One of the most common issues students face is navigating how to recover from burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress; often, it happens when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. When you’re burned out, it may feel tough to find meaning in your work or daily activities, which can lead to frustration, isolation, and even anxiety or depression.
This semester, the pandemic rages on across the world and our daily lives as students continue to be upended by public health restrictions. According to a 2021 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), Gen Z adults report that their mental health has worsened over the past year. If you’ve found yourself having a pessimistic outlook on life, being detached from your work, feeling emotionally and physically exhausted, or lacking inspiration and creativity, you may be experiencing burnout — and you are not alone.
Thankfully, students who have experienced burnout (accomplished, dedicated, and talented students and leaders just like you!) are ready to share what has helped them recover. Here’s what students have to say about overcoming burnout, and how you can start recovering, too.
- Don’t ignore the situation
Although it can be difficult to admit that you’re struggling, it’s important not to ignore the signs of burnout. You may feel like you’re not allowed to “pause” or rest because your workload isn’t as bad as it could be, or you feel like you can “handle it” — but the truth is, everyone has a different amount of responsibility and bandwidth that they can handle.
For Sarah Lopez, a student at Boston University, admitting she was experiencing burnout was tough at first. She tells Her Campus, “It started with the thought that I am only worth what I accomplish. I was forcing so many extreme expectations on myself that I was exhausted from even doing small self-maintenance things like showering and brushing my teeth.”
When you’re feeling burned out, you can’t ignore your mind and body for long before you start to feel the consequences. So if you’re feeling exhausted, recognize the issue at hand and don’t be too hard on yourself for having a challenging time. Lopez eventually realized that she had to take a pause.
“Don’t compare the number of things you’re juggling to others when you begin to burn out,” she tells Her Campus. “You aren’t being overdramatic; you aren’t lazy. You are tired, and you deserve rest.”
Lopez warns that burnout will only get worse if you keep pushing yourself forward, and that sometimes, it’s necessary to slow down. “I gave myself a six-year ankle problem because I played a week of soccer on an ankle that I didn’t recognize was injured,” she tells Her Campus. “Imagine what operating while burnt out can do to you.” In other words: Don’t ignore the situation if you start to feel burned out! Starting to recognize your body’s needs is the first step in navigating burnout.
- Seek help
Asking for help can be intimidating, but it is crucial to lean on others if you want to get better. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, speak to a therapist about your experience or any past trauma that may be getting in the way of your healing. Ask an academic adviser for strategies to tackle your work more efficiently. Plan some fun activities with your friends. Turn to your family for support and reassurance. You’re not alone in this, but people can only help if they know what’s going on.
Hessann Farooqi, a student at Boston University, says that professional help can be a tremendous step in the right direction. “Especially if your burnout is the result of larger mental health issues, it’s important to get professional help,” Farooqi tells Her Campus. “This is often really scary and uncomfortable — not to mention logistically and financially difficult. But true help will ensure you can meaningfully overcome your problems, instead of [overlooking] them.”
When Lopez started to feel the effects of burnout, she initially struggled to reach out for help, as she thought that the problem stemmed from a personal lack of ability.
“You feel as if you’re less than others,” she tells Her Campus. “You ask yourself, ‘Why am I burned out when everyone else seems to be handling their responsibilities just fine? Am I just weak? Is there something wrong with me?’ And what worried me the most is that the answer would be yes. That thought held me back from reaching out to other people when I should’ve.”
Eventually, talking about what she was experiencing led Lopez to find that juggling many responsibilities at once is tough for the people around her, too. “Those questions tend to get a little quieter when you share with a friend and they begin to express what they’re dealing with also,” she says. “You learn that they don’t have it all together as you think.”
- Lighten your workload
In school, we’re often encouraged to take on more work than we can handle. Taking five classes or being a leader in multiple clubs can earn you praise and opportunities, which feels good; however, it can be tempting to give into hustle culture, especially if you don’t feel very confident in your abilities and worth.
While valuing success can be a good thing, you also need to set aside time for yourself to decompress and reduce stress. Drop time-consuming commitments that don’t fulfill you anymore. If it’s just another box in your overwhelming Google Calendar, let it go. That club you signed up for whose meetings bore you? Out of the way. And don’t take on any additional work or projects! This is the time to practice saying “no, thank you,” and move on without guilt.
“The answer to burnout is to do less,” Farooqi tells Her Campus. “This may be contrary to the culture of constant productivity in our society. But it’s always better to do a few things well, rather than a lot of things poorly.”
- Take care of your body
Whenever you find yourself unable to focus, avoid squeezing in an extra 30 minutes of work. Instead, take a short break that moves you away from the computer. Stretch your body, take a walk outside, dance to your favorite song, and make yourself some tea or a delicious snack. Do something that fulfills your inner child and let your mind wander. You were not put on this planet to tackle a never-ending to-do list. Taking time to dream is crucial to stop feeling like an aimless robot!
“Pockets of self-care throughout the day and week help,” says Natalie Held, a senior at Boston University and founder of the feminist shop Blessed Be The Brains. She experienced burnout during the pandemic, and recalls how challenging it was to feel focused and excited. “It was really debilitating and was hard to do things I normally loved to do for fun or be creative,” Held tells Her Campus. “Now, I always make it a habit to do at least one thing a day for myself.”
Another great way to combat the effects of burnout is to download a free meditation app or learn how to get started online. Mindfulness (present-moment awareness) and meditation can help you feel more at home in your body and learn to appreciate the feeling of being, rather than simply doing. Being more mindful doesn’t have to be extravagant, either; when studying from home, cook in between classes as a way to break up your day. Baking your favorite food can be a great stress-relieving activity while making a yummy smoothie can give you the fresh energy boost you need mid-afternoon. Finally, make sure to sleep seven to nine hours a night to recover from any past fatigue and give yourself the energy you need to get through every day.
- Prioritize & set “smart” goals
Setting manageable goals for what you know you can (and will!) accomplish each day can be a helpful way to reduce burnout-related stress. If your to-do list seems overwhelming, you can even try making SMART goals, which stands for “specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound,” as a way of making things more manageable.
“It can be tempting, especially in the lead-up to final exams, to set ambitious goals to thoroughly review every single chapter of the semester in every single class,” Farooqi tells Her Campus. “However, constantly setting goals, failing to meet them, then feeling bad about it is a recipe for continued burnout, not improvement.” So, if you have a lot on your plate, take a minute to prioritize. There are many task management systems for you to try out, depending on what you need.
- Limit your screen time
In a constantly-connected world, sometimes, it can help to go offline for a bit and let your mind and attention span rest. Take a break from screen time whenever possible, and to avoid getting distracted by upsetting news or stressful reminders, turn off notifications or your devices — especially when you’re trying to focus on school or work. Put your phone on “do not disturb” when you want to get cozy and relax at night. After all, who wants email notifications disrupting your favorite Netflix show? You can also uninstall apps on your phone that let you scroll forever, like Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, or set up screen time management so that you can stay in check throughout the week.
- create community
If you’re feeling burned out, it may seem like you have no time for hanging out with friends or finding community on campus. You may be left to make friends with people in your classes, and while some professors will assign you to “course buddies” at the beginning of the semester (and ask you to keep in touch as you work through assignments), others may not, and it’s up to you to make the first move.
When on Zoom, use the chat function or take advantage of breakout rooms to chat with someone who looks approachable and friendly. Ask for their number or social media and offer to study together. You can host Zoom study sessions and grab a coffee on campus (socially distanced, of course) to tackle stressful projects together and make virtual or hybrid learning less taxing. Having a community in college — even if it’s just a friend or two from your English class — can help you feel less alone when things get challenging.
- Rediscover your hobbies
How long has it been since you did something just for fun — something that doesn’t also serve as a resume-builder? It’s time to reinvest in any hobbies you might have set aside for the sake of increased productivity. Whether you love blogging, taking photos, hiking, or painting, get back to it! It could be just an hour or two every week, which may sound like a lot, but isn’t actually that much when you consider the time you spend scrolling on social media to avoid taking long breaks.
Léa Namouni, a sophomore at Boston University, says that when she began to experience burnout, she decided to focus on dance and art. “Remember, we aren’t robots,” Namouni tells Her Campus. “To be high-achieving and successful students, we also need to know how to take care of ourselves, and that starts with paying attention to our mental health.”
- ask for help & delegate
When you’re feeling burned out, often, it’s because there’s too much on your plate — or you’ve said “yes” to everything and can no longer handle it! Whether at school, work, or at home, try to outsource as many things as possible. If you’re taking another semester of classes, enlist the help of your siblings and parents to do grocery shopping or chores together. If you’re in a club leadership position, ask your teammates and friends for support and evaluate whether there are tasks that can be reassigned to others.
Lopez tells Her Campus that being reminded to take care of herself made it easier for her to recover from burnout. “Turning to others to help me do the things I don’t have the energy to do was super helpful in feeling less overwhelmed,” she explains. “Eating lunch with people and having others set reminders for me to hold me accountable…ensured I was still taking care of my physical body despite not having the energy for it.”
- Find meaning in your work again
If you’re feeling burned out, chances are, you’re doing too much and losing interest in things you’d normally find exciting. While it may seem counterintuitive, try to find meaning in your work again. For example, Farooqi recommends remembering why you chose your major or career path in the first place. Thinking about how your coursework and activities can help you achieve your life goals can make assignments more fulfilling.
“For me, economics and the law are tools to help people,” he tells Her Campus. “Reminding myself of this underlying purpose is helpful for staying motivated, as I can see an individual essay or exam as a piece of a larger picture.”
Those seemingly random requirements for your minor in Spanish may be boring at times, but they’ll help you communicate with locals once you get a chance to travel to Spanish-speaking countries. That job as a barista gets draining, but you’re the one making someone’s day that much better by preparing the drink that’ll get them through it all. Ask yourself why you got started and where you want to go to get more enthusiastic about the journey.
Burnout can be a tough thing to experience, especially when you’re a busy college student simply trying to stay afloat. But remember: You are not alone. Take a deep breath, follow these student-approved tips, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can get through this, and I’m cheering you on the whole way!
Natalie Held, Boston University
Sarah Lopez, Boston University
Hessann Farooqi, Boston University
Léa Namouni, Boston University
American Psychological Association. (2021). One year later, a new wave of pandemic health concerns. Stress In America.
The most important reminder for dealing with burnout is that it takes time to build yourself up again. Be patient with yourself, and don’t give up on your happiness.