Preventing Burnout in College Students

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when one feels overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. Many of my students feel this way from the chronic stress of managing university studies, independent living along with any executive skill weaknesses or mental health issues they have as well. 

Three main signs of burnout:

 

  • Exhaustion: People feel drained, emotionally exhausted, unable to cope, tired and blue. Sometimes they feel tired and wired. An experience of feeling exhausted but unable to get a good night of sleep. Physical symptoms include headaches, stomach and/or bowel problems. 

 

  • Avoidance of school, work or social opportunities: People who have burnout find their work life  increasingly stressful and frustrating. They may have difficulty initiating independent study times or projects. They may begin to skip class in order to do something else or sleep. They may begin socially isolating and not feeling like socialization is worth the effort.

 

  • Reduced performance: Burnout mainly affects everyday tasks at work, at home or when caring for themselves. People with burnout are very negative about their tasks, find it hard to concentrate, are listless and lack creativity. 

 

One of the biggest surprises people have when they engage in ADHD coaching is the strong emphasis I place on recovery time. I recommend to everyone I work with to take a minimum one day off a week to completely disengage from work and school to decompress and engage in something enjoyable. I recommend taking the entire spring break off to completely rejuvenate and come back stronger and more motivated to finish the rest of the semester strong. When students don’t take time off intentionally, I find they take it off unconsciously by not going to class or doing enough to stay caught up. Taking the time intentionally will prevent a late semester crisis and catch up. 

There are many ways to intentionally restore your motivation and energy. Three categories of recovery I have observed are consuming entertainment, low energy past times and high energy fun. All three activities will help you recover from burnout, but when possible, plan at least 1 high energy fun per week and 2-3 during a vacation. Those activities give you the quickest recovery for the longest time.

Consuming Entertainment – this is the lowest energy and most passive category. It can help you transition from a stressful day to true rest. More than 3-4 hours at a sitting can lead to being lulled into a very lazy feeling where it feels as if your brain is going to sleep. When done for prolonged periods, consuming entertainment can cause one to get their days and nights flipped by staying up all night and sleeping most of the day. These activities include: 

  • TV series binges 
  • surfing the web  
  • playing single player video games  
  • reading

Low Energy Past Times – these can replenish your energy especially if one of the activities is of high interest to you or if you don’t have the energy for a higher energy activity. These include:

  • Listening to music
  • Hanging out with friends and family in person
  • Shopping
  • Eating out
  • Playing multi-person video games
  • Doing Puzzles
  • Fishing

High Energy Activities – these activities require more intense energy and leave you with an experience of “that was fun!” It requires more effort or novelty than the other categories. If it raises your heart rate and causes you to sweat, it’s a bonus for the payoff of increased energy, focus and motivation. These activities include:

  • Exploring a new city, town or country
  • Ski-ing (either snow or water)
  • Bowling
  • Biking
  • Hiking
  • Camping
  • Horseback riding
  • Playing Games of any kind

 

In our productivity oriented world, it can sometimes be counterintuitive to make intentional space in your life to play and rest. Give it a try, and see the difference after you’ve given yourself a break.