Teenagers today experience high expectations and pressure from both teachers and parents to perform well on assignments and exams.
Many teenagers also impose high self-expectations on themselves, as they prepare to enter future education and consider their job prospects.
There is a significant amount of stress placed on teenagers by the academic environment, and if not managed appropriately, teen exam stress can develop into mental health difficulties including depression and anxiety disorders.
What is Exam Stress?
Stress can be a difficult concept to define. On one hand, researchers refer to stress as the stimuli or threat causing anxiety and concern.
On the other hand, it can also refer to the response that the threat causes.
Either way, for many teenagers, exams are a perceived threat, causing a physiological and psychological response to this threat.
The Stress Response
The stress response is quite complex, activating a number of the body’s physiological systems including the nervous system and endocrine system.
Although individuals respond differently to stress, common responses include a range of emotions, such as excessive worry, anxiety and depression.
Research has also shown a link between stress and somatisation (psychological distress manifesting as bodily symptoms), and being detrimental to the immune system.
In addition, in some cases a defence mechanism known as repression can occur, in which the individual shows lack of awareness to negative emotions and is unable to express these emotions.
When considering more severe psychological and physical issues connected with stress, the list includes disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (though this is unlikely to be present in exam stress scenarios), cardiovascular disease, anxiety disorders and obesity.
Managing Teen Examination Stress
Here are three strategies which can be used at home with teenagers, to help them manage the stress of school work and especially, the pressure of exams:
- Abdominal Breathing – When stressed, individuals breathe in a way that is shallow, rapid and uneven. Rather than use their diaphragm to breathe, individuals use their rib cage and shoulders to draw in breath, placing extra stress on the joints and muscles in these areas. Research has shown a relationship between changing the physical tension of the body, and the mental tension of an individual, using breathing techniques. Encourage your teenager to try abdominal breathing, which involves sitting or lying comfortably and placing their hands on their abdomen, making them move up and down while breathing.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation – When stressed, the individual will naturally clench or grip their muscles as their fight/flight response kicks in, to allow them to respond to the perceived threat. This can produce pain and fatigue when present for long periods of time. Progressive muscle relaxation is a strategy which involves teaching an individual to let go or relax the muscle tension in their body. To do this, the individual lies down and tenses the various muscle groups throughout their body, from their feet to their face, holding them for a minute or two before “dropping” the muscle group. However it is worth noting that research has shown this can take 4-5 weeks to take effect.
- Guided Imagery – When stressed, the individual’s attention turns to the stressor and they become focused on the stimuli. This creates increased stress, worry and stress response. Guided imagery involves stopping thoughts from focusing on the issue, and instead turnings one’s thoughts to a visual image. This could be as simple as picturing the stress releasing as a piece of string unwinds, to something as detailed as focusing on a safe, relaxing place such as a forest or a beach, and taking an imaginary walk through this place, imagining the sensory experiences they would have in this safe place.
If your teenager is struggling to cope with the demands of study, I would love to help by teaching them the above as well as a range of other techniques, to better manage their examination stress.
Author: Sharyn Jones, B Psych (Hons).
Sharyn Jones is a Brisbane psychologist with 10 years of experience working with adults, adolescents, children and their parents. Using a combination of cognitive behavioural and solution focused therapies, she aims to facilitate positive changes in client’s lives so that they can achieve and obtain their desired goals.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422.
- Lehrer, P.M., Woolfol, R.L. & Sime, W.E. (Eds.). (2007). Principles and Practice of Stress Management. Guildford Press: New York.