How to help your teenager cope with exam stress

MAY 4, 2016

In an increasingly competitive world, young people writing exams are arguably under more pressure than ever before, knowing that their results need to give them an advantage when applying for higher education or employment. Unfortunately, this means that they are also exposed to increasingly higher levels of stress – stress that can, if not managed properly, become debilitating and even affect their performance.

Dr Gillian Mooney, Teaching and Learning Manager at The Independent Institute of Education, SA’s largest and most accredited private higher education provider, says it is therefore vital for parents and other caregivers to monitor the mental wellbeing of learners and students in addition to their preparation, as there are a number of ways that stress can be manipulated to improve performance rather than allowing it to be an unnecessary hurdle.

“At this time of year, it is not unusual for young people to experience peak levels of stress because of the nearing exams,” she says, adding that “it is important to remember that stress can both be motivating and managed”.

Mooney, who has also spent more than a decade and a half as a Psychology lecturer, says adults should understand that stress is subjective, and that what is stressful for one person, may not be stressful for another.

“Stress is your body’s physical reaction to certain situations. Your body has a biological response - that is chemicals and hormones are released - in order to help you cope with a stressful stimulus. As a result, stress can affect your physical health, your mental health and your behaviour.”

She says while some stress is healthy in the short term, and can help one be more productive and motivated, negative stress will cause ‘distress’, leading to feelings of anger, irritability and fear.

“Negative stress may also cause physical symptoms such as a headache or stomach cramps. Exam anxiety is a kind of stress that involves excessive worrying about exams, the fear of being evaluated, and, of the consequences of exams. Exam anxiety is experienced by many students and is not mysterious or difficult to understand.”

Mooney says this type of stress can be easily managed if a student takes heed of the following ten tips:

1.Believe in yourself: If you have worked consistently since the start of the year, you should be fine and there is no need to worry excessively.

2.Don’t try to be perfect: It’s good to have goals, but these need to be realistic. If you believe that anything less than 100% means you have failed, then you are creating unnecessary stress for yourself.

3.Don’t keep things bottled up inside: A good way to alleviate worry and stress is to confide in someone that you trust and who will be supportive, for example your parents, friends or lecturers.

4Keep things in perspective: Exams may seem like the most important thing right now, but in the context of your whole life, they are only really a small part. Life will be worth living regardless of an exam. Give yourself credit for getting as far as you have.

5.Be proactive in tackling your problems: If you do not understand some of the material, merely feeling stressed about it will not help. Rather make an appointment to see your lecturer, talk to your classmates, or review a past exam paper.

6.Get accurate information: Check all the course information and ask your lecturer. You need to know what will be in the exam, how it will be marked, where the exam will be written, and when the exam will start and end.

7.Structure your study time: You need to study in regular sessions of about 50 minutes each, separated by 10 minute breaks.

8.Plan for the exam: Try to arrive at the exam venue early. Wear a watch or make sure you know where the clock is in the exam venue. Wear layers of clothes so that you can adjust when you feel hot or cold. Make a list of all the materials you will need in the exam room and be sure to pack it before you go.

9.Try to maintain a healthy lifestyle: Your anxiety levels will increase if you feel tired and run down. You can improve your resilience by getting enough exercise, eating nutritious food and getting regular and adequate sleep.

10.Avoid the things that won’t help: Try not to drink too much coffee the night before and the morning of the exam. Avoid other students who are anxious and talkative before the exam. And avoid talking about the course material just before the exam.

“If you manage your emotional approach to stress, the physical response will also become manageable,” says Mooney.

“Parents and caregivers should be vigilant and ensure that if they start seeing the signs of excessive, unproductive stress, they timeously assist by providing the practical and emotional support required to help students and learners perform at their best.”