9 Ways to Fight End-of-Semester Burnout, According to a Counselor
Finals week has an infamous reputation for a reason. Students are expected to balance the usual chaos of classes, friends, jobs, and extracurriculars — but with the added pressure of some of the hardest assignments and exams of the whole year. It’s especially difficult because finals take place at the end of the semester, when many students are already feeling like they’re running on empty. I thought burnout would at least wait to kick in until I was actually in the workforce, but I’ve learned the hard way it can affect college students, too.
If you’ve heard the term before but never actually learned what it means, the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies burnout as an “occupational phenomenon,” which is brought on by chronic stress that can lead to decreased satisfaction, loss of motivation, and cynical thoughts about whatever is causing your burnout (in this case, college).
Defining burnout is one thing, but overcoming it is quite a bit more difficult. I mean, there are only so many sweet treats I can give myself before even those aren’t that motivating anymore. So, I spoke with mental health counselor Maggie Sorel, LPC, who has been counseling in higher education for nine years, to compile a list of tips for avoiding, fighting, and coping with burnout.
1. Look out for the warning signs.
The first way to fight burnout is to get ahead of it. “Familiarize yourself with the warning signs and symptoms of burnout, don’t ignore them, and take proactive steps,” Sorel says. If you can recognize these signs early on, you may be able to address your burnout before it becomes overwhelming.
According to the WHO, burnout is characterized by the following:
Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion: This may mean you feel tired no matter how much sleep you get, or you’re unable to sleep well.
Increased mental distance from one’s job: Because a student’s job (or, at least, one of them) is school, this can show up as lack of class participation, cynicism about school, or dreading going to a class you normally enjoy.
Reduced professional efficacy: Look out for a drop in grades, trouble finishing assignments, or irritability toward classmates, professors, or friends.
You might look at this list and think, “This is just how school is supposed to be.” And I get it — of course, you’re going to get tired, or you’ll have an assignment that isn’t your favorite, but if you begin to experience any of the above more than your usual amount, you should ask yourself if this is part of your normal college life, or if you’re actually feeling burnt out.
2. Create self-care habits.
Self-care will look different for everyone, but its primary goal is universal: doing something to improve your social, physical, and/or mental health. Taking the time to do something that will allow you to rest, clear your head, or get more energy can go a long way in fighting burnout. If you’re not sure what to do, you could try spending time outside, journaling, baking, or taking an exercise class. Once you find your thing, make it a habit and block out some time for it at least once a week.
There are also quick things you can do throughout the day to boost your mood, even when your day is jam-packed with study sessions and class prep. “I like a self-care menu, having many options to choose from based on the amount of time you have in your daily schedule,” Sorel says. “Even five minutes is better than nothing.” These quick activities could include jotting down three things you’re grateful for, texting a friend, or even making your bed.
3. Say no!
When you have a lot going on and you’re low on energy, the last thing you need is another commitment. According to Sorel, it’s perfectly fine — healthy, even — to say no to additional plans, favors, or activities that you don’t feel up to. (Personally, I need this tip tattooed onto the back of my hand — I’m a huge people pleaser!)
4. Get your body moving.
If you’re able to practice some form of physical activity, it could really help. “Regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression and anxiety,” Sorel says. Most campuses have a fitness center available for student use, or you can investigate whether there are any student-run, activity-based clubs or intramural sports you’d be interested in joining. Going for a walk, stretching, doing breathing exercises, or having an at-home dance party are also valid options.
5. Stay organized.
Maintaining a calendar or downloading a time management app can keep you on track and help you avoid deadline-related stress. When there’s a lot on your mind, relying on external reminders can be a good strategy. It’s me and my G-Cal against the world, for real.
6. Try meditation.
Meditation can be a helpful way to cope with stress. If you’re a complete beginner to meditative practice, you can start by blocking out a few minutes of time each day to clear your mind and focus on your breathing, and see how that feels for you. You could also use a guided meditation YouTube video for a bit more help. The good news is, as Sorel says, “there’s no ‘wrong way’ to meditate,” so you get to decide how to make it work for you.
7. Pair social time with activities you have to do anyway.
When you find yourself in go-go-go mode and without any time for a release, think of ways to incorporate social time within your day. This could look like studying with a group, grabbing a quick lunch with your friend, or running errands with your roommates. You’re still getting all the things done, but you’ll have more fun while doing them.
8. Take advantage of your college’s resources.
Most schools have tons of resources that go unused — put those tuition dollars to work and take advantage of them! If you’re feeling burnt out by school, you could meet with your TA during office hours for an extra help session, find a tutor, or consult your class message boards for help studying. “I encourage my clients to establish rapport with their professors so that they are more inclined to ask for help when needed,” Sorel says. Many schools also offer mental health services; consider scheduling a counseling session, joining a support group, or finding out if your college has a program for finding long-term mental health support.
9. Lean on your support systems.
Similar to using campus resources, don’t be afraid to also turn to your personal support systems. A support system could be your classmates, roommates, family, besties back home, or really anyone who you trust to listen to you and provide comfort. In my experience, a phone call to my long-distance best friend goes a long way, and I always feel more motivated after I talk to her.
Of course, most of the people in your life aren’t professionally qualified to address mental health concerns, but they can still play an important role in a well-rounded, multifaceted approach to fighting burnout. “By incorporating coping skills and utilizing a support network, students can avoid burnout and enhance their college experience,” Sorel says.
If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health concerns in college, help is available.
- Call or text the 988 Lifeline at 988 — available 24/7.
- Call the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, or text “HELPLINE” to 62640 — available Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. ET.
- Many schools also offer safe, confidential mental health services — contact your student affairs office for more information.