What Is Burnout and How to Manage It

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advice for students
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By Kate H Knapp
Last updated on August 11, 2023

International students, find out how to manage burnout before it impacts your college career.

A group of international students having tea together

Students all around the world experience burnout. So, what is burnout and how does it affect international students in particular? 

The signs of burnout can be different for every student. It may look like:

  • a typically outgoing student who doesn’t want to leave their dorm room

  • an active student who has trouble getting out of bed in the morning

  • a studious student who can’t complete schoolwork on time

  • a passionate student who has little interest in something they typically love 

Though burnout is not a medical condition, the APA Dictionary of Psychology defines it as “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion, accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes towards oneself and others.” 

There are many factors that can lead to burnout, especially for international students.

“It is a constant battle that can easily become overwhelming,” says Caitlin Phillips Rivera, director of partner operations at Shorelight. “Making new friends and missing those back home; first time away from family; lack of access to familiar resources [like] food, services, places of worship, etc.; having to be responsible for new tasks like cooking, cleaning, etc.; pressure to perform in academics; [and] unfamiliar weather/climate — all while navigating new customs, culture, and language. It’s easy to see why [burnout] happens to so many students.”

Having lived abroad, Kellie Herrod, the academic director of administration at UOP International at University of the Pacific, can relate to international students feeling burned out.

“Living overseas is difficult,” Herrod says. “Campus culture is new and different. Everything seems so different. You need to strike [a] balance [between] focusing on schoolwork, making time with friends, and joining in community activities.”

Recognizing Burnout

Burnout can present itself in a variety of ways, with symptoms typically starting small but building over time — especially if left untreated. Herrod notes early signs of burnout are “not feeling great. Feeling sad. Feeling distance from friends, activities, or even classes. Not feeling very enthusiastic. Feeling a little lost.”

People experience burnout differently, but here are some of the more recognizable symptoms: 

  • Fatigue: Feeling too tired to do simple or necessary tasks.

  • Withdrawal: Avoiding making new friends or joining social activities.

  • Anxiety: Excessive worrying or fears about schoolwork or failure.

  • Loss of interest: Feeling indifferent to things that were once a passion or brought joy.

  • Feeling cynical: Sad, angry, and hateful feelings becoming dominant emotions. 

  • Change in eating and sleeping: Difficulty sleeping or a loss of appetite.

“Students will withdraw — stay at home and miss class [or] activities; play video games or call their families back home instead of engaging with their campus community; fall into unhealthy eating and/or sleeping habits; stop answering emails, texts, etc.,” says Phillips Rivera.

What Causes Burnout

One of the leading causes of burnout is stress — and college life can cause students a great deal of stress. Trying to maintain a balance between studying and having a social life can feel overwhelming at times. 

“School is primed for [burnout] because even during free time there is something hanging over a student’s head,” says Herrod.

A few examples of stressors that can lead to burnout for an international student include:

  • Imbalance between school and social life: Focusing only on schoolwork can contribute to exhaustion, anxiety, and poor eating and sleeping habits. 

  • Finding their place in a new environment: Being afraid to meet new people or participate in school events can lead to feelings of isolation and cynicism. 

  • Poor time management: Falling behind with coursework can feel overwhelming and make it seem impossible to catch up.

  • Not enough self-care: Treating health as a low priority can result in physical issues accompanied by negative thoughts.  

Phillips Rivera notes that students experience burnout from “high levels of pressure or [a] strong sense of responsibility to perform well at given tasks, [which is] especially challenging when navigating unfamiliar territory; lack of sleep, proper nutrition, or exercise; and lack of time spent with loved ones.” 

Ways to Manage Burnout

If you are experiencing burnout, there are several things you can do to manage it and eventually feel better. It will, however, take time to establish a balance between school and social activities in addition to making your health a priority.

Speak to a Mental Health Advisor

“As soon as you feel like you’re starting to sense something is off, talk to someone who can help, [like an] advisor, teacher, coach, counselor, etc. It’s totally natural, and everyone goes through it in some way, shape, or form. When you address it head on, you can develop the tools early on to battle the stressors that could lead to burnout. If you let them fester, they will take over,” says Phillips Rivera.

Students don’t have to go far to find help, as universities provide mental health resources. Phillips Rivera suggests, “Campus counseling services have professional staff that can support students who are dealing with any kind of mental health issues, including burnout.” 

Herrod recommends a similar resource available at University of the Pacific: “The Care Team can do anything from therapy to short-term solutions or recommendations for psych or social services. The Care Team [provides] someone you can go [to] and talk to about your emotions. They are there for you.”

Talk to People on Campus

Aside from speaking to a mental health specialist, students can find help by talking to other people. “Professors, first and foremost, are the best resource. Being in contact can be very encouraging. They want to help you. Next, classmates and study groups. Make friends with the smartest student in class. They are going to be a good role model and keep you excited about school,” Herrod suggests.

Be Good to Your Body

Exercise and movement are so important to a healthy body and mind. Taking breaks from schoolwork to walk, stretch, or run can lead to better sleep and an increase in appetite. Drinking plenty of water is also crucial to feeling your best.   

Find the Balance

Learning how to create boundaries between schoolwork and social life is a skill that will serve you throughout your life. Create a routine that will help you maintain those boundaries, as well as make it easier to manage your time effectively. 

Get Involved

Explore new hobbies or try to get out of your comfort zone by “join[ing] a club that interests you and can lead you to connecting with other like-minded students. Explore the community — you might discover a new place that you really enjoy that helps you feel more at home,” says Phillips Rivera.

How to Prevent Burnout in the Future

Though many students may experience a form of burnout at some point during their college career, there are ways to prevent it from happening. 

“Starting from your first week on campus, get out and explore. The more familiar you are with your new surroundings and existing resources, the more comfortable you will begin to feel and the more prepared you will be to address issues when they arise,” says Phillips Rivera.

Try to create a routine that is heavily focused on time management for schoolwork with plenty of breaks (social, exercise, hobbies) built into it. This will help create the balance that is necessary to feel recharged and ready for anything new or overwhelming. 

There is no [simple] way to avoid burnout completely, but remember that starting school in a foreign country is “not easy and is going to take a lot of courage,” says Herrod. “Culture shock is a very real thing that goes in cycles. Cycles can be rapid and extreme at the beginning. Over the course of the year, it starts to even out. Just be patient with yourself and the community.” 

Most importantly, you are not alone and there is always someone to help.

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