Whether this is your first year of college or you’re heading into senior year, finding the delicate balance of a sleep schedule, your course load, outings with friends and mental health requires not only time but energy. Perhaps, you’re also working a job on top of school, or maybe you’re a caretaker of a family member. Even after you've found a way to fit your jobs, education, and other responsibilities perfectly into your daily schedule, stress can create a huge impact and leave you feeling overwhelmed.
According to American Addiction Centers, “88 percent of college students reported their school life to be stressful.” If you’re feeling stressed and burnt out, you’re not in the minority.
This guide on how to combat stress and burnout is not a one size fits all, but it’ll hopefully at least empower you to begin to consider:
- What does my stress and burnout look like?
- What are my signs of burnout?
- How can I become better at identifying it and managing it?
- How can I shift from surviving to thriving?
What does my stress look like?
Because every person is unique, the way stress and signs of burnout manifests can often look different for each person. But, the first step toward managing and navigating your stress is knowing what it looks like.
Here are some common stress responses people have:
- Stomach churning or dropping
- Fidgeting or knee shaking/toe tapping
- Lack of sleep
- Overthinking or spiraling with thinking
- Disassociation or checking out
The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” Burnout changes the way we view our worth and what we think we can contribute to our school, work and living environments.
According to the Mayo Clinic, here are some questions to consider when trying to determine if you have burnout:
- Have you become cynical or critical at work?
- Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
- Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
- Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
- Do you find it hard to concentrate?
- Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
- Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
- Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
- Have your sleep habits changed?
- Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?
When you take the time to identify how your body is responding to stress, you’re more likely to get to the bottom of why you’re thinking or feeling this way. Then, you can figure out what’s the best path forward to change. But, the first step is figuring out what your stress looks like and why you’re stressed.
Why am I stressed?
While this question can seem simple, often the source of stress can be hard to pinpoint. Especially if you’re wearing multiple roles as a student, employee, friend, etc. your source of stress could be a combination of things. Here are some of the most common stressors impacting college students.
By the second week of college, you’re most likely juggling an essay, an upcoming quiz, multiple chapters of readings, a lab experiment and homework on top of that. It’s clear why academics can be a stressor. And, more often than not, there’s building pressure to meet or exceed expectations, especially if you’re on an academic scholarship. If you find yourself dreading opening up a book or walking to class, academics may be the source of your stress.
Whether it’s family or the new roommate you met two days before school started, living in close quarters with others can be difficult and stress inducing. Maybe your roommate doesn’t care as much about cleanliness, or wants to spend all your free time together despite your other commitments.
It can be difficult to have conversations with roommates about how their actions are affecting you and your shared space, but it’s imperative that open communication is established early so that when stressful scenarios arise you’re both able to discuss how you can achieve a resolution.
According to a Student Financial Wellness Survey conducted in 2022 regarding two-year and four-year undergraduate students by Trellis Research, “While enrolled in college, 73 percent of students had experienced financial difficulty.” And, the survey further found, “57 percent of students indicat[ed] they would have difficulty finding $500 in cash or credit for an emergency in the next month and 15 percent of those saying they would be completely unable to find $500 in an emergency.”
Finances are a very tangible stressor that are impacting students, especially at the beginning of the school year as the costs of textbooks and classroom supplies ramp up. Add a part time job to the equation and students, of course, can get that overwhelming feeling of stress. While this stressor is not easily resolved or within students’ controls, it’s important to recognize the steps of how you can address the stress.
Especially heading into the junior and senior years of college, the pressure builds, like a boiling teapot, that if not released properly, can cause overflow and internal churning and upheaval. The pressure to succeed, figure out your next step, make your family proud and begin paying off debts is a lot to think about and plan out. However, as you’ll read in the following section, many colleges offer plenty of support programs and services to help you navigate the unknowns.
What can I do to address my stress and make a change?
Identifying and understanding where your stress comes from can help you to not only manage it but learn to decrease its power over your wellbeing. While some stressors may never go away, you can be proactive in the way you cope and respond. Consider these five ways to manage and reduce stress when you feel anxious, burnt out or overwhelmed.
1. Give yourself space to rest
For some, rest looks like taking a 30-minute nap and stepping away from work completely. For others, it can look like going on a run or walk and leaving the space of work. Whatever is restful for you, make sure you’re setting aside time throughout the day and week to do those things.
It’s also important to get at least seven to nine hours of sleep per night in order to avoid daytime drowsiness, poor health and low energy. Plus, being well-rested really affects the way you bring yourself into classrooms and relationships.
2. Have an outlet for your stress
According to a research brief from the National Library of Medicine, the actual physical effects of exercise on health are varied, but “one way in which exercise may promote health is via enhanced resilience to stress, since stress exposure and chronic stress burden has been associated with physical and mental illness.”
So, if you want to build your resilience to stress, it can be beneficial to build your exercise plan and endurance. Whether it’s running, swimming, walking, lifting weights or playing team sports, expelling stress through exercise can make a huge difference.
Another outlet could be doing something creative. Whether that’s journaling, doodling, painting, or coloring, by letting your imagination run and wander, you’re giving your brain the reset that it needs.
3. Manage your time effectively
At Loma, you’ll often hear the phrase, ‘let your ‘no’ be your best ‘no’ and your ‘yes’ your best ‘yes.’” It really matters what you commit yourself to and how much time you dedicate to each activity and job.
If you’re working part time and in full-time classes, take the time to check your schedule before you commit to another part time job or leadership role on campus. You, more than anyone, know yourself and your limits. Don’t spread yourself so thin that the good things in your life become the things that stress you out the most.
Whether you use a paper planner or Google Calendar, make sure you schedule all your “to-dos” and also schedule in time for rest and self care.
4. Practice self-care
Self-care is a term used so often and casually that it can be hard to pinpoint what it means. But, at the center, it means practicing rhythms and activities that help you reboot and heal — highlight on rhythms.
If you’re only practicing it once a month, you’re not really committing to caring for yourself well. Like in these other categories, it’s not one size fits all so try a variety of self-care practices to see what works best for you.
Here are some examples of self care:
- Give yourself time to take an extra nap
- Watch a show that allows your brain to rest or be simulated in an encouraging way
- Read a book
- Buy snacks or food that bring you energy
- Treat yourself to a massage or facial
- Move your body with a walk or dance break
- Practice breathing techniques (like square breathing)
- Go for a drive and play your favorite tunes
- Watch a sunset or a sunrise
5. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help
Navigating stress and burnout can be scary and lonely, whether you’re doing it for the first time or hundredth time. At PLNU, students are able to utilize free counseling sessions every semester and, with TimelyCare, you can get 24/7 support and help in navigating mental health.
Additionally, surround yourself with good company to help you along the journey. Find your safe people. One great thing about college is that you’re surrounded by others who may be navigating a similar experience. You’re not meant to go through tough times alone, so reach out to friends and faculty if you’re struggling.
Celebrate when you move from surviving to thriving
While these tips are general advice, the lasting effects can make a huge difference in forming what you remember about your college experience. As you begin to find the right ways to help you cope with stress and burnout, don’t forget to pause and recognize how far you’ve come.
The shift from surviving to thriving is something to be celebrated and not forgotten. Rather than making these suggestions a to-do list, remember why you set aside time for self-care or exercise: It’s to help you bring your best self into the academic, work and home spaces.
For more resources and support in navigating college life, check out other articles PLNU has created.