to name a few. All of these tasks will take only a tiny fraction of your day but can be key to maintaining good mental health and a healthy perspective on what is going on in your life. The weekly rituals you set up for yourself should be even more enjoyable. They should last longer and should focus on helping you reset and get centered. Perhaps you are religious and attending a church service each week with help you to refocus. You may decide that a weekly massage is in order. Other ideas include visiting a local park or the beach, eating at your favorite restaurant, or working on a personal art project that you enjoy. Regardless of what you decide, make sure you prioritize these rituals just as you would your most important class projects.
As you implement these strategies, and stay keyed in to your stress limits, you will find yourself virtually burnout proof. Share these ideas with your stressed classmates. When you are surround by people who are calm and handling their stress appropriately, it is easier for you to stay in a positive place, too.
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