Exam stress is a very natural and even healthy way to approach an exam. If you are overconfident, you may perform badly because you feel you don’t have to work at the exam and you will presume that your first answer is right. Stress, to some degree, is needed to ensure you stay focused and actually perform better by checking your efforts and not accepting your first thoughts as being absolutely perfect. Furthermore, stress raises our levels of adrenaline, meaning you can be more awake and focused during an exam. However, sometimes stress can become a barrier, in which case it can actually cause mental block. This is where exam pressure actually turns into a phobia.
What Is Exam Phobia?
A phobia is described as an unreasonable fear, the keyword being “unreasonable”. This means that the fear is based on a perceived event that has not yet taken place. For example, a fear of spiders is not a fear of the actual creature itself, but of what a sufferer thinks the spider can do to them. Generally, the spider would in effect not be able to do anything at all to a person, but more importantly, the spider has not done anything to the person. Hence, a phobia is a fear of something that hasn’t and potentially will not happen. Of course, sometimes the fear will stem from an event that has happened (maybe the person was bitten by a spider in the past), but it is highly unlikely at best that this would happen again.
The problem with a phobia, or any extreme pressure or fear, is that it can cause someone to tumble into a downward spiral. Having extreme exam pressure means that you fear failure and this leads to you being unable to cope. This fear, in turn, will cause further pressure and you will realize that this pressure could potentially be the cause of your failure. Hence, you start fearing the failure even more, causing even more pressure. This is exactly why having strong exam pressure, fear or phobia, is extremely counterproductive and generally a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How to Cope With Exam Pressure
A Guide for Children
You have worked hard at getting to the point of your exam for many years. Try to trust in your own abilities, you have made it this far because you are capable and able to do the required work. An exam is nothing more than an exercise designed to allow you to show your capabilities. The world will not end if you were to perform less well than expected on an exam and it is important to know that the best you can do at any time in your life is when you try your hardest. You cannot be expected to do more than that, nor can you expect that of yourself. Also remember that exam pressure is caused by a fear of something that has not happened yet: you fear failing the test, but there is no reason for you to fail the test.
A Guide for Parents
It is important to recognize if your child is suffering from exam pressure and be able to nip this in the bud in time for them to pass their exam comfortably, under healthy levels of stress and pressure. This can be done by giving them continuous positive reinforcement of their abilities and capabilities. Talk to your child and reassure them of how well they will be able to do. Do not speak of negative connotations that can increase the pressure, even well meant ones. For example, do not tell your child that they “only” need a C in a certain subject to get into college. Many parents will use such an example to try and demonstrate that the pressure is very low, but in fact it will increase the pressure on the child, who will not hear that they “only” need a C, they will hear they “at least” need a C.
Recognizing the Symptoms
If your child is suffering from severe exam pressure, you may find their sleep pattern starts changing as the exam date approaches. They may have difficulty getting to sleep or may have difficulty waking up in the morning. It is important for you, as a parent, to recognize the subtle differences between normal teenage sleep patterns and exam pressure. Teenage behavior means they choose to go to bed late and hence have difficulty waking up in the morning. This is not the same as not being able to get to sleep and hence having difficulty waking up in the morning. Your job as a parent is to be able to differentiate between the two.
Children may also lose interest in things that they otherwise enjoyed and may also lose their appetite. They may also become irritable and snap at everybody. Again, this can also be construed as typical teenage behavior, so it can be very difficult to recognize what is caused by exam pressure and what is caused by hormones. Some physical symptoms of exam pressure include tiredness, forgetfulness, headaches and migraines, blurred vision, dizziness and an increased heart rate.
The Medical Approach
If exam pressure really gets out of hand and your child is no longer capable of performing under the pressure of the exam, you may want to make an appointment with your local doctor to discuss this issue. It is reasonably common for young people to be prescribed beta blockers to help combat the immediate effects of exam pressure. These tablets will reduce the onset of panic, such as an increased heart rate and tremors. Going back to the earlier explanation of how exam pressure is a negative and downward spiral, beta blockers could break this cycle by allowing someone to not physically feel the panic – hence they will be less likely to further interpret their panic as a sign of impending failure.
Unfortunately, exam pressure does not end as soon as the exam is over. Most people will then have a long and agonizing wait before they find out whether or not they passed or failed the exam. During this time, they may torture themselves with thoughts of how they ruined their own chances because of the exam pressure they felt beforehand, and their stress levels will remain elevated until the results finally come in. There are a few things you can do to stop this from happening. Firstly, as stated earlier, failing an exam is not the end of the world.
Generally, you can try again almost immediately or alternatively after a certain amount of time has passed. If this thought is kept in the back or your mind, the pressure of the result of the exam will become less significant. Another thing to stay away from is comparing your answers to that of others. Once you have handed in your exam, you are no longer able to return it. Asking others what they answered for a specific question and finding out it is completely different from yours is not constructive in any way. Not in the least because their answer may not be the right one!
Exam pressure is very real and very destructive – if you recognize that you or your child is suffering from it, try to take adequate and positive steps to lessen the burden.