Getting Over “The Senior Slump:” How to Avoid Burnout in College

My whole life, I’ve been someone who has trouble saying “no.” Like any personality trait, my burning desire to please others has two sides to it: on the one hand, I’m extremely driven to help others, which is what led me to pursue a career in social work. On the other, I also tend to over-commit, making me incredibly prone to burning out.

The last time I majorly burned out, I was in my high school “senior slump.” That year, I took on an internship in the Massachusetts’ Governor’s Office, a Girl Scout Gold Award project and a Vice President position in our Young Democrats club all at once. Those things may have gotten me into college, but they also exacerbated my untreated anxiety, and made it so that pretty much all I could accomplish in my limited free time was napping and watching Bridget Jones’ Diary on Netflix on repeat.

Now that I’m a college senior about to apply to grad school, the so-called “senior slump” is on my mind again. Seeing as it’s still September, I figure my slump is a long ways away – and as someone who wants to keep her GPA up for grad school applications (not to mention personal fulfillment), I’m more than invested in keeping it that way.

Like many of you, I have an interest in preventing burnout. However, like many college students, I also have that “martyr” tendency: somewhere, somehow, I believe I’m a superhero and wind up taking on too much at once. Cue a mental breakdown in my academic advisor’s office, too many missed lectures and a wardrobe full of sweatpants…yeah, that’s not a good look for anyone!

From a mental health advocate’s perspective, burnout is epidemic in this country. In the United States, 39% of adults reported feeling more anxious in 2018 than in 2017. Though much of that probably had to do with the stressful political climate (hands off my healthcare, Trump!), it’s also likely that we’re just a high-stress culture whose brand of burnout is only getting worse.

As a college senior, stress and burnout are especially impactful. After all, college seniors face the added stress of finding a job and dealing with adult problems on top of their usual academic stress. Students pursuing graduate degrees must also repeat the stressful application process, which often leaves them biting their nails until springtime brings their admissions decisions.

It’s no wonder, then, that 85% of college students report feeling overwhelmed by their commitments, and 30% reported that stress had negatively impacted their grades. And when you’ve got a lot on your plate – and, like many college students, are expected to perform at an absurdly high level – burnout can seriously impact your ability to function at the caliber normally expected of you.

Among college populations, this stress manifests in many ways, including in students’ interpersonal relationships, financial well-being, physical health, sexual function and academic performance. Chances are, you already knew stress was bad for you – but maybe you didn’t realize just how far-reaching the consequences of burnout can be.

If you’re a college student reading this, you’re probably wondering: so now what? Figuring out a way to combat stress when you’re already too busy to eat or sleep can feel like an impossibly daunting task. As a budding therapist, it will someday be my job to guide you on your journey toward serenity in a constantly-chaotic world.

On that note, here are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up in my studies, research and personal experience to help you overcome burnout. Please note: this advice is not a substitute for medical attention. If you have a serious mental health concern, please contact your doctor or call 1-800-273-8255 for free, confidential help 24 hours a day.

Set Aside Time for Self-Care

“Self-care” is a media buzzword that many students have probably heard of – but what most students may not realize is that self-care isn’t just for the glamorous Kylie Jenners and Taylor Swifts of the world. Anytime you stop to eat a healthy meal, go for a walk outdoors or relax with a magazine and a face mask, you are engaging in an act of self-care. And while you probably don’t realize it, those little pauses throughout your week are essential to maintaining a healthy mind and preventing burnout as a college student.

Have a Spiritual Outlet

On liberal college campuses, we’re used to thinking of religion and spirituality in academic terms – as historical systems of power and abuse. But spirituality is not actually synonymous with religion, and doesn’t fit that historical definition. Regardless of whether or not you are religious, you can benefit from engaging with spirituality of any kind. For some, this means attending yoga classes and taking time to meditate and be “at one” with the Universe. For others, this means reading the literature of their faiths and attending weekly services or youth groups at school. No matter what your particular flavor of spirituality is, these outlets are essential to nourishing the soul and preventing burnout at every stage of the college experience.

Don’t Alienate Friends and Family

Tempting as it may be to shun friends and family and lock yourself in a room with your textbooks (or Netflix) on a Friday night, becoming a recluse actually exacerbates stress and anxiety, rather than preventing it. It’s a well-known fact in clinical psychology that clients’ networks of support make a big difference in how quickly and how easily they’re able to bounce back from stress, grief and other trauma. So, schedule a coffee or pedicure date with a friend (and leave your phone at home!) – or take an hour to actually call your mom for once. You’ll be surprised by how quickly your energy tank fills back up after a positive conversation with one of your favorite people.

Do Nothing on Purpose

Personally, I have learned one especially critical lesson as a college student, which is this: you don’t always have to be “on” or productive all the time. Sometimes, you can just simply be. I like to take at least an hour every day to be what I call “purposefully unproductive:” a period of doing nothing important with the purpose of resting and recharging. For me, being purposefully unproductive means meditating, painting my nails, reading a magazine or playing Kim Kardashian: Hollywood on my phone (#sorrynotsorry). Make it a point to simply exist and enjoy your life for that time – and resist the temptation to answer emails or take notes. Whatever it is, it can wait for your mental health.

How do you bounce back from burnout? Let us know in the comments below!