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Doing what it takes to get over exam anxiety

For most of us, exams are the first big exposure to performance anxiety that dogs us through life. If it doesn’t, it should, because everyone needs some amount of anxiety to hit their best shot, be it at work or at play, writes Sanchita Sharma.

delhi Updated: Feb 23, 2013 21:34 IST

Of late, I’ve met more than a few parents severely traumatised about their teen’s apparent unconcern about Board exams that begin this week. “He skypes by day, watches football by night” said one. “She spent more time smirking over a friend’s facebook gaffe today than doing coursework,” said another. “She eats and sleeps all the time, I rarely catch her studying,” said a third. “He’s turned so irritable and snappy that even the dog avoids him,” said another.

It’s the dog that got it instinctively right. Your teen’s stroppy, uncaring demeanour is very likely to be her defence against the terrifying four weeks ahead. Give her space to deal with it the way she thinks best and she’ll be all right.

For most of us, exams are the first big exposure to performance anxiety that dogs us through life. If it doesn’t, it should, because everyone needs some amount of anxiety to hit their best shot, be it at work or at play. With nightmares about showing up unprepared for an exam still haunting many of us, we need to remind ourselves that our children will live the nightmare for the next four weeks.

The immediate effect of anxiety are usually withdrawal, irritability, disobedience, belligerence or aggression, signs that are too often dismissed as mood swings typical of puberty. Other signs to watch out for are listlessness, weeping outburst, significant weight loss or gain or changes in appetite patterns, sleeplessness or oversleeping, difficulty concentrating, indigestion, stomachache, headaches and retching. If ignored and allowed to fester, they can lead to depression.

Under the surly exterior, teens are almost constantly stressed: first it’s the fear of the Board exams, then the tension of the result, college admission, peer pressure to be socially acceptable, the trauma of being in a relationship or not being in one, finding a job… From where they are, the problems seem unending.

Several factors come together to make teens more vulnerable to emotional meltdowns. The Lancet series on suicides last summer put it down to biological changes (such as imbalances in serotonin, the ‘happy’ hormone that regulates mood), personality traits such as impulsiveness or over-achieving, and poor social problem-solving skills, which combine with real-life crises (exams, getting dumped, parents separating, etc) and psychiatric disorders (depression). A mix of these makes teens feel defeated and trapped more easily and acutely than adults.

Some experts say anxiety severe enough to affect study, sleep and social interactions affects one in twenty teens. Fortis Healthcare’s Teen Survey of 2,364 school-going 13-19 year olds last year showed that anxiety and isolation are high even in socially active teenagers. Social-networking does not cause isolation or depression, but it helps mask it. “Who can imagine that a teenager with 500 facebook friends is lonely? But they are because social media is more about venting, rather than empathy and attachment,” says Dr Samir Parikh, director, department of mental health, Fortis Healthcare. Facebook now encourage “friends” to report downward mood spirals and sends the traumatised poster a link to an online counsellor for a confidential chat.

As a parent, your turning inquisitor and asking what’s wrong all the time doesn’t help. Instead, encourage your child to talk to friends and be around so that she knows you are there if she needs you. The Fortis Healthcare’s Teen Survey found that over half (55%) of the teens surveyed sought help from their friends, followed by family (29%), which shows that “friends” — online or offline — can help deal with anxiety and despair.

All they need is space to develop their own coping mechanism. I, for one, crack silly jokes when stressed. And just as my one-liners dry up when the stress disappears, so will your teen’s anxiety when the exams are done with.