30 December, 2008

Managing Study Stress among the Students

Tips to Stay Relaxed and Remember More
By C. Radhakrishnan

First of all, let me tell you the best ‘Study Stress Management’ tip is to be confident and prepared, and to stay cool. If you have mastered learning and study, then you should never feel anxious, tense, or nervous in an examination.

Stress can be both a help and an obstacle to study and the development of Memory.
This write up will help you understand what stress is, why and how stress is created, and how it is controlled at the optimum levels for study and for examinations.

Every year, as examinations time approaches, in our country generally February, March and April, the question of student examination stress is raised in the press, on TV programs, and by students themselves. An article in a weekend newspaper during these months was no exception: ‘Teenagers approaching 10th, 12th, CET or University Exams in the coming months are looking to doctors to help them cope with tension…Increasingly, academic stress is affecting younger and younger children as there is more pressure for academic achievement, especially from the parents and school authorities.’

This problem applies particularly to 10th and 12th students. In many cases this is a once-only chance to gain access to a University and a selected career. Once this hurdle is jumped – successfully – the same pressure does not apply to examinations at University. The stress arises mainly because the number of University seats is limited, and students are selected on the basis of their marks and entrance exam performance so the examination becomes a competition. Worry about how they will be able to pay for their studies, or repay the loans afterwards, also adds to the stress.

Students, who have developed a proper attitude to learning, memory and study, and learned good techniques and habits, should not have to worry about stress. Stress is essential for effective study and memory, but it is the excess stress – anxiety, worry, fear of failure etc. – which creates a level of stress high enough to cause loss of memory and memory blocks in examinations. This is what students fear, that they will not remember what they have learned. Of course, if they haven’t learned the work in first place, stress or no stress will make no difference.

Naturally, all of us have moments of self-doubt, but it is when self-doubt becomes more than momentary that it becomes a problem. Almost everyone feels worried before an exam, suppose it is board exam, the nervousness is double. Butterflies in the stomach and worrying thoughts - 'Will I be able to answer the questions?' 'Have I done enough revision?' - are indications of exam anxiety that are probably familiar to all students. In fact, a certain amount of nervous tension probably helps us perform to the best of our ability and helps us to feel alert and focused. But too much anxiety can obstruct thoughts, create a negative frame of mind, and lead to panic and poor performance in the exam.

Howard Bloom in his book on evolution, ‘Global Brain’, says, ‘Humans who can solve a problem remain vigorous. But, those who cannot get a grip on their dilemma become victims of self-destruct mechanisms.’ This applies to students – those who are on top of their work and see no problem they cannot deal with are successful, those who feel they have lost their grip, and let self-doubt take control of their thinking, generally fail.

Self-doubt can lead to depression. This will have serious consequences for health, mental stability, and for the ability to study successfully. No one can see into your mind and read your thoughts, so don’t expect anyone to offer help. You have to seek help, and it is important that you do so early. Go to someone you can trust, and who is mature enough to understand your problem, and talk it through with them, and ask for advice.

Drugs to relieve stress, such as anti-depressants, can be dangerous and may make the condition worse instead of better, and the side effects can be quite serious.

It is very important that parents and teachers should also be sensitive to this problem, and be aware that it is likely to affect some students more than others. Keeping a watchful eye on any change of mood or activities may help to head off a potential problem, even a disaster, or tragedy.

There are a lot of things you can do to help manage exam anxiety and twist painful, anxious thoughts into more creative pressure. First let us see what we can do before the exam to reduce stress.

1. It's hard to panic if you are feeling relaxed. Try to make a system of revision that gives you time to relax, especially last thing at night. Experiment until you find the best way of relaxing to suit you - a long bath, exercise, listening to music, watching a dance or prayer or even chatting some time with the most attached friend, either directly or over phone (avoid using computers).

2. Relaxation and positive stress management techniques can be learned and acquired with practice. Knowing how to relax is very important in the pre exam days, and on the day itself. If you think you are under-performing in exams due to exam anxiety or panic, do think ahead and seek help.

3. It helps to feel as well-prepared as possible. As well as thinking about the subjects you are revising, it can be useful to pay attention to practical aspects of the exam. Find out where it is scheduled to take place and how long it will take you to get there. It's a good idea to go and look at the room/building so that it feels more familiar. Make sure you know the rules and regulations about what you can take into the exam room etc.

4. Put yourself into a positive frame of mind by imagining how you would like things to go. Imagine/visualise yourself going for the exam feeling confident and comfortable - try to portray it in as much detail as possible. Rather like dress rehearsing for a part in a play, this can replace negative, anxious thoughts with more positive ones.

5. Don't work to the last minute on the night or morning before the exam. Last-minute revision may leave you feeling messed up and anxious.

Now we can move on to the exam day. Here are some tried and tested solutions to the 'I can't answer anything' feeling and other upsetting thoughts about exams.

When you get into the exam room and sit down, the following approach can help settle your tension:

1. Take a deep breath in and a long breath out.

2. Breathe in again and straighten your back.

3. Look straight ahead at something inanimate (the wall, a picture, the clock...) and focus your mind on the positive thought 'I CAN DO this exam' as you breathe out.

4. Take another deep breath in and a long breath out. Then breathe normally.

5. CBSE have given you 15 minutes to read the question paper, so do so thoroughly. If you begin to feel nervousness again, repeat the focusing exercise. Nervousness will stop you reading carefully, so it is important to keep yourself focused and positive. Read the whole paper once, then read it again and mark the questions you think you can answer. Then read those questions carefully - make sure you understand what is required - and select the ones you are going to answer.

6. Decide on the order in which you'll answer the questions. It is usually best to begin with the one you feel most confident about. Think about how you will plan your time, and stick to your plan.

7. Plan out your answer for each question as you go. If you find that thoughts or ideas about other questions come into your head, write them down on a rough paper - don't spend time thinking about them now.

8. If your concentration weakens or you begin to feel anxious, you could try the focusing exercise again, or use one of the following techniques to help you overcome anxious thoughts. If you are worried that you haven't got time to spare on this, remember that taking 5 or 10 minutes now may save you spending the rest of the exam in a state of fear.

Here it’s relevant to brief you on some anxiety management techniques.

1. Negative thought-blocking
When we become worried we begin to have negative thoughts ('I can't answer anything', 'I'm going to panic' etc). If this is happening, arrest these thoughts by mentally shouting 'STOP!’ Once you have literally stopped the thoughts, you can continue planning, or practise a relaxation technique.

2. Creating gentle pain
Pain effectively overrides all other thoughts and impulses. Even very gentle pain - such as lightly pressing your fingernails into your palm - can block feelings of nervousness. Some people find it helpful to place an elastic band around one finger, and lightly twang it when they are becoming anxious.

3. Focusing
Looking out of the window, noticing the number of people with white hair, counting the number of desks in each row... all help to distract your attention from anxious thoughts and keep your mind busy. Mental games such as making words out of another word, using alphabetical lists etc are all good forms of distraction.

4. Practice a mantra
Derived from meditation, a mantra is a word or phrase which you repeat to yourself. Saying something like 'calm' or 'relax' under your breath or in your head, over and over again, can help reduce anxiety.

5. Positive Association
It can help to carry or wear something with positive associations with another person or place. Touching this object can be consoling in its own right, then allow yourself a few minutes to think about the person or situation which makes you feel good. This can have a really calming effect.

6. Self-talk
In exam anxiety we often give ourselves negative messages, 'I can't do this' 'I'm going to fail' 'I'm useless'. Try to consciously replace these with positive, encouraging thoughts: 'This is just anxiety, it can't harm me', 'Relax, concentrate, it's going to be OK', 'I'm getting there, nearly over'.

From the above mentioned distraction techniques whichever has worked for you, finish by going through the refocusing exercise. Remember, it only takes 30 seconds or so, but may have a great effect on your ability to believe in yourself and the task in hand. Different techniques work for different people, so it's worth experimenting to find the ones that are suitable for you. Developing techniques for managing tension/anxiety can take time, so it pays to keep practising.

To me, learning to control stress, and adjusting it to the optimum level for successful learning, is something students should practice throughout the year, not just a few weeks before the examinations.

In this context it’s worth mentioning what Mental Health Ireland has said on managing exam stress (18 May 2006): “It is perfectly normal to feel some stress, it can keep you focused, but too much will reduce your effectiveness. First, plan your time and keep to a reasonable timetable, create a routine, don't panic. Work now to avoid last minute cramming. Think positively and recall past successes and how you achieved them Concentrate on strengths rather than weaknesses. Do your best: Don't try to be perfect, that will lead to stress. Be realistic, seek help if necessary, and avoid bottling things up. Eat, sleep and exercise normally and well. Use relaxation techniques. The Exam: Use your relaxation method. Slow deep breaths and repeating 'I am calm and relaxed'”.

Print & Online References:
1. Goleman, Daniel – Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, Bloomsbury Publishing, 1996
2. Ravi, Meera – Teaching through the Heart: Action Plan for Better Teaching, Viva books Pvt Ltd, 2005
3. Adams, Kathleen – Journal to the Self: Twenty-two Paths to Personal Growth, Warner Books, 1990
4. http://www.danielgoleman.info/blog/
5. http://www.acu.edu.au/acu_national/
6. http://mentalhealthireland.ie/index.php