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When I consider the phrase “college student burnout,” several images come to mind. I think of Columbia students napping in our library, bringing along their toothbrushes so they can maintain dental hygiene during their all-nighters. I consider the look of apathy on everybody’s faces during midterm season. I hear conversations about “not belonging,” “not wanting to do this anymore,” and “feeling too tired to care.” None of these images are rare sights. Instead, they’re commonplace, and our community has grown immune to perceiving these moments as red flags.
It’s no wonder that burnout is a serious issue for college students. Since an early age, many of us have been conditioned to do things for the sake of some later, theoretical success. Prime examples of these examples include learning to play an instrument (and competing in competitions to receive rankings, which boost résumés) and playing a sport (often with the aim of eventually being admitted to college on scholarship).
Nothing changed when I became a college student at Columbia. I was conditioned to believe that every second of my life should be optimized, because that’s the way my life had always been. Soon enough, I burned out.
Burning out shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. Since high school (and even middle school), I was overexerting myself for the sake of succeeding. But what does it mean to succeed, and how can success truly be achieved if I lack the mental capacity, energy, and happiness to go after my goals? Soon enough, I realized that this mindset of constantly working towards my goals was not only unrealistic but also detrimental to my success. Instead, I slowly learned how to integrate wellness into my lifestyle, prioritizing my own health just as much as academic success.
Here are five ways I learned to recover from my burnout:
1. Resist the urge to view time as money
The common phrase “time is money” encapsulates the problematic mindset that propels stress culture: Each minute spent not working is a minute wasted on something unproductive. Resist this mindset. Destroy it. Never look back.
Instead of viewing each minute as an opportunity to be productive, remember that it’s okay to just sit. You’re allowed to look around, have an impromptu conversation, and take a walk. Time is valuable, but so is your wellness. Time spent taking care of yourself is time well spent.
2. Stop saying “should” and “shouldn’t”
This is the hardest step for me to fully master, but it’s absolutely crucial. When immersed in stress culture, it’s easy to convince yourself of what you should and shouldn’t be doing. For instance, you “should” be doing work. You “shouldn’t” take breaks. You “shouldn’t” go to sleep early if you have a test tomorrow.
The word “should” is toxic, as is its negative form. Eliminate it from your vocabulary as much as possible. It promotes feelings of guilt, making it nearly impossible to take a break without feeling that you should be doing something else. It creates an obligation that is completely of your own construction. It creates high expectations without thought. This is counterproductive to your success, even if these “should” statements seem as though they might boost your productivity.
3. Go to sleep earlier
As simple as it sounds, this tip is forgotten by many college students due to our culture of late night study sessions, all-nighters, and the general belief that it isn’t “normal” to be in bed any earlier than midnight.
Something that helps my burnout, though, is seeing more sunshine in my day. Living in New York City, I was disappointed to realize the sun sets as early as 4:30 p.m. in the wintertime. Waking up early was a natural solution to optimize my exposure to the sun. Once I made the change and started getting up (I shifted my alarm by 15-30 minute increments over many weeks), my days were noticeably less anxiety-inducing. Something about sunshine is so powerful and healing.
4. Breathe, both in stillness and in movement
Meditation is an extremely underrated tool. My go-to application to guide my practice is Headspace, which is discounted for students. (No, this isn’t a sponsored article!) If you prefer being tech-free in your mindfulness, more power to you. Finding a time of peak anxiety to stop, close your eyes, and focus on nothing but your breath is extremely grounding and beneficial.
Yoga complements meditation. It’s an exercise rooted in the concept that breathing is essential to movement. I find that breathing in movement adds a new dimension to physical awareness. I have learned new breathing patterns, new postures, and new methods of release.
5. Choose a time and make it yours
Everyone deserves a time dedicated to themselves. It’s the least you can do to reward your body for its daily movement, to thank it for all that it does for you.
With this in mind, choose a time to be yours. Maybe you’re a morning person: The first hour of your day can be dedicated to tea-sipping, pleasure reading, or podcast-listening. Maybe you’re a night owl: The final hour of your day can be dedicated to calling an old friend, watching your favorite TV show, or discovering new music.
Most importantly, treat your time as a commitment. Mark it in your calendar. Plan your day around it. Don’t treat this time as negligible. Instead, prioritize yourself, and the effects of burnout will begin to fade.
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