Feeling stressed about the Leaving Cert? What students and their parents can do to combat exam pressure

Avoid negative self-talk and reach out for help


Students are besieged with constant reminders of the importance of the Leaving Cert on their life choices and the significance of good results. Pressure seems unavoidable and it’s understandable some students and families are struggling to cope with the stress.

Everyone is walking on eggshells. Students try and focus their nervous energy on the upcoming exams, and the biggest battle for anxious parents can be holding back their own concerns about their teenagers, while being supportive.

An Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP) study found about one in three students suffer from stress during exam time, yet few seek professional help. Only one in 14 of people under 24 say they would tell anybody about their problems.

“Our findings show there is a real, urgent need for students who are under pressure to talk about their problems, especially during the run up to exams. Unfortunately, the survey shows a reluctance among young people to talk about or discuss their problems or anxieties,” says Shane Kelly of the IACP.

The research shows “young people who tend to suffer from anxiety are also the ones who are most affected during exam times. This pressure can bring underlying mental health issues to the surface,” he says.

Kelly urges parents to keep a watchful eye on students in the run-up to exams. Some stress can be motivating, but when it causes changes to mood, appetite or sleep patterns, they need to take action.

Other advice from experts suggests regular exercise, perhaps 30 minutes a day for students, is crucial for both body and mind, releasing endorphins. During exam time, use whatever stress reliever works best for you, whether playing an instrument or games console, listening to music or playing with a pet - for short downtime to help clear your mind.

Sleep is a necessity. Avoid drinking stimulants in the evening and aim for at least seven hours sleep a night. You’ll wake up feeling more energised and less burned out and groggy than if you stayed up late. Eating something high in calcium and magnesium before bed can aid sleep as they act as natural muscle relaxers.

Brief meditation sessions can give you a sense of calm and emotional well-being, and reduces stress by clearing away the information overload that builds up daily.

Students aren’t alone in feeling stress or anxiety. The majority of workers in every industrial sector claim to be stressed. According to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, 90% of voluntary sector workers consider their job to be stressful. Teachers (88%) and workers in the health service (82%) also report high levels of stress.

So if stress is unavoidable for everybody, what can you do? Peader Maxwell, a Wexford-based psychologist who runs stress management courses in secondary schools, believes stress can be a good motivator to study but says it’s important to be wary of it at exam time.

“What is not good is when we lose control of our stress and begin to treat ourselves by over studying, or avoiding study, not getting adequate exercise and sleep or relying on caffeine and sugar to energise ourselves,” he said.

Stress awareness and management are crucial life skills for students, young adults and parents, says Maxwell. Parents need to be cautious when approaching a child they believe to be stressed; “d on’t be afraid to mention the S-word”.

Parents should encourage their child’s natural problem-solving skills: Instead of asking their student what worries they have in the lead up to exams, ask what they would like to do about these concerns.

“A sensible study plan that includes time for all exam subjects as well as exercise and rest can be exactly what the very academic student needs, and can also help the less academic student focus on the time that remains. Make sure your child is eating well and is getting enough sleep,” he said.

Don’t allow the exams to be the most talked about topic in the house. “The run up to the exams is fraught with all kinds of feelings and thoughts. If the student brings the subject up go with it, but don’t keep mentioning their exams. We all need to take a mental break from our main concerns.”

It’s important to not run in with reasurrance when a student is distressed, but connect first by simply acknowledging their upset, says Maxwell. A parent can say, “It must feel awful being so worried or stressed or tired (whichever).” Then reassure and offer “What can I do to help?”

“I would caution parents not to fall into the trap of reminding a stressed student of the times they did not study. Avoid unnecessary conflict. These weeks are stressful enough and having you on their side is the best a parent can do for their child,” he said.

Students should avoid a high caffeine intake and should place a self-imposed curfew on electronic devices and social media, says Maxwell. Avoid negative self-talk and tell yourself you will make the best plan you can with the time you have left, and share that plan with someone such as a parent or a sensible friend.

Betty McLaughlin, president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, says parents should avoid arguing with students and be mindful of their children who are sitting exams. Don’t give them any household chores. Remember, it’s their exam week, not yours.

Shane Kelly of IACP reminds students not to suffer in silence and urges parents to talk to students about their fears. Apart from parental support, stressed-out students should reach out to friends, family members - especially a sibling or a cousin who has already done the Leaving Cert - as well as teachers, doctors or counsellors.

Schools guidance counsellors can also offer help, or contact the Irish Association for Counselling and Therapy, or talk to the Samaritans, who provide confidential emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair.

By Finnian Curran

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