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Is exam anxiety stressing you out?

columns Updated: Jan 12, 2013 22:01 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
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Most of us still get them, nightmares about landing up for a physics exam after staying up nights studying chemistry. About struggling to finish the test paper or, worse, accidentally leaving out questions we could have aced.

Exam anxiety never quite leaves you. The nightmares come back to haunt you usually before a stressful event, and make you relive the sleepless nights, aching limbs, lost appetite, irritability, palpitation, dry retching, killer migraines, forgetfulness, dizzy spells and panic attacks that you thought you’d left behind in school. Everyone gets it, though in degrees. Some just struggle to hold their wildly jumping thoughts together, while others get panic attacks that make them sick enough to need medical attention.

Psychologists insist that increasing competitiveness, rote learning and unrealistic expectations from parents and schools is burdening students more than ever before. They’re right, but only to some extent. I feel the real pressure comes from it being drilled into a student’s head that exams are the cause of unbearable stress and if they can’t feel it, there’s something very wrong with them.

My son, who is one of the unfortunate few who has to sit for the Class 10 Boards in two months, spent all of last year being periodically told by well-meaning adults, “So, you have Boards this year? You must try not to get stressed.” I think the pressure of being expected to be stressed finally got to him and he walked up to me last month and grandly announced, “I cant sleep at night, I’m very stressed.” “Why?” I asked. “Board year stresses students, mom,” he informed me. This, when he is under no pressure from the school or from us.

“If you’re just anxious about how you’ll do, learn to deal with it. Performance anxiety will dog you every step of your life, so the sooner you learn to cope, the less keyed-up you’ll be through life,” I preached. He shrugged off the advice like only a teenager can but since then, he hasn’t whined about being stressed.

Of course, he’s anxious. It’s natural to be stressed and some amount of stress is good for you. The adrenaline rush keys you to give it your best shot and helps you put in the extra effort needed to get the exams over and done with. The trick is to not let stress overshadow everything you do.

It’s not easier said than done. The usual de-stressing mantras — chatting with friends, listening to music, taking breaks to watch films and hangout with friends — actually work. They give your mind and body the break needed to trash stressful thoughts and reboot after stressors have been wiped clean, at least temporarily.

That apart, you have to go through the usual drill of getting your study habits organised. Adults have deadlines that we have to keep. So get together a revision timetable with break and relaxation periods factored in and stick to it. It will not only make parents prone to hyperventilating happy about your newly-developed organisational skills and discipline, but also help you get them off your back when you need the much deserved break with your Wii and PSP controls.

I’m told it helps to get the subjects you don’t like out of the way first. If you put off the stuff you hate, it will haunt your sleeping and waking hours, making stressed and miserable.

My son tells me taking notes doesn’t work for him, but experts insist the doing stuff with what you read — copying, underlining, highlighting or drawing — helps the brain absorb and retain the information better.

That done, you’re pretty much in control. And with control comes focus, which in turn lowers stress and peaks performance. That’s the happiest place for your mind to be in before any exam, be it the Boards or any other test that’s been sprung upon you.