“I used to be anxious and overwhelmed if I didn’t study for even a minute ahead of my exams,” shares 21-year-old, Barkha Chowdhury recalling her last year of high school. Young Barkha’s story is shared by many.
Education, the ‘gateway’ to a fulfilling and financially rewarding life, comes with its share of challenges and stress. With increased competition and expectations around success, comes the pressure to perform —a burden like that of Atlas, the Greek God who carried the weight of the heavens.
Numbers don’t lie
Numerous studies/research done on performance pressure on students throw light on the hard truth. To name a few:
- In the UK, it was found that 73 per cent of the students were more likely to be worried about not doing well enough, 68 per cent were worried about exam and course deadlines, and 65 per cent felt pressure due to long hours of study. The third most common mental health condition was burnout. (source)
- Adolescent girls in India experience higher stress, especially from low-income and low-performing backgrounds. (source)
- 88 per cent of students in the US reported severe to moderate stress. (source)
- In India, 81 per cent of students said that exams and studies caused anxiety. (NCERT survey )
In the race to do better, students ignore their social life, and isolate to the extent of causing harm to themselves both physically and mentally. They experience crippling fear, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and irritation.
Dr Ali Khwaja, behavioural sciences researcher, counsellor, author, principal faculty, and life skills coach, Bengaluru, tells us about a highly creative student who had interest and potential in design, but was pushed by his parents towards engineering. After putting in 18 hours a day, he did not get the seat. “He was asked to take a year off and attend JEE coaching full-time. The second attempt he obtained a lower rank, he went into severe depression.”
|Physical Reactions to Exam Stress||Psychological Reactions to Exam Stress|
|Insomnia||Confused state of mind|
|Pounding heart||Trouble in making decisions|
|Frequent urge to pass urine||Losing touch with friends|
|Change in appetite||Feeling moody and low|
|Constipation or diarrhoea||Unmotivated to study|
|Headache||Nail-biting or teeth grinding|
The triggers for stress due to examination are many, ranging from socio-economic background to family environment. Some common triggers faced are:
- Disappointment: Disappointment due to failed expectations and results can bring a student’s morale down and may even lead to depression. It piles over time to provide unnecessary pressure and debilitation. Rohan Dandona, 27-year-old former MBA aspirant from Ghaziabad says, “I sat for the exam for three consecutive years, and it compounded the disappointment.”
- Societal Pressure: The undue importance given to some highly competitive fields and the pot of gold it holds at the end of the rainbow discourages exploring new career. Dr Khwaja says that there is a misconception that if a student does not make it to IIT, IIM or MBBS, then he has no future at all.
- Peer pressure: Barkha felt she was surrounded by highly intelligent people and was intimidated by them. She believed the only way out was to get a high score and get into a top college, “It’s just about getting that 96; like a do or die situation.”
- Fear of failure: The fear of loss of a lucrative job sets an unreasonable weight on their shoulders to compete and deliver. Dr Khwaja says that the coaching centres ‘downgrade’ students to so-called lower sections if they do not perform well even in one or two weekly tests. Barkha talks about one such teacher from her coaching centre who instilled the fear of failure, “He took such a toll on me, his level was either you do or die.”
- Increasing competition and focus on success: With weekly tests and emphasis on marks obtained, students are in a state of constant competition. This level of heightened stress builds up towards the days leading up to the examination. The minimum score required for admission has only risen. In the United States, 24 per cent of students report feeling anxious about obtaining employment after graduation.
The effect of this stress has a toll on the body as well. Case in point, Rohan had a severe nail-biting habit; and both Barkha and Rohan ate junk food.
The role parents play
Barkha’s mother, Sangeeta Chowdhury from Assam says that like other parents she did not set a specific goal for her daughter to study. However, like many other parents, she did remind Barkha on occasions to study.
Parental support and understanding can decrease the weight and anxiety that students carry with examinations. Sangeeta adds, “I wish I knew what was going on inside her mind. When I asked her how things are, she would say everything was okay. But I could notice that it was otherwise.”
Support and a safe space given by family can allow the student to address their fears without the fear of judgment. Dr Khwaja shares the story of a girl who was supported by her mother’s employer to pursue dance when her mother was concerned about earning. The benefactor pooled in resources from their circle to send the girl to dance school. She is presently an established dancer earning well.
How to manage exam stress
In dealing with stress and anxiety due to examinations, Dr Khwaja suggests implementation of stress-relieving techniques on a regular basis. Exercise, music, punching a bag, meditation, hobbies, or social work are some of the ways. He says, “Students should select the technique based on what they find most suitable and helpful. If necessary, practice that technique for at least 2-3 weeks and review their progress.”
Some simple activities include:
1. Take a walk or indulge in physical activities at least once a day– any physical activity gives a sense of break and lets your mind and body calm the body stress response
2. Spend time with friends and family – time spent talking with friends and family can be a source of laughter and relaxation, sometimes even providing the emotional boost needed
3. Sleep well – A good night’s sleep is the best remedy. During study period, it may seem difficult to fall asleep. In this case, other methods like breathing and listening to music can help
4. Try to avoid junk food– Junk food can increase unhealthy fats and sugars in the body, that are counter-productive
5. Set fun activity for yourself during study breaks– An activity that you like can boost morale and positive feelings, which can further motivate you and add focus during study time.
“Talking it out to a neutral and understanding friend or counsellor can be very therapeutic,” adds Dr Khwaja.
Mindful ways to tackle stress
V Padmaja, a Bengaluru-based yoga practitioner suggests a few yoga practices that can be inculcated daily:
- Shavasana: The corpse pose helps to relieve all kinds of tension and gives rest to the body and mind. To practice the pose, one needs to lie flat on the floor in a space with no distractions and pillows. Close your eyes and keep the legs and hands slightly apart. Pay attention to each part of your body as you breathe deeply.
- Pranayama: The practice to regulate breathing, especially through the practice of Anuloma Viloma (or controlled breathing) channels energy, improves anxiety, lowers stress, and improves concentration. Sit on the floor cross-legged, close your eyes, and rest your hands on your knees. With your right thumb, close the right nostril, and inhale slowly through the left nostril. Then close your left nostril with last two fingers of the right hand and breathe out through the right nostril. Keep on alternating the nostrils for an even number of times.
- Dhyana Meditation: It is an important component of yoga practice that helps to eliminate negative emotions like fear, anger, depression, and anxiety. It also increases concentration and memory. Find a comfortable position, relax your muscles slowly and release any tension held at any part of the body. Begin with focussing on your breathing in cycles of 10. After the breathing cycle has begun, identify an object to focus on and observe it with detachment. The practice can begin with five minutes and increase over time.
Padmaja adds that she has inculcated these practices as an instructor for students at a university in Bengaluru and has seen positive effects.
Barkha shares how the conversations with her friends during college helped to address her fear and overcome it. “Now I have seen people from different backgrounds who didn’t excel in school but are still doing well and are content with their lives.”
On a cautionary note, Dr Khwaja leaves us with his observation, “The stress which used to manifest around 12th standard, has now been pushed to students in 5th and 6th standards.”
Finding a healthier way to process exam anxiety is more than a personal journey, it takes a village to raise a calm, carefree child.