College burnout pulls the rug from under your feet

By Frankie Rowley, Content Managing Editor

Another night I find myself curled into a ball of self-pity, my tailbone aching from the wooden chair I have been glued to for God knows how long. Tears well in my eyes like clockwork, only a few will fall but their escape will be overshadowed by a fit of sobs. 

This cycle occurs at least once a month, when my body can no longer hold in and keep up with the motions of college life. Recently, however, these outbursts get trumped by the feeling that I am on the precipice of failure, of falling down the rabbit hole burnout places before me and not finding my way out. 

Burnout, an often overlooked part of the college experience, ripped the rug from under me this year—catapulting me into a cycle of missed classes, assignments, and existential dread. Classes became just another motion of the day—a change of scenery to zone out in—and assignments became nothing more than Canvas notifications to be ignored until they became unavoidable. Headaches and eye strains from typing out assignments were replaced by staring at blank screens, watching the cursor blink at me in rage, waiting for a word, a letter, anything to be typed. 

This isn’t a singular experience, it’s a combination of anxieties, and everyone experiences it differently. For me, burnout is numb and bitter and manifests itself in a nagging headache that no Advil could ever dissipate, but that’s not the case for everyone. For many college students, burnout can sometimes be catastrophic. 

According to an article written by Larry Alton for Inc. Magazine, there are seven warning signs of burnout: physical and mental exhaustion, workplace dread, loss of hair, irritability, trouble sleeping, decrease in performance, and anxiety. 

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These warning signs are often placed as just another part of college life, however, they shouldn’t be. The more we ignore the warning signs, the more power we give our burnout. 

So how do we combat it? I found solace in acceptance. When you accept burnout, you can control it. 

I wish I could pinpoint when this feeling began, but burnout is the uninvited guest that enters your brain after stress has had its way and needs a friend to finish the job. According to a study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), reported by The Hechinger Report, 87 percent of those surveyed said their education was a major source of their stress. 

This stress carves the path for burnout to cross, which is described by the APA, as “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others.”

But burnout doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. According to an Ohio State University study reported by The Hechinger Report, Hispanic students showed the highest levels of anxiety and depression, Black students showed the second-highest—a few degrees higher than white students. Asian and Pacific Isander students reported the lowest levels. 

Regardless, burnout affects so much more than academics: it affects your social life, your mental health, essentially every part of you it can get its greedy hands on. It’s an invisible beast that can’t be ignored. When it began, I brushed it off as a series of bad days and a sign that I needed to relax. 

The bad days persisted and the need for relaxation was replaced by a lack of motivation, and a meticulous record of absences to make sure I didn’t use up my three excuses in a week. The absence cap made me go to class, but what’s the point of class when the material isn’t sticking? Burnout infiltrates every section of life before you can realize how much you’re impacted by it. 

This junior year was when things kicked into high gear. Burnout flirted with me last year but my eagerness for college life curbed it. It was waiting for me, waiting for its moment to pounce and I gave it the perfect hunting ground. Currently, I am in four full-credit classes—all writing-intensive—a member of two student orgs, and an intern at L’Officiel USA. All whilst trying to manage a social life and publish a book. 

I don’t list these things to gloat, this is incredibly difficult. Can I manage all of these things? Absolutely not. Did I think I could? I absolutely did. But now I’m stuck in a hell of my own creation. 

In these trenches, burnout uses all of my ticks, triggers, and temptations to overcome me. Using my own vices against me, pushing me further and further into purgatory. I had some willpower remaining, though. 

I began to force myself to do the work I was dreading, even if it took a painstakingly long time. I tried to pay more attention in class as a means to distract me from the void, which eventually led to me just paying attention to the content of class. I accepted that it was hard and that being an exemplary student was the last thing I wanted to do, but I wasn’t going to let an invisible thing waste the quarter of a million dollars being put into my education. 

With acceptance also came the allowance for concession. Some days, burnout will simply debilitate you, and rather than force myself to be miserable and make it worse from stress, I let it be what it wanted to be: a pest. 

Some cures for burnout as recommended by the University of the People are: reserving time for amusing activities, exercising, getting time outside, socializing, creating and maintaining positive relationships with professors, setting achievable goals, avoid procrastinating, improving time management, removing yourself from negative situations, and maintaining a positive work-life balance. 

There’s no magical cure for burnout, but prioritizing yourself and what you need is the only way I’ve figured out to get rid of it. It’s grueling and hard, but ultimately it’ll subside once you begin to let it be what it will be.