Examination Stress and How to Beat It

In the UK we are approaching ‘Exam Season’ for a many young people. It is a time of consternation and for some major stress.

Childline, one of the UK’s leading support services for young people, delivered 3,135 counselling sessions on exam stress in 2016/17 — a rise of 11% over the past 2 years

One in Five of these took place in May as pupils faced upcoming exams with many telling counsellors they were struggling with subjects, excessive workloads and feeling unprepared.

12–15 year olds were most likely to be counselled about exam stress but last year saw the biggest rise — up 21% on 2015/16 — amongst 16–18 year olds, many of whom will have been preparing for A-levels which determine University places and offers.

Stress can lead to …

Childline stated that examination stress can lead to:

  • depression and anxiety
  • panic attacks
  • low self-esteem
  • self-harming and suicidal thoughts
  • worsening of pre-existing mental health conditions.

“I’m really feeling the pressure of A-levels, I’ve been having panic attacks and difficulty breathing.I’m so afraid of not getting the right grades and I’m stressed about the future. My life could turn out so differently depending on what I get.”

I work in Schools and Colleges throughout the UK and comments like the one above are not uncommon amongst teenagers who are facing national examinations.

Childline has reported that there were 237 sessions, or one every 1.5 days, from a child aged eleven or younger in the last exam season.

Young people are frequently reporting that they are struggling with excessive workloads and feeling unprepared. Putting the Childline figures into perspective for a moment, the organisation witnessed a 200% increase in young people contacting their helpline since 2015 because of exam stress.

It is reported that one in three teenage girls displays “psychological distress” by the time they reach their GCSEs. An interview with Hilary Fine, senior publisher at GL Assessment, revealed survey results that nearly a fifth of children apparently show signs of doubting their academic abilities and self-worth.

All of this has to also be set against the backdrop of a under-resourced mental health provision which means waiting times to get support for a troubled teen are doubling — and that’s only where provision is available.

Is the apparent rise in ‘stress’ simply about better reporting?

In a 2017 article in the Guardian newspaper journalist Laura McInerney, suggested that the rise in figures was more likely due to the fact that young people are more open to sharing their feelings of stress and thus seeking help.

She wrote “A key difference between teens now and a decade ago is that modern ones are more “work-focused” but more distressed because they feel “less in control”. This is not all bad, however. It turns out that because teens now spend more time worrying about exams, they have become much more likely to want to go on to higher education and much less likely to smoke cannabis, get drunk, vandalise or shoplift.”

A sentiment which I find disturbing and possibly objectionable since it clearly contains some rather stereotypical and prejudicial ideas.

Examination stress is real and as I have seen in schools is effecting a great number of learners, and incidentally their teachers too who are feeling the additional pressures of preparing young people to jump through these educational hoops.

The Key, which provides information to school leaders, surveyed its members, who are school leaders and governors, last year to find out their concerns about the state of education in England specifically.

When asked if they worried more about pupils’ mental health during exams than they did two years ago, 81% of primary leaders agreed, and 78% of secondary leaders agreed they had noticed increased stress, anxiety and panic attacks among their pupils.

Of course a little ‘stress’ can be a motivator, the need to get things done, but stress can quickly develop into, for want of a better word, strain.

McInerney’s ‘work-focussed’ and ‘less in control’ teenager is at risk.

Psychologists and Therapists will attest to the disempowering effect of ‘not feeling in control’ and thus feelings of being overwhelmed and being ‘done to’ rather than ‘involved with’. All of which increases anxiety and decreases self-worth.

McInerney also comments “Finally, we should remember that young people are resilient and develop natural, if slightly annoying, coping mechanisms”

Resilience, that’s an issue in and of itself.

Some people seem to have in-built resilience to emotional challenges and stressful situations, but some do not!

Research is showing that resilience is based on a number of key factors built around the concepts of ‘I have’, ‘I can’ and ‘I am’.

In terms of facing stressful situations these can be summarised as …

I have the personal support and the tools to meet the challenges

I can identify those people and situations which help me put things into perspective

I am able to see the relevance of what I am doing and I am capable of bringing personal resources to the situation.

Busting Exam Stress

Perspective: Keep examinations and examination results in perspective. Of course they can influence some of your future choices — but they do not define them. There are many routes to your future and in many situations the current examinations are not the last-post as far as your future is concerned.

Preparation: Remember that like so many things in our lives, exams are things we need to prepare for. Revision is not something to be done at the last minute. It’s part of a planned process of review. So creating a revision plan that includes breaks is key.

Physicality: Look after your own well-being, physical, emotional and mental.

DO…

sleep regularly
eat & drink regularly
get frequent exercise (even just walking)
spend time outside during daylight hours
learn and practice a relaxation technique that suits you
rest when you rest, study when you study (switch off internet etc)
socialise

DON’T…

work all-hours in order to ‘cram-learn’

mix with friends who are negative, dismissive of your efforts or are ‘energy vampires’

Practicalities

Breathe

The way we breathe effects our physiology, our physiology effects internal state and our internal state effects performance.

If you feel like you are becoming unfocused or emotionally distracted, sit back and take control of your breathing. A technique known as ‘square breathing’ is really useful.

Sit still, feet on the floor.

Breathe in for the count of 4

HOLD for the count of 4

Breathe out for the count of 4

HOLD for the count of 4

Repeat…

You may only need to do this for a couple of minutes. The counting engages the chattering-monkey-mind and the breathing centres and focusses you. Doing this with a ‘half-smile’ on your face can change your mood. OK, so its sounds a little crazy, but research on aspects of mindfulness training has shown this to be the case for many.

Learning

The breathing technique can be used as a prelude to any learning or revision session as well as before starting the examination itself.

Learning or revising material for examinations is not simply about reading your notes. The best way to learn something is to change it from one form to another.

For example a written list turned into a mind-map or other visual format; speaking a text you need to learn out-loud (possibly recording it) — the idea is that you change the sensory modalities you are using when learning.

The key sensory modalities can be considered as Seeing, Hearing, Feeling and Thinking. So engaging all of them in a learning activity has been shown to be really beneficial.

The best way to learn is to teach some-one else — hence the idea of revision buddies or study groups.

There is a difference between being able to recall information and being able to apply what has been learned. We can make a distinction between knowledge, understanding and application. So, when learning something try to apply the knowledge to a real-world example or situation.

If you are, or know, a young person who may need a conversation about examination stress and you’re in the UK, then here is Childlines free confidential helpline on 0800 1111

picture credit: grealt : pixaby

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Writing about personal development, the mind and future histories. New articles every Monday. Website : www.dralanjones.com

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Dr Alan Jones PhD FRSA

Dr Alan Jones PhD FRSA

Writing about personal development, the mind and future histories. New articles every Monday. Website : www.dralanjones.com

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