When examinations become too stressful

Worry factor

When examinations   become too stressful

Worry factor Our exam system does generate tension in students’ mind. Ali Khwaja  analysis the causes and suggests practical ways to overcome them.

Shreyas and Shambu have one thing in common – they both get highly stressed out and inevitably fall sick at the time of exams. But otherwise they are totally opposite to each other in temperament and attitude. Shreyas studies very hard. He does not leave out a single chapter or formula. He has no interest in extra curricular activities and studies for hours every day even when there are no exams.

Shambu takes things easy through the year, enjoys sports and socializing, and only when exams come very close he suddenly starts studying almost round the clock.But surprisingly both suffer from very similar trauma during exam time – cold sweat, shivering hands, nausea, headache, and the worst – going blank at times in the exam hall.

There are many students who suffer from exam stress to greater or lesser extent but they do manage to finally perform reasonably well. There are children who come crying from the exam hall thinking they have done badly, but finally get better grades than what they had hoped for.  Since our exam system does generate tension in students’ minds, some amount of stress is natural, and may in fact be a trigger for them to study more.

Stress symptoms

Stress levels go so high that they develop serious headaches or nausea, run up temperature, in extreme cases even have panic attacks.  Due to so much pressure on the brain they forget important data in the exam hall, make silly mistakes or simply overlook some questions without realising it. Such students are often misunderstood by parents or teachers, and are pressurised into studying more hours, taking private tuition, and are even made to drink “memory tonics”. The solution however lies in reducing stress and modifying study methodology, and this should be done well in advance, not on the day of the exam.  Preparatory exams, known as “prelims” do give some indication whether a student is running up tension, and close observation of behaviour patterns can be warning signs.  Disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, desire to keep running away from studies, obsession with games, mobiles or friends, even locking oneself up for long hours in a room – are possible indicators that the child needs help.

Causes and remedies

* If a student sets a specific goal in terms of marks, be it 90% or 50%, he will feel the anxiety of not touching the benchmark. Hence a student should be encouraged to aim for progress beyond his last score. E.g. If he has scored 54% in the last math test, he may aim to add 6% and get a first class, or try to work very hard and increase score by  as much as 15-20%

*  There are no shortcuts to stress relief, and denial of stress is very dangerous. Simple stress reduction methods, if practiced for at least few weeks before exams, can be effective. But the method has to be identified by trial and error and then practiced daily, particularly as exams draw near.

*   A simple medical check-up by the family physician can eliminate any physiological causes that may hamper performance.

* Ensure that the student does not completely give up on his hobbies or games (particularly some amount of physical activity is essential during exam time). Sleep should not be reduced significantly, and food should be eaten on time.  Added to that, continuous intake of water (constant sipping of water through the day), and simple deep breathing many times in the day ensure that the brain gets sufficient oxygen.

*  Students who get unduly tensed during exams also need periodic breaks when they are studying for long hours. Short breaks when they get up from the place of study, look intently into the sky or far-off objects for a minute, stretching of hands and legs, a leisurely stroll or brisk walk, some healthy snack or juice, are all very effective.

 Depending on the individual, a break of about 3-5 minutes needs to be taken once every 30 to 60 minutes.  Ensure that the break does not result in long conversations, watching TV or getting mentally involved with some issue that will remain in the mind.

When annual exams are round the corner, encourage every student to do self-introspection and look for the following symptoms: restless sleep, waking up in the middle of the night, churning stomach, difficulty in digestion, dull headaches, heaviness in the eyes, panic attacks when studying a difficult or boring subject. If even one or two of the above are slowly increasing, immediately get a health check-up done, preferably by the family physician who knows and understands the student’s history.  Many general practitioners are competent to prescribe anti-anxiety medication.  

If such a doctor is not available, then one should consult a psychiatrist.  Care should be taken that the dosage of medicine is exactly as prescribed, and intake should not be stopped without permission of the doctor.

 Even if a patient is unhappy with a doctor’s prescription, he should take a second opinion, and not just decide that he is all right so he can stop taking the medicine. Similarly, medicine prescribed earlier should not be taken on his own, even if the symptoms are the same as before.

Simultaneously, the number of hours of study should be temporarily brought down, and the time available spent on any stress-relief activity which is suitable to that particular person.  Positive affirmations such as, “I will definitely succeed.  I am capable.  I will do my best. I will overcome this temporary hurdle” repeated dozens of times in a day build up the morale. 

All family members should focus to first bring down the mental tension of the student, reassuring him that in the worst case the exam can be taken later, but his health and well-being is more important. Others around should never panic or start giving unwanted advice. Laugh and joke with the student, keep giving positive strokes, do not set any bench-marks of minimum grades the student has to obtain.

Counselling by a third person, not immediate family members, can be a big boost.  An elderly relative or neighbour, a favourite teacher, a senior student he looks up to as a role model, any such person can give a listening ear and give emotional support. In these discussions advice should be avoided, and the student just encouraged to speak out all his thoughts, feelings, fears, doubts etc, without interruption or passing judgment.  

If no suitable person is available, then seek the help of a professional counsellor. Always keep in mind that the exam is not as important as the well-being of the student.

I have seen innumerable students who seemed on the verge of failure, were given the right support and therapy, and have gone on to very bright careers. A student can move ahead with lower-than-expected marks, he can re-appear for a failed exam, and can also drop the exam in an extreme case and take it later.  But getting back peace of mind, building up self-esteem and confidence are great assets that will ensure the student’s success in the exam of life.

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