Speaking to the Careers Portal, mental health practitioner Tamsyn Alfino says that anxiety can be described as a cycle of dread that can be set off by one simple question, and that question is – What If?
“Most stress and distress boils down to the inability to answer that one question and the unknown is such a powerful fear evoking thing.”
Alfino says that when learners don’t feel like they can fully prepare for something (like exams), it introduces a sense of loss of control and that loss of control triggers their fight or flight response. Once that threat is triggered, it gives them a sense of urgency that becomes a cycle of anxiety and stress.
Studies suggests that at the heart of all the stigma attached to mental health, is a lack of understanding on what mental health is and what essentially causes it.
Emotional and mental health is important because it’s a vital part of life and impacts thoughts, behaviours, and emotions. It also impacts how you carry out daily activities as well as your ability to do well on a test.
Alfino says that when it comes to physical health there is a lot less reluctance to go to the doctor when you not feeling ill but for mental health there still seems to be that hesitancy and because of all the stigma around it is seen as a sign of weakness.
When we don’t consciously actively care for our mental health, we can see a lot of physical symptoms that come from that, and it impacts our ability to mentally cope with exams.
Learners will start feeling fatigued, they have concentration difficulties which then impacts their ability to retain information, gives them headaches, muscle tension and even episodes of insomnia.
All of these physical symptoms are essentially mental stress that is building up in their body because there isn’t that open recognition to it.
“That is why it's important for matriculants to take care of their physical health but also prioritise their mental health, because doing one without the other is just doing an injustice to themselves.”
Here are 5 tips that Tamsyn recommends will help with stress and anxiety during exams:
- MOVE - Learners should take breaks in-between study session to move around. Walk around the block, dancing, skip rope, do some stretching. Even if it’s only for a few minutes at a time, movement is important because not only energises the brain, but it also destresses you.
- EAT – Stress affects your appetite, with some not eating regular whilst others are eating too much, this is common behaviour during exam season. A balanced diet is so crucial during exams. It is important to eat consistently and to stay hydrated so that their brains function optimally.
- SLEEP – Matriculants need to get enough sleep so that their brain can retain all the information learnt. Pulling all-nighters and cramming content for nights on end in an attempt to be as prepared as we can, might seem like a good idea, but that lack of sleep does catch up. Creating an exam study schedule that factors in sleep is crucial.
- MINDFULNESS – There are many benefits to mindfulness meditations, YouTube has tons guided meditations that focus on increasing positivity, clearing the mind, concentration and decreasing stress. Guided meditations can be used to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
- BREATHE – Breathing excises help calm the mind. A really good breathing exercise is the 4-7-8 Breathing technique. It deescalates a calmed nervous system and it is good for Insomnia.
Alfino believes that learners should have psychosocial support and be provided will a safe space that allows them to vent and process their thoughts and feelings adding that it is a good stress preventative strategy that will help matriculants seek support and guidance.
Having a good support structure during this time is extremely useful and there are many things parents and guardians can do to help ease the worries and stressors of their children.
The best advice Alfino would give to a parent or guardian of a matric learner is – “Don’t nag, don’t fight don’t force.”
“At this stage in their schooling, if your child hasn’t yet mastered enough self-motivation and the will power to study without someone looking over their shoulder, then a parent doing that is likely just going to introduce and escalate conflict.”
Parents need to give their children a soft place to land, be available, listen when they need advice and ask how they can be of assistance.
Tamsyn Alfino is a qualified Mental Health Practitioner with a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of Cape Town. She fulfils the role of Counsellor at Wynberg Boys Junior School, runs a private practice that provides therapeutic services to adults, adolescents and children in the Southern Suburbs and is the creator of the "Game Ranger Grace & The Big 5 Feelings" book series.