Exam Anxiety: A cause for concern

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Consider stress a friend rather than an enemy that you have to fight. Befriend stress by looking at exams as a training to prime your mind and take on greater challenges

Aldina Braganza

Semester end exams are around the corner and students are feeling the pressure. While it’s normal to feel a certain level of anxiety about the upcoming exams, it’s important to ensure that the anxiety is manageable. If not managed adequately exams can become a daunting experience. 

Like in the case of Anna (name changed), exam anxiety was a big deal. She would come to the exam hall already very anxious. Small sweat beads lined her brow as she pressed her knuckles in an attempt to release her anxiety. You could see that behind her closed eyes her mind went into battle trying to calm herself down. She would take deep breaths. Slowly inhaling and exhaling as she kept repeating to herself “I can do this”.  It had helped her in the past and she was hoping it would help her today as well. When the teacher finally handed her the question paper, Anna took a quick glance at the paper and realised she was completely blank. Anna tried to compose herself but she found it hard to think of anything except that she just couldn’t remember anything she spent the whole night cramming. Anna had her meltdown, every student’s nightmare. No student wants to ever be in Anna’s shoes

Why does this happen? The expectations of students are far greater than they can handle or are they having a problem managing their test anxiety?

I used to think that there is a direct relationship between preparedness and anxiety levels. Through my recent dialogue with youngsters I understand this is not the case. There are two extraneous variables that complicate the issues further now than ever before.

The first is that students are questioning some of the facts that we earlier did not. They are questioning the entire system of education. They are far more vocal and express their disdain about the system. It is not only the normal degree colleges that students are freaking out about but also professional institutions like medical, engineering, architecture and pharmacy to name a few. Young boys and girls are seriously questioning the purpose of rote learning.

But the dice roll does not stop here. The other variable that has caught my attention is more as a backlash rather than the issue at hand itself. Students are seeking peer influence to help them deal with test anxiety. The peer influence being the use of substances, especially weed as an alternative to stay alert and cope with test anxiety.

My concerns lie with the fact that young students in the age bracket of say 18 to 23 are smoking up to deal with the pressures of exam related anxiety. They believe that the entire system of rote learning is an unwarranted and an unrealistic expectation of learning.

Since many of the students live on their own or in hostels, parents do not know of this until later when their child becomes a dependent on substance use. 

The numbers are frightening. Many may only use it incidentally and occasionally but many don’t and get hooked on to it even before they realise it.

I know all about the positive benefits of smoking up because that is all I hear from this lobby of weed enthusiasts. But I also know the other side of the story when young boys and girls mess with their own developmental stages. They complete their education but with mediocre performance. Their levels of motivation drop to the extent that all they do is meet with friends and chill out.

I see it with many youngsters. Their weed habit robs them of the ability to chart their own life course. This article is not only about the concerns of drug use among teenagers or youngsters. It is more about exam anxiety and the need to address this as a family.

Having unrealistic expectations of your kids is where I would like to begin. Talk to them about the long term effects that weed has on their brain development especially since the brain continues to develop and mature up until the age of 25 years.

The first thing to do in order to deal with exam stress is change the way your child looks at exams and generally at stress as a whole. See stress as a friend rather than an enemy that you have to fight. Befriend stress by looking at exams as a training to prime your mind and take on greater challenges. Change your thoughts about exams.  Higher education requires a sense of maturity. This can happen through dialogue. 

Many parents give up getting involved with their children’s lives as soon as they enter college. Unfortunately these are crucial years and they require your guidance just as much. They may reject it but that is secondary. Your role is involvement. If peer influence is not monitored it can have disastrous consequences.

Make exams a family affair like you did with them when they were younger. They continue to need your attention even if it is from a distance. 

(Writer is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and the HOD of psychology at Carmel College for Women)