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Stress and exams

Stress; exam; study; smoking; examinations; tests; studying; relaxation; anxiety ;

Some stress helps people to achieve and do their best, too much stress can cause distress and failure.  This topic looks at how to help your children manage stress, especially stress about exams.

The website Reachout  (http://au.reachout.com) has many topics for young people about stress in the sections


Contents of this topic 

Every one has stress in their lives. Stress can help people make the most of opportunities and what they do, or it can cause health problems.

This topic looks at how to help your children manage stress, especially stress about exams. In many communities, doing well in exams is valued very highly. Education enables people to have choices in their adult life and the best possibilities for future success.

However the stress that is felt by children and young people, whether this is meant or not, can cause them to do less well than they hoped to. Some stress helps people to achieve and do their best, too much stress can cause distress and failure.

What is stress?

  • Stress is a feeling of tension, excitement or pressure to do well which alerts the body to be ready to put a big effort into whatever a person is doing.
  • Stress can come, for example before a race or exams, when there is a lot to do at work or home, or a special thing to do, or when there is something scary that might happen.
  • Stress is part of everyday living and gives you energy to succeed and do well.
  • Stress makes your body produce chemicals that "get you going" such as adrenalin (epinephrine). Many people like the feeling of tension and excitement that they bring.
  • Some people believe that being always stressed and busy makes them more important. But it also means that you don't have much time for relationships with others.
  • The chemicals that the body makes when stressed are there to help a person physically fight what is stressing them or to run away from it. When a person does not use the chemicals to do this sort of physical work, the chemicals may cause some harm to the body. This is one of the reasons why doing exercise when you feel stressed can make you feel less stressed.

Stress problems

  • Stress becomes a problem when, instead of helping a person to do better, it causes him to do less well, or causes health or relationship problems.
  • Stress can be harmful if something is happening that is too big for the person to manage, or if there are too many things happening all causing many smaller stresses at once.

Signs of stress problems

Sometimes stress problems can "creep up on you" so you are not really aware of too much stress until things start going wrong. The following can be signs of too much stress.

  • Being easily upset or angry
  • Tiredness and having problems sleeping
  • Smoking or drinking more than usual
  • Tense muscles, headaches and backache
  • Worry, feeling overwhelmed and helpless
  • Poor concentration
  • Being "jumpy" and "fidgety"
  • Lots of blaming and complaining
  • Diarrhoea
  • Loss of enthusiasm
  • Loss of interest - things you usually enjoy
  • Less resistance to viruses and infections

Causes of stress problems

Stress problems can be caused by external things such as exams, or internal things, such as what you tell yourself, or both.

Some external causes of stress problems

  • Other people expecting too much and pressuring you
  • A sudden unexpected loss or change
  • Having to be in a social situation where you don't feel comfortable
  • Being in conflict with someone else
  • Big changes in the family, eg moving house, getting a divorce, losing a job.

Some internal causes of stress problems

  • Being a perfectionist
  • Having too high expectations of yourself
  • Finding it hard to cope with change
  • Shyness or feeling uncomfortable in groups
  • Always being worried that something bad will happen - being a pessimist
  • Working too hard/trying too hard
  • Not managing your time well.
  • Unreasonable beliefs eg "I won't be liked if I am not the best", "I am not an OK person if everyone doesn't like me".

Coping with stress problems

Things that don't work

  • Drugs and alcohol - they don't solve the problem and they make you feel worse in the long run.
  • Smoking, even though it may make you feel relaxed for a few minutes, doesn't help for long.  The effect of the nicotine is that your heart beats faster, blood pressure rises and your body has to work harder.
  • More of the same - keeping on trying to do everything and building the stress.
  • Drinking a lot of coffee or cola drinks - the caffeine can keep you going for a while but it can also make you more tense and irritable, and less able to do what you need to.
  • Always having to win discussions or arguments.
  • Setting really high goals for yourself so that you can never achieve them and have to keep trying harder and harder.

Things that work

  • Be organised. Think about what you do. Make a list of the most important. Drop some things off the bottom if you have to.
  • Learn to know your own symptoms of stress so you can take action when you feel them building up.
  • Take time out - time for relaxation, fun and exercise - all important in reducing stress. Physical activity is a really important way to lower your stress.
  • Stay in contact with friends.  Talking things over can help you "keep things in proportion".
  • Change what you say to yourself - eg say "I think I can" instead of "I know I can't", "I'll try" instead of "I have to".
  • Learn to meditate or do yoga.
  • A massage or spa bath can be relaxing.
  • Watch what you eat and drink. A healthy diet with fruit rather than sugary sweets for snacks is best for reducing stress. It seems that chocolate has some chemicals in it that help people feel better, so eating chocolate rather than other sweets may be best if you really want something sweet.
  • Don't try to be perfect. Most people prefer others who are simply human like themselves, with some good qualities and a few things they aren't so good at.
  • If you know what relaxes you - try doing that. This can be different for different people, for some it might be reading, for others music or gardening, or going for a run with the dog.

What to do for exam stress

Encourage your children to do as well as they can, but try not to pressure them or make them feel that you will be very disappointed if they don't do well.

  • Help them to set up a quiet place to study and protect their privacy.
  • Take an interest in what they are doing.
  • Lessen the chores around exam time, and encourage your young people to get some breaks from study.
  • Let them know that you trust them to do as well as they can.
  • Encourage your children to talk with teachers or lecturers about a study program that suits them - and to stick to it.
  • Encourage them to get ideas about revision techniques from teachers or friends and choose what suits them best.
  • Help them to balance their time and to allow time for exercise, going out, staying in touch with friends and having fun and enough rest.
  • Encourage them to get plenty of fresh air. Try studying outside for a change.
  • When people feel stressed their body needs to do something active - this is the way our ancestors escaped from their enemies. So encourage your teenager to do something active when he or she feels really stressed - go for a run or play an energetic game.
  • Make sure there is time for friends. Talking things over with others helps.
  • It is important to take breaks, especially when they feel tired or they are not working well. Stretch, go for a walk, or do something different for a few minutes.
  • Some foods seem to help more than others - a drink of warm milk can help relax at bedtime, while sugar gives more energy for a while, but then the person can feel worse than before.
  • Young people don't need drinks with caffeine in them before an exam - their own stress will make them tense enough!
  • If they are obviously not able to do well, or maybe not working as well as they can, remember that there are other ways to do well in life without passing exams. For those who are not yet ready to work well at their study for some reason, there can always be another time.

On the day of the exam

Some suggestions for your young people.

  • Plan ahead. Double check the time and place of the exam and leave plenty of time to get there.
  • Make sure you have everything you need to write with etc, ready the day before (with spares).
  • Try to get a good sleep the night before - trying to cram in extra study can make you feel more stressed.
  • Eat a good breakfast.
  • Go to the toilet just before the exam starts.
  • When you get in to the exam you should read all the directions on the paper and all the questions first so you know exactly what you need to do.
  • Plan out the time so there is enough for each question.
  • Then tackle the easiest questions first. If there is something that is hard, it is best to leave it and come back to it, so you don't waste a lot of time when you could be doing another question well.
  • At the end almost everyone remembers something they wish they had said or done. It is very rare for anyone to do a perfect exam. Even if you feel you did badly on the day, you can't change what is past - but you will have lots more opportunities to do well in your life.
  • Plan for a safe wind-down activity after the exams, eg some physical exercise, a get together at home with friends etc.
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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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