Stress is a normal part of life, and a moderate amount of stress can be beneficial in creating motivation and focus for tasks that need to be completed. Stress around exam time is associated with a specific event, therefore when that event has passed the stress should reduce. A moderate amount of stress can be a good thing. It can sharpen concentration and performance and help to create the energy and motivation we need to keep studying.
Too much stress, however, can be overwhelming and stop us from being able to study and function healthily in life. It is very common to think that we will be judged solely on our academic achievements rather than as individuals with contributions to make in all sorts of ways. If someone believes that his/her self-worth depends on academic achievement, there will be considerable anxiety surrounding any academic assessment. Too much anxiety can be paralysing. If the pressures to succeed from family or others is extremely high, it may help to contact a counselling service in order to talk about this.
WHAT IS STRESS?
- Stress is part of the body’s natural response to a perceived threat. It causes our bodies to go into a fight or flight response.
- The main physiological reaction is the release of a rush of adrenaline which gives us the energy to act.
- If the perceived difficulty is not physical but psychological, the adrenalin is not used up and this can cause increased muscle tension, heart rate, and breathing rate.
- This then leads to physical changes (headaches, neck aches, stomach problems), mood changes (irritability, tearfulness, feeling low or anxious) or behaviour changes (sleeping problems, increase or decrease in appetite, difficulty in concentration).
- Exams lead to stress because the marks will influence final degree results. Thus, the stress is derived mainly from the additional meanings which get attributed to exam results. Prevention is always the best option and there are a number of things pupils can do to lower their stress levels and prepare for their exams.
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) stress the importance of time management, sleep, study patterns, and techniques to cope with stress. They suggest you recommend the following to students, matric pupils facing exam stress, and their parents:
ORGANISING YOUR TIME
- Draw up a weekly timetable including everything you need to do such as revision, eating, sleeping, lectures, and relaxation.
- Allow for sufficient flexibility due to the unexpected.
- Be realistic about how much time you can spend revising – if you divide the week into 21 units (3 a day), you should work for a maximum of 15 units per week. You should have six units to do other things.
- Allow yourself time for relaxation as it will decrease your stress levels. This is not wasting time as it will help you work more effectively.
- Plan how you will use your time during your revision periods. Decide on the order of topics and how much time you will spend on each.
- Stick to your deadlines.
- Prioritise – do the most important topics first and allow more time for subjects you find difficult.
- Set specific goals for each revision period.
- Do not work in or on your bed.
- Stop working at least an hour before you sleep.
- Stick to a regular bedtime and getting up time.
- Maintain good sleeping patterns – 6-8 hours a night are recommended.
- Do not drink too much alcohol – it will prevent you from sleeping properly.
- Take regular breaks from studying.
- When you notice that you are distracted, get up and take a break.
- Fifteen minutes when you can concentrate is better than three hours of staring into space and feeling guilty or anxious.
TECHNIQUES TO COPE WITH STRESS
- Some individuals may use alcohol, smoking, and drugs as a means to manage stress. These may have a calming effect in the short term, however, they are not ideal solutions since it may cause one to feel worse afterward and thus impair the ability to think clearly.
- Eat at least one proper meal a day and keep the body hydrated.
- Exercise. This increases the blood flow around the body which increases clearer thought. Just a 10 minute walk a day can be helpful, especially in using up some of the extra adrenaline created by the stress.
- Focus your attention on counting breaths.
- Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply.
- Locate any areas of tension and try to relax those muscles.
- Give yourself a little treat each day.
- There are various herbal preparations and homeopathic remedies available, but you should consult a qualified practitioner about this.
- Yoga, meditation, and massage all contribute to reducing stress and promoting relaxation.
Although more studies are needed, some supplements show promise for improving and protecting brain health. However, many brain-boosting supplements are only effective for people who are deficient in the supplemented nutrient. The following supplements may be beneficial:
- Ginseng: may help to enhance brain function and fight fatigue.
- Omega-3 fish oil: may help with memory loss and help boost mood.
- Vitamin B6: plays key roles in keeping the brain and nervous system functioning properly
- Vitamin B12: is an essential nutrient for the proper function and development of the brain. Many people take a B12 supplement to help with fatigue.
- Vitamin D3: low vitamin D3 levels have been correlated to impaired cognitive function, low energy, and even depression.
- Multivitamin: taking a multivitamin each day can help with overall concentration, brain power, memory, energy, and more. Most multivitamins include things like vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamins B6 & B12, and zinc. All of these vitamins work in the body differently, some improving brain function and some boosting the immune system.
WHAT FRIENDS AND FAMILY CAN DO TO HELP
- Listen to the individual’s concerns, be sensitive and give him/her support.
- Encourage him/her to take breaks and go out from time to time.
- Inform them about various strategies.
- Help them to seek additional help if the stress is getting too much for the person. Reassure them that this is a sign of strength, not weakness.
- Ensure that they are having regular meals, times of relaxation and emotional support.
- Give positive feedback.
- Keep distractions to a minimum.
TEEN SUICIDE IN SA
In SS 9% of all teen deaths are due to suicide – and this figure is on the increase. In the 15-24 age group, suicide is the second leading – and fastest growing – cause of death. Children as young as seven have committed suicide in SA.
HOW PARENTS CAN RECOGNISE STRESS OR ANXIETY IN THEIR CHILDREN?
According to Akeso Psychiatric Hospitals, common signs of stress and anxiety include irritability, difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, and complaints about headaches, stomach aches, and other physical pains. “Children may also report difficulty concentrating or you may notice mood changes in your child. “It is well worth having open conversations with your child about coping mechanisms for when they feel stressed or anxious, and this will help the child to feel supported,” Akeso reports.
HOW TO ASSIST YOUR STRESSED CHILD?
Support your child year-round in their studies, encouraging them to do regular revision and to stay up to date with their work. Leading up to test or exam time, you can help by having discussions with your child about how they are feeling, encouraging them to take appropriate breaks from studying, and providing supportive advice on the process of studying. This could include advice about study methods or practical advice, such as reducing background noise to aid concentration. Remind your child that exams are only one part of their education and that their exam results are not the only thing that matters – and that their well-being is of paramount importance.