With trials starting, the HSC is well and truly looming over our year 12's. Lot's teens at this time begin to feel quite stressed about exams and the amount of study they have to do in a short period of time. Exam stress is a very real thing and can adversely affect a teens ability to concentrate, their sleep patterns and their overall physical health as well as mental wellbeing.
What does it look like?
Symptoms could include:
Feeling cranky and irritable - increased yelling, crying, swearing or hitting
Indecisiveness and/or confusion
Irregular sleep patterns - sleeping more than usual or trouble getting to sleep
Sweating ad racing heart
Minor chest pains, back pain, nausea or trembling
Minor stomach upsets
Possible skin breakouts
Teeth grinding, nail biting or other compulsive behaviour
Please note: Many of the above symptoms can also be indications of depression or anxiety, if you feel like your teen may be experiencing any of these symptoms for longer than normal please consult with a medical professional.
Now you might be starting to feel a but stressed yourself! Take a deep breath and don't panic, there's plenty of ways your teen (and you!) can cope with exam stress and make it easier on the whole family:
1. Just Breathe
As soon as we become stressed, our breathing becomes rapid and shallow as the fight or flight response begins to take over. Taking some slow, deep, calming breaths will begin to switch on your parasympathetic nervous system, slowing your heart rate and shutting down that fight or flight response. There is 163 different studies that have shown that mindfulness meditation practise has an overall positive effect on anxiety and stress (headspace.com) There's also recent research showing that controlled breathing can also help stimulate brain growth
There's 100's of free guided mediations available on YouTube
There's also loads of great apps, we love headspace for it's cute characters and simple to use interface.
For a great article on what mindfulness is and how to practise it check out Relax Like A Boss
2. The Power of Positive Thinking
We've heard it 1,000 times but the power of positive thoughts and affirmations can really have a profound effect on a teens outlook and even in their final result. Sometimes the negative self-talk that goes on in a teens head can become overwhelming, thoughts of 'I hate this' or 'I'm not good at this' or 'I'm never going to understand this before the exam' can dominate their thinking and completely block concentration only perpetuating and already stressful situation.
By simply focusing on what it is they want to achieve, writing it down and placing it somewhere prominent, teens can begin to rewire their thinking. Always write it in the first person and present tense, as if it's already happening. It doesn't even matter if they don't actually believe the statement (cue all the eye rolling when you ask your teen to write down 'trigonometry is easy!'), but by simply writing it down, reading it and saying it to themselves the subconscious will begin to take steps in that direction.
Think that positive thinking is a load of fluffy nonsense? A study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, examined a group of 90 undergraduate students who were split into two groups. The first group wrote about an intensely positive experience each day for three consecutive days. The second group wrote about a control topic.Three months later, the students who wrote about positive experiences had better mood levels, fewer visits to the health center, and experienced fewer illnesses. This blew me away. Better health after just three days of writing about positive things!
Here's a few suggestions of positive statements to try:
I have plenty of time to study for all of my subjects
I can easily recall the information I need when required
I am calm and relaxed in exam situations
X subject is easy and fun!
I enjoy X subject, it's interesting and I'm learning loads
I am organised, focused and know exactly what I need to do
I achieved X% in my X exam
3. Cut The Crap
We all know that diets high in sugar, fats & processed foods are linked with emotional and behavioural problems in children and adolescents. Did you know that there is also evidence to show that an unhealthy diet can actually inhibit growth of the Hippocampus, the part of our brain responsible for memory, learning & emotion?
Kathryn Hawkins, practising accredited dietician, nutritionist & contributor to the Empower360 Teen Fitness Challenge says;
“The teenage years are the most impressionable and vulnerable years that we have. Its a time of great changes and teens are often becoming more influenced by peers as they make the transition from child to young adult and question their place in the world. The teenage years often come with a side serving of uncertainty and its important that teens receive guidance in order to instil confidence and understand the importance of health, nutrition and maintaining a healthy relationship with their bodies and with food."
While we're encouraging our teens to nourish their bodies, we also need to stress the importance of proper hydration. Studies have shown once thirst is felt, mental performance including memory, attention and concentration decreases by as much as 10 percent. Encourage your teen to keep a bottle of water on their desk and drink from it regularly, even if they don't feel thirsty.
4. Get Some Exercise
Thinking that it might be a good idea to give away soccer, netball, dance or any other physical activities to allow for more study time? Think again! There is countless research that proves physical exercise helps improve brain function and can actually lead to improved exam results.
In his paper for Comumbia University Charles E. Basch states “It is likely that the effects of physical activity on cognition would be particularly important in the highly plastic developing brains of youth,” he summarises the positive effects that exercise has on brain function as follows:
Increased oxygen flow to the brain
Increased brain neurotransmitters
“[Increased] brain-derived neurotrophins that support neuronal differentiation and survival in the developing brain.” Neurotrophins assure the survival of neurons in areas responsible for learning, memory, and higher thinking.
Not only will physical activity help stimulate brain function, it also releases endorphins, elevating your mood and helping you to feel less stressed. The Australian Heart Foundation states:
'Regular participation in physical activity improves short and long term psychosocial wellbeing by reducing feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. Reviews of intervention studies conclude that the evidence supports the beneficial effects of physical activity on depression.'
5. Get Outside
It might seem obvious but fresh air and sunshine can do wonders for your teens mood. Taking some big deep breaths will increase the amount of oxygen transported to the bodies cells. Increased oxygen in your body translates to greater energy and clarity of mind. According to a group of studies published in a 2010 issue of the "Journal of Environmental Psychology," research participants reported feeling happier, healthier and more alive when they spent time in nature.
The technical reason? Phytoncides are airborne chemicals emitted by plants and trees. They also happen to help lower blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol.
Sunlight also helps fight depression as the happy hormone seratonin is stimulated when you spend time out in the sun. Not only that, just 15 minutes of sunlight a day can help your body shut off the snooze inducing chemical melatonin, helping you to feel more alert during the day and develop a more stable sleeping pattern at night.
which brings us to our next point.....
6. Catch Some ZZZZ's
Everyone has done it before, they've left it to the last minute or thought they'll read 'just one more chapter' and all of a sudden the sun is coming up. It might seem like more hours spent studying should mean better results but skipping the Z's can have a damaging effect on a teens moods, concentration and overall wellbeing.
Andrew Fuller, a clinical psychologist who specialises in the wellbeing of young people,explains the physiological impact of sleep on our brains: “Getting enough sleep is one of the most powerful ways we can protect ourselves against depression. The structures in the brain that support the most powerful antidepressant, serotonin, are built and re-built between the sixth and the eighth hour of sleep."
“Adolescents are often sleep-deprived which may in turn increase vulnerability to stress,” says Fuller.
Sleep deprived teens are also more prone to acne, more likely to consume caffeinated drinks and reach for unhealthy foods, all of which are contributors to stress in themselves.
7. Utter Declutter
You may have as much chance of getting your teen to clean up their workspace as you do of flying to the moon in a Corvette with Chris Hemsworth but its been proven that a tidy desk can help you feel less stressed. According to the Journal of Neuroscience, looking at too many things at once can hinder your ability to focus. An overly cluttered desk also bombards the mind with excessive stimuli, causing our senses to work overtime. It also constantly signals to the brain that the 'work' is never done and can create feelings of anxiety and inhibit productivity if you're constantly trying to locate notes and info.
A tidy, uncluttered workspace promotes creativity by allowing the brain space to think, brainstorm and problem solve.
8. Pat a Pet
Sometimes a simple act like going outside and playing with the family dog for a few minutes or listening to the soothing sound of your cat purring can really help calm your mind and lift your mood.
Universities in the UK, USA and Canada have even introduced 'Puppy Rooms' during exam periods where students can go and play with trainee guide dog puppies to help combat stress.
Gordon Trevett, From Bristol University's Centre for Sport, Exercise and Health, said:
"Every year I see students fretting about their exams and I thought this would be a great way to ease the stress and take their minds off it. People with dogs have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without a dog and we know that playing with a dog can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax."
Don't think you'll manage to get a Puppy Room past your principal and you don't own a pet? Head to your local animal shelter or pet shop. Perhaps you could even combine a few of these suggestions and get outside for a walk and pat the neighbourhood pets you see along the way (with the owners permission of course) or head down to the local dog park.
9. Get Some Perspective
When all is said and done, the HSC or any other exam is not the defining moment of your life. Of course teachers stress the importance of doing well in school and achieving a high ATAR might get your teen into the course they want, but chances are the year 9 maths exam will be a distant memory by the time they leave school.
And let's face it, as adults, when was the last time you even mentioned your TER, UAI or ATAR (guess it depends on how old you are) or quoted your HSC English result on your LinkedIn page? Hot tip: if you have, stop right now, people will think you're a wanker.
And even if your teen aces their HSC and gets into their dream course at uni, there's no guarantee that they'll end up in the career they've studied for. In fact one in three undergrads in AUS won't even finish the degree they started in with some universities citing dropout rates of up to 40%.
LinkedIn recently released a study showing that Millennials will have an average of 4 different jobs by the time they are 32.
Former NSW Prime Minister said: "Life isn't defined by your exams, it begins after they are finished"
It's important to remind our teens that, like Mike said, their lives won't be defined by their exams. There's plenty of other pathways into their career of choice that perhaps don't even involve uni. Perhaps taking a gap year and doing some travelling or just working at the local cafe for a year could be the best thing that has ever happened to them.
Fun fact: I topped the state in Food Technology for my HSC, it didn't open any doors for me, however I do still really love food.
10. Talk to someone
If your teen is really struggling it's important to help them understand that they're not alone. Finding someone they trust that they can share their feelings with can really help unload some of the mental burden. It doesn't have to be a parent, it can be a friend, trusted relative, school councillor or other mental health professional.
As we mentioned above, if you feel like your teen may be experiencing any of the symptoms of exam stress for longer than normal please consult with a medical professional. Some organisations that offer professional support are:
Sydney Anxiety Clinic
Remember, exercise is one of the best natural stress relievers available and it's available to anyone. For a tailored fitness program or even just a one off stress busting sweat sesh, contact Kate on 0403 964 075 or firstname.lastname@example.org