Adolescence has long been considered a stressful time, with important developmental tasks of independence and identity being achieved. As well as navigating the pressures of school with the pressure that their performance may open or close future doors, social relationships being navigated, and concerns regarding the effects of puberty and body image significant. It appears that the mental health of Australian young people has worsened over the years, with just over 40% of Australian youth indicating mental health was their greatest issue in the 2018 youth survey conducted by Mission Australia (https://www.missionaustralia.com.au/what-we-do/research-impact-policy-advocacy/youth-survey).
Mission Australia’s survey relies on self-reports of young people aged 15-19. It showed common concerns for young people were coping with stress (43%) and school (34%). In another survey conducted by mental-health organisation ReachOut (https://about.au.reachout.com/economic-uncertainty-driving-exam-stress-2018/), 65.1% of youth reported worrying levels of exam stress in 2018, compared to 51.2% in 2017. This exam stress affects most students in varying ways, from difficulty sleeping, irritability with oneself and others, trouble concentrating, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, feelings of isolation, avoiding school (absenteeism or school refusal), or a defeatist attitude (‘What’s the point?’).
While we know that a moderate degree of anxiety can help performance, this chronic worry and high pressure is clearly not helping our young people. So, what do we do?
If you are a student, and displaying any of these signs, it's a good indicator that you need to incorporate some stress relief strategies as part of your exam preparation.
1. Schedule regular breaks and enjoyable activities to look forward to
Researchers have shown that our mental health is increased when we engage in a range of activities that provide either a sense of achievement or pleasure (Dimidjian et al., 2011), and that are aligned with personal goals (Chan et al., 2017). It’s easy to prioritise study over self-care in the throws of VCE. However, even 10-minute breaks during your revision day can pay off. Whether it’s dinner or movies with friends, attending a gig, or anything that provides a sense of calm and soothing to take your mind off exams. Spending a little time away from the books will leave you feeling more refreshed and relaxed the next time you revise. Use of the pomodoro timing technique has also been shown to benefit students by studying in timed slots (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110208131529.htm)
2. Exercise and get some rays
Exam season always hits just as depths of winter finally disappears (thanks Melbourne!). However, this can be used to your advantage, by setting your alarm to go off 30 or 60 minutes earlier, and heading out for a walk, or a run, or to the gym or a swimming pool. Numerous studies (Stathopoulou et al, 2006) have shown that exercising is a great way to get those feel-good endorphins pumping, and to support your motivation throughout the day. Plus, when you exercise at the start of the day, you can get it out of the way, making your more productive while revising.
3. Beware of the ‘compare and despair’ effect
Maintaining a social life is important when revising, and while it is helpful to discuss topics with fellow students and often to revise together, try not to compare other peoples' revision to your own. Recent studies on the ‘compare and despair’ effect show that while it's perfectly OK to want to perform at your personal best, constantly comparing yourself with others can be incredibly detrimental to your physical and mental health. Chances are you’re doing just fine, it is important to remember that everyone learns and revises in different ways, so what works for you may not work for someone else. Trust your guts and stick to revision and a routine that work for you. Helpful self-talk, like “I’m doing the best I can,” and daily mindfulness practice, using apps such as Smiling Mind, work effectively during periods of high stress.
4. Fuel your brain
When you’re studying, it can be tempting to reach for convenient junk foods, but your brain will thank you if you stay fuelled with healthy, nutritious snacks. Prepare them at the start of the day or the night before if you’re pressed for time.
5. Seek out support
If you are finding the level of stress you’re experiencing overwhelming, or you notice that you are being affected more seriously than your peers, it may be time to reach out to a professional for help. Your university or school should have a services where you can speak to people about your concerns, who will be able to offer more advice on how to manage. If you are not ready for that or don’t know where to turn start with a family member, a friend or your local GP practice. They will be able to guide you to the right professional to provide you with support. It is important to remember that every student is feeling stress and anxiety about the exams in some way, that you are not alone in what you are feeling and that no matter how big and important a test or exam feels your life will not determined base off this one result.