Exam Stress: How to manage stress, anxiety and expectation.
How do we judge success? What marks one person better (or worse) than someone else? Are there ways of determining how well a topic, theme or concept has been grasped? Within the education system the answer to these questions are exams and assessments.
For 16 year olds, schools have created a moment of intense testing and stress, all designed to judge a students academic ability and aptitude. It’s a real sink or swim moment and for many students, the hard work, efforts and countless late nights cramming information into tired brains is worth it when they open the envelope in August to reveal their results. For others, however, it’s a harrowing and stark reminder that they’ve not been (as) successful and that they may have to face re-sits, not going to the same college as friends or that their hopes and aspirations have been dashed. Perhaps surprisingly, this is equally true for those getting 6s and 7s (the old equivalent Cs and Bs) as it is for those getting 2s and 3s (Es).
Alongside the self-imposed pressure students face, there are the added stresses exacerbated by teacher and parents who ‘want them to do their best’, but may(?) recognise that at some level, the success of the student is also reflective on their ability to teach or how academically pushy they’ve been as parents!
But stress isn’t just related to students in school. It also relates to our relationships, interactions with colleagues, and homelife pressures. Hopefully you’ll find some of this contents helpful and supportive and if you find it boring, it’ll be the perfect tool for helping you sleep too!
Stress – A response
So what can we do about it? It’s important to recognise and understand what is going on, so we can do something positive about it. Some form of stress is absolutely normal. It’s a day to day part of life and during our lives, we will all have developed strategies and techniques we can apply to lessen the negative impacts of this on our health and wellbeing. Arguably the World’s greatest footballer Lionel Messi, is reputed to throw up before big games because the stress and worry gets too much for him… and he captained Argentina to World Cup Glory in Qatar in 2022!
Whilst I’m not convinced throwing up is the answer for all stressful situations – imagine grooms at weddings and the mess that would create! – it does help to highlight a natural response we all have in stressful situations. A learned response developed back when we were (all?) Neanderthals and faced with a Sabre-Toothed Tiger or Mammoth for the first time, all whilst carrying a stick masquerading as a spear… Are we going to stand and fight or turn heel and flee? The fight or flight reflex is a well-known phenomenon, caused by our lack of understanding in relation to the situation we’re facing. The result is we quickly feel overwhelmed.
This is where curiosity helps. When we are experiencing stress, we’re sometimes able to notice where in our bodies we’re feeling it. We may feel a shakiness in muscles or butterflies in our gut. Our rate of breathing may quicken as adrenalin is released. We might be a little unsettled or our stomach might start to churn. It is in recognising these signs and becoming curious about them, that we begin to understand what is happening and start to do something about them.
As well as recognising that stress is happening, it’s also important to begin to identify where the stress is originating. Is it an internal stressor – telling ourselves we aren’t good enough, expecting to fail or not preparing effectively. Alternatively, are they external stressors – work, exams, or noisy neighbours! And it’s how we respond to these stressors that makes a difference.
So what do we need to be aware of?
Mind Traps: Unrealistic expectations; taking things too personally; all-or-nothing thinking; exaggerating – the things that we allow our brain to get involved in doing which aren’t helpful. These can be impacted by our day-to-day existence and whether we argued with our other half, children/parents or the idiot who cut us off at the lights whilst driving to work (‘who damn near killed me’ – the exaggerated bit!). For a young person it may be that someone has got the same top as them, or has stood on their new Creps (trainers). Or they may have not done as well on an assessment as they’d expected. These thing can cause us to spiral – quickly – and we need to be aware of not falling into these traps.
Lifestyle Choices: Intake of caffeine; tobacco; drugs; lack of sleep or overloaded schedule – we live in a society that tells us that busyness is acceptable and to be expected. We talk about the ways that enable us to ‘keep pushing’ or ‘stretching ourselves’ and yet, without stopping, without taking breath and reducing our intake, we cease to be what we think we need to be. How can I be a good employee, husband, wife, parent, grandparent, student, church member, and/or friend if I don’t have time for everything, including myself? And please don’t be seduced by the ‘work smarter’ mantra that flies around the business world – working smarter is just another euphemism for still working long hours… you just get more done!
Negative Self-Talk: Pessimism; self-criticism; over-analysing – In the New Testament, Jesus came across a woman, accused of adultery about to be stoned to death by the crowd. He asked a simple question ‘Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone’. No-one throws even a handful of gravel, simply walking away having been found lacking. Jesus then tells the woman to ‘sin no more’. We are all guilty of allowing negative thoughts to enter our minds and dictate how we’re feeling or how we respond to situations and circumstances. The truth is being aware is half the battle… and it reminds us we’re in a battle, and need to do something positive in response!
Stressful Personality: Perfectionist; workaholic and people pleaser! It sounds like a rather questionable LinkedIn header, and I’d add those who want things doing a certain way (their way) into the mix as well. When you’re a perfectionist, nothing can be completed, because there is no such thing as perfection! If you spend too much time working (above and beyond what you’re called to do), you never settle because there is always something else. There are also additional stresses with friends and family as you prioritise work over them and their needs. Alternatively, if you spend all your time trying to please others, you quickly discover you don’t please anyone… something that isn’t sustainable.
Stress becomes a problem when it begins to restrict our lives. It’s unhelpful when our performance becomes affected and it’s worrying when we begin to understand our bodies reaction to the pressure we’re under. It’s particularly difficult when it’s severe and long-term.
Stress is a common problem, but like all problems the longer you leave it and the more time it has to escalate and fester, the bigger it’s likely to become and the greater the impact it’ll have.
So, in the words of the archetypal playground bully, ‘what are you going to do about it?’
We can’t change or deal with all the stresses and strains at once – more often that not, it’s too big a job and we’ll find ourselves overwhelmed and stressed (the irony!). We have to do it slowly, persistently and strategically.
Healthy Living: Diet
Physical wellbeing and mental wellbeing are closely linked. There is a mantra which states ‘when we feel good about ourselves, we feel good about ourselves’. When we’re stressed we tend to resort to those foods that aren’t the best for us – high in sugars, fats and caffeine (as well as alcohol). A doughnut, or burger aren’t ‘bad’ however if we’re resorting to eating them because of how we’re feeling, they become problematic, especially after 3 or 4! Making a conscious decision to eat your ‘5 a day’ of fruit and veg is important. It’s deliberate and intentional, and something that fights the response and overcomes the reaction. Drinking plenty of water is a positive step too, and it helps make your skin look better, so win win! Eating regularly and not skipping meals is also really important. They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, yet it’s the easiest to skip. By eating first thing, your body’s metabolism is kicked into gear and you actually burn more fat and calories that if you skip it. By skipping meals, your body stores the food you eat rather than burning it for energy and you end up putting on weight and feeling tired and sluggish. You end up in a worse situation!
Healthy Living: Exercise
Exercise is great because it gets you moving, your heart pumping and helps to stave off boredom. It also means you can schedule ‘you’ time and invest in doing something positive.
It doesn’t have to be anything particularly strenuous. Something as simply as taking a walk at lunchtime rather than eating at your desk is a perfect way to start. In France they recognise this by law! It is illegal to eat your lunch at work, you have to leave the building! Whilst I’m not advocating a legal approach, there is something to be said about how exercise positively boosts production and outputs.
Exercise can also benefit the next healthy living approach…
Healthy Living: Sleep
Sleep is like the physiological equivalent of putting our phones on charge. If we don’t, eventually we run out of puff and power down (OK, the metaphor may be getting a little stretched here!) But better sleep means a better you, and a better you helps to build resilience and capacity in relation to stress.
So how do we sleep better? Some of these suggestions may or may not appeal to you, but could be worth trying!
Turn your phone/iPad/Computer off an hour before bed and put them away/somewhere else (or even leave them downstairs)! We may have heard of blue screen light and the impact it has on our brain. Ask a teenager who has a phone by their bed, and if their screen lights up in the middle of the night, they’ll automatically wake up! We are all attuned to our phones, like Pavlov’s dogs were to the sound of a bell! We need to remove these from our spaces to aid our sleep and positively impact our Circadian rhythms (the part of our system that helps us feel awake, asleep and hungry!!)
Open a window – a cooler room allows your body to rest and relax better. The temperature of the room is a key factor in achieving quality sleep.
Sleep with little or no clothing on! Sleeping naked is not only more comfortable (discuss!?), but is actually healthy for you as it allows the body to breath more naturally. We also warm up quicker, as our body heat is transferred to the duvet rather than our bedclothes.
Don’t talk about important things in bed – if you have important conversations in bed, it tends to kick your brain into gear… try to avoid this (and stick to counting sheep).
Keep a tidy space – sleeping in a messy bedroom can be stressful as you’re never sure what you may step on in the night, or where you’ve left your shirt/socks for the morning. A clean, calming space, is ideal for reducing stress and promoting better sleep.
Healthy Living: Cigarettes and Alcohol
Alcohol is a stimulant which makes falling asleep harder and reducing stress more difficult. Because excessive alcohol consumption also has connotations with managing stress poorly, limiting the amount you drink when under pressure can be very helpful. We also tend to make poor decisions when under the influence of alcohol, which is unlikely to be helpful in reducing the stress we’re feeling.
Cigarettes have a similar negative impact and are widely considered to be socially undesirable as well.
Ultimately we all have choices to make when it comes to managing stress levels. We know that there will always be points and moments where stress in inevitable and can feel overwhelming. But we have a choice about how we respond and the approaches we take. And we have to remember that these moments of stress are just this… moments. They may last longer that we’d like, but they will eventually pass. Hopefully some of the tips and advice you’ve read will be helpful in making it sooner, rather than later!!
Next month – May: Neuro-diversity – seeing the world through a different lens
If you want to hear more or have topics/themes you’d like us to discuss, please don’t hesitate to get in contact at firstname.lastname@example.org