Don’t Allow College Burnout to Happen to You

Being a college student isn’t always easy because you are often balancing multiple responsibilities, competing priorities, and a work schedule that may offer little flexibility. While addressing all of these demands, you are trying to do your very best to successfully complete every goal you’ve established. Some days it may feel easy to accomplish the required tasks and on other days, it may seem to be too much. If you experience too many of these challenging days it is possible that you can become burned out and that can derail your motivation and progress. It’s important to be aware of the symptoms and causes of burnout so that you can take proactive steps to prevent it from happening.

Signs, Symptoms, and Causes of Burnout

Causes of Burnout: Burnout doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s the culmination of prolonged stress or mental overexertion. Linda Curci of the Caltech Counseling Center explains that burnout “creeps up on a person through an accumulation of random minor negative thoughts, sporadic lost hopes, and a series of small disappointments in oneself.” I’ve coached numerous students who focused on negative outcomes and allowed those results to overshadow their accomplishments. Over time, this created tension and feelings of extreme frustration.

Marissa Mayer, Vice President of Location and Local Services at Google, has another perspective of burnout. Mayer’s theory is that it is caused by resentment. While the focus of her view is on burnout in the workplace, it is also relevant to college students. As an example, if you worked hard on a paper and did not receive the grade you expected – especially if you devoted additional time that meant giving up some of your sleep – you may become resentful. If this continues unchecked you may eventually reach a point where you stop putting in the extra effort. Mayer suggests that the best way to address the potential for burnout is to “find your rhythm”. While it is helpful to develop a routine that helps you manage your time, you need to be cautious of getting into a rut or becoming stuck because of habitual ways of thinking.

I addressed this issue in my post, Are Bad Habits Holding You Back in College? I posed this question: Do you ever find that you are in a persistent bad mood or feeling negative about your progress in class? If you are not doing well another possibility is that you have gotten stuck in the way you view your potential to learn and your academic skills. Some students tend to focus on the negative aspects of their feedback and lose self-confidence in their ability to improve and do better. It is a habitual pattern that gets reinforced any time that a less than perfect grade or feedback is received.

Many students believe that burnout occurs because of demanding schedule; however, it is a result of habitual, negative thoughts – or your reaction to those demands that determines your potential to become burned out. You may not realize that you are about to reach this point; however, there are always warning signs that take the form of physical, emotional, and behavioral indicators:

Physical Symptoms: You may feel tired, drained, or not sleeping well. This can prevent you from being able to focus or concentrate on your studies, which will have a negative impact on your performance in class. As you become physically worn down you won’t feel energized and it may take longer to bounce back.

Emotional Symptoms: It is very likely that as you begin to experience a burned out state you develop strong, negative emotions towards your abilities, talents, or class in general. It will reduce your motivation and that in turn will influence you sense of self-determination. It’s a downward spiral that can get out of control over time if everything feels overwhelming. 

Behavioral Symptoms: What you are experiencing internally will eventually manifest itself externally. As you feel negative emotions you may find yourself becoming easily agitated and resentful. This can change your view from being proactive to reactive. For example, when you receive constructive criticism from your instructor you may take it personally, instead of considering how you can learn and improve because of it.

Tools & Techniques to Identify and Cope with Burnout

Conduct a Self-Evaluation: If you aren’t certain now whether you are nearing the point of being burned out, you can take one of the following evaluations. The Burnout Questionnaire was developed by the Minnesota State University Counseling Center and utilizes twenty-five questions to assess your stress level and burnout potential. Some of the questions are related to your job, which can also be translated to your school work. MindTools has a Burnout Self-Test with 15 questions to identify potential risk for burnout. Of course if you believe you are already close to or at the point of being burned out, you should also seek professional help. Most schools have a counseling department that will provide services and/or resources.

Be Proactive: The best approach for preventing the burnout potential is to develop proactive or preventive techniques. Every student is likely to experience stress at some point during their classwork and it can be managed or minimized through conscious effort. The Minnesota State University developed Strategies for Preventing Burnout and it includes the following coping skills: “time and stress management; conflict resolution; problem-solving skills; relaxation (deep breathing, visualization, listening to music, massage).” If you find that there are too many demands made of your time, too many assignments to complete, or you are not getting the results you hoped for, perhaps you could schedule a break between classes, re-assess your time management plan, and/or allow for some downtime each week so you have an opportunity to unwind and de-stress.

Pay Attention to Your Well-Being:  If you are not getting adequate sleep or rest, it will make coping with the demands of school work much more difficult and eventually affect your state of mind. One method of taking care of yourself is to incorporate some form of physical activity into your schedule. In my post, How Physical Fitness Improves Your Focus & Learning, I indicated that physical activities result in improved brain cognition, which “refers to the brain's processing ability to obtain knowledge through thought, experience and the senses.” The brain is a control center that “manages all of the tasks in a person's life, such as writing an article, doing a research project, preparing for class and organizing a trip.” As physical activity is incorporated into a daily routine, the outcome will include improved thought processing, memory, and memory-related tasks. This can provide you with the extra boost needed to perform well in your classes because you will feel that you can meet these challenges successfully.

Develop a New Attitude: In the blog, How to Rewire Your Burned-Out Brain: Tips from a Neurologist, it was noted that “since a repeated pattern of effort-failure set up the brain's survival response to withhold effort, you'll need to strengthen the pattern of effort toward your goals – which comes from the video game model that works because of three components: buy-in, achievable challenges, and frequent awareness of incremental progress en route to the final goal.” This requires a positive self-belief and state of mind. In my post, Why a Positive Attitude Matters, I addressed online students; however, this is applicable to all students. Your attitude is a reflection of your self-belief and a negative attitude can quickly derail your efforts. One method of creating a positive belief about yourself is to look for sources of inspiration and motivation, and recognize completion of short-term goals along the way, as you work towards your long-term goals.

You are likely to experience moments as a college student when you will feel that you are unstoppable and you are experiencing peak performance. There are also going to be periods of time when school work will seem challenging. The key to maintaining your success is to not become overwhelmed and allow prolonged negativity to take hold, as that will eventually cause you to reach a point where you are ineffective and burned out. You can avoid this by being alert for the symptoms and ready to take preventive measures.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

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