Stress and Anxiety during Exam Season

Stress and Anxiety during Exam Season

It’s the start of a new term and students up and down the country are sitting “mock” exams. Whether its for common entrance, GCSE’s or A ‘levels it can be a stressful time for all concerned. How we handle stress and anxiety can have a massive impact on our lives, affecting not just ourselves but the whole household. If it is not managed successfully it can go on to have far reaching consequences in our lives.

What is Stress and Anxiety?

According to the Oxford English dictionary the definitions are: –
Stress is as an organism’s total response to environmental demands or pressures.
Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.

From these definitions you can imagine how anxiety can follow stress. What is important to remember is that our bodies are designed to deal with stress and have the systems in place to help us cope. So why do we get stressed? It is all down to how our minds interprets a situation that influences how our body reacts.

Let me give you an example:
We have two students, Janet and John (remember those books?) Both are in year 10 at secondary school. They are both in middle set for maths and have the same teacher. Janet loves maths and finds it easy, John doesn’t like maths and finds it difficult. At their last test they both got 60%. They have a test coming up and Janet is not nervous at all. John is grumpy and not sleeping well in the lead up to the test. So why the difference in response?

On paper they are both as capable as each other but they are running different scenarios in their heads. One results in a cool calm approach and one is full of worry. What we think can have a massive influence on how we respond to stressful situations. Also, those around us can influence our thoughts and how we deal with situations.

Let’s look behind Janet’s influences first. She has always liked school and enjoys answering questions in class. Her teachers have always given her positive feedback and her parents have always congratulated her on her efforts, even when she got 0/10 for 3 weeks running on her table tests in year 3. Her parents are always pointing out that there’s no such thing as failure just feedback.

Now its John turn. He is a quieter student and was often told he was too quiet in class and his year 3 teacher told his parents he was lazy at learning his tables. His parents knew he was trying hard, but his dad often said, “you are probably just not good at maths, like me, don’t worry about it”. At family gatherings his Aunt, who was a maths teacher, often asked how he was doing in maths. When he said not very well, she would say “well we can’t all be good at maths”. Now both statements were meant to be positive, but his brain took them to mean he wasn’t good at maths and probably if he got 100% he’d think it was a mistake.

Obviously, I’ve simplified this, but you can see where I’m going with it.

So how does this information help us manage the stressful student in our home or classroom? We need to find out what’s driving the stress and encourage a different view or approach. Not always easy with a teenager but they give out clues for us to pick up on.

Have you heard any of the following?

I’m not good at exams?
I’m not good enough?
I can’t be bothered?
What’s the point of revising I’m going to fail anyway?

Fear of failure is a big factor in many student’s anxiety and stress. We are in a culture where everyone is measured by results at school. School’s, teachers and students are all measured on the exam results they achieve. I’m all for schools being accountable for their students but no one is measuring a love of learning or a willingness to try.

Rest, Food and Exercise.

Make sure they are getting excellent quality sleep. Teenagers need sleep, lots of it and often not at the most convenient times. They often become night owls that can’t get up in the morning. Sleeping until 2pm on Saturday and Sunday or school holidays could be just what they need to restore their balance and feed the brain.

They need a lot of food – particularly boys. Make sure there is a good supply of healthy snacks in the cupboards and don’t be surprised if they eat whole loaves of bread a day. You really need to feed the brain as this is a busy time for laying down new neural pathways. So important for learning and concentration. We all know exercise is important for wellbeing. Encourage them to go outside and do activities away from studying. It’s a great stress buster for parents too.

Remember – they are not who they meant to be yet!
Basically, this means remember that teenagers are not fully formed, and we have every chance to help them grow into independent resilient adults. Give them space to make mistakes, if they are doing their best that’s all we can ask of them. And what if they are not doing their best I hear you shout? Well I’d answer that by what are you measuring “their best” by. It may be just different to what the system expects. Not doing much may be their way of coping with stress.

Let me leave you with an example of a student I worked with last year.

He was a year 11 school “refuser” suffering severe anxiety. His parents didn’t know how best to help him. We worked together over a few months and helped him find out what he wanted to do with his life and manage his stress. He agreed to sit his GCSE’s, just for the experience of being able to do an exam. He attended every exam and realised it was OK. He then set about finding the right place to continue his education. He found a great college who did the courses he wanted.

He didn’t pass any of his GCSE’s but used this as a starting point, as did his parents.

He’s been at college now for 5 months and is loving it. He passed his GCSE Maths and English with good grades and is getting distinctions in all his courses. He is a transformed and happy young man. Just by giving him the space to explore who he wanted to become and the right learning environment was the answer.

If you want to know more about how I can help you and your stressed teenager, please contact me at www.connective-learning.co.uk.

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