World Mental Health Day 2022: Five ways students can deal with exam-induced anxiety

World Mental Health Day 2022: Exam anxiety is fairly common and can range from mild discomfort to debilitating anxiety affecting performance, mental health and wellbeing. Contrary to what most of us think, exam anxiety can be experienced by students of all ages.

According to a recent NCERT national survey, 81 per cent of surveyed students reported facing anxiety due to studies, exams and results. While experiencing some amount of anxiety, often called ‘eustress’, can actually help you perform better, for some children this can become so overwhelming that it affects performance and their overall mental health.

Some common signs of exam anxiety include difficulty with sleep, irritability, mood swings, poor appetite or comfort eating, increased consumption of coffee, smoking or drinking alcohol. There can also be physical symptoms including palpitations, sweating, chest pain, headache, vomiting etc. Students also suffer from extreme anxiety before announcement of results, specially when there are high expectations, and this can also elicit suicidal thoughts and withdrawal.

If you’re a student, remember that you can cultivate your resilience, i.e. recognise your inner strengths and abilities so that you can cope and thrive with the normal stressors of life and enhance your overall well-being. Here are things to keep in mind:

1. Start Early: Set your goals, make a plan and believe that you have the ability to achieve them

Everyone may have told you to make a study schedule, but this planning must begin early. It must include time to study and revisions. Setting your long-term goal is important, but equally important is breaking it down to short-term goals — steps that are achievable and give you a feeling of accomplishment. The second thing to remember is that goals must be smart – they should be achievable and time bound. So set time for when to start preparing, when to do self-study, ensuring you set time for revisions. Prepare highlighted notes. If for some reason you have limited time for preparation, change your goals and plans- be aware of the marking scheme, start with essential chapters; prioritise your stronger concepts.

Simulate taking tests under the same circumstances as expected on the final day. Familiarity breeds self-assurance and hence “mock tests” enhance confidence and minimise uncertainty and anxiety. Discover your most effective study routine, and stick to it every time you prepare for a test. Avoid studying two to four hours before the exam, as last minute bursts can increase anxiety and even cause your mind to go blank during the exam.

As you schedule your studies it is important to schedule breaks. Continuous studying seven days a week can cause burn out before the exam.

2. Familiarise your way through anxiety: anticipate it and find ways to manage your emotions

Exam-induced anxiety often increases as you move towards D-Day. It is helpful to be aware of your emotions and find ways to deal with difficult emotions, so that they don’t overwhelm you and interfere with your goals.

One helpful tip is to compartmentalise time. If you find it difficult to let go of worrying thoughts while studying, set aside a ‘worry time’. Whenever worrying thoughts crowd your mind while studying, tell yourself that you will postpone them to the ‘worry time’. In this way you maximise your study time and renew focus on accomplishing your goals.

Another way is to identify what makes you feel good, and do it when you are feeling overwhelmed — take a break to listen to music, playing a sport, take a walk. Remember, experiencing difficult emotions during any stressful time is normal, what is important is that you identify them and practice healthy ways to manage them.

3. Meditate and practice being calm

Discover ways to calm your mind and body. Some useful techniques are performing relaxation techniques, such as deep and timed breathing, relaxing your muscles, and visualisations of a positive outcome. Mindfulness practice is extremely useful for dealing with anxiety.

Learn how to control your negative thoughts: often exam anxiety is associated with negative thoughts of failing, low scores etc. Instead of letting yourself fall into a downward spiral, think of your strengths. Know that you have strengths within that can help you in your exam. For e.g., you may identify Persistence strength or Creativity to be your strength. Close your eyes and think of how your top strength can help you in exams.

4. Focus on right nutrition and sleep

Mental health impacts our physical health: how we feel affects what we do. Anxiety can make us eat and sleep too much, or not at all. Eating regular, balanced meals and drinking plenty of water ensures sustained energy and hydration Avoid drinking soda/ sugary drinks, or caffeinated/energy drinks, which can increase anxiety. Attempt to maintain a regular exercise routine. Adequate and consistent sleep increases cognition, memory and success in the classroom.

5. Talk it out: identify your supportive network

Often, we hesitate to share. A simple tip is to figure out who the people in your supportive network are. Talking to someone, sharing our feelings with parents, peers, teachers is vital: it eases pressure from your mind and creates space for happy thoughts. Peer support will make us help each other by setting goals together, revising, doing mock tests together and encouraging each other.

But remember, if you have tried to manage your anxiety on your own and/or with support from adults or peers but are still not able to deal with it, talking to a counselor or psychologist might help.

(Gracy Andrew is special advisor and Nandita Bhatla is the country director at CorStone – an international nonprofit organisation)

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