The higher school certificate (HSC) is a major source of stress for pupils, parents and families. High anxiety levels during the HSC impacts on well-being and performance in year 12 but could also impact on the mental health of our youth in the years ahead.
Anxiety is the number one mental health issue today and 1 in 4 people suffer from symptoms. The levels of anxiety in society have risen dramatically since I began to work as a psychologist in 1982 and are rising steadily. I believe that school stress generally, and HSC specifically, is a major contributing factor to this increase.
This year (2016) is 50 years since the HSC was initiated in NSW. The reasons for it were clear at the time and made sense. There needed to be a reliable, consistent score that could inform tertiary educational institutions about the abilities of the student applying to do a course.
What was not predicted was the pressure that would be exerted on schools, teachers, parents and especially pupils to score a high ATAR. From term 4 of year 11, until 14 months later, all pupils are driven, motivated, coached, lectured, corrected and focused to achieve an excellent result. The last months of year 12 are relentless where even school holidays are expected to be filled with hours of study and revision.
While the goal may have been virtuous and understandable, it has taken its toll on mental and physical health. What I observe in my practice every day are students who cannot sleep, cannot eat, are shaky and cannot focus. Students often feel sick and nauseas. Panic attacks are common especially on the day of an exam.
This is not just my observation. There was a study in 2015 on the levels of stress in HSC students. Nearly half of the students who were measured (42%) registered severe anxiety – high enough to require clinical assessment and treatment. This percentage, by the way, is nearly double the rate of anxiety in the regular population of individuals. It is also a higher proportion than found in earlier studies.
Facts about stress and learning
There is a myth that stress is good for studying. Many students believe that they require stress to force them to meet deadlines and study for long periods of time. Students who are relaxed and pace themselves are often doubted by their parents and teachers who worry that relaxed students will not achieve high scores.
A small amount of stress (eustress) may be beneficial. But moderate to severe levels of stress are definitely not helpful. Understanding the brain and what happens when we are stressed has gone a long way to explaining why this myth is rubbish. In fact, it is downright harmful.
Neurobiology, which examines what happens in the brain at a neural level, has shown that when a person is stressed, the ability to learn is decreased. In other words, not only does excessive stress not accelerate learning, it compromises it.
Here is how it works. When stressed, the primitive part of the brain begins to “fire”. It activates a neural circuit which mobilises bodily functions essential for survival (like increased heart rate and shallow breathing). These bodily functions cause feelings of distress. They cause individuals to feel sick, yuck and out of control.
Because your primitive brain is firing, as if you are in danger, your essential body parts and limbs are the focus leaving no opportunity for the thinking parts of your brain to function. That is why when you are excessively stressed you will find it difficult to focus, your memory will be poor and it takes extra effort to learn new data. You may convince yourself that you are alert and “doing something” constructive but studies have proven that cognitive functions are compromised under duress.
Tips to facilitate learning
Students learn most when they feel safe. Students remember the best when they are relaxed and calm. Calmness means that all brain energy can be directed to understanding, problem solving and remembering.
If you are a parent or educator, here is how you can help:
- Do not threaten students to do well. Motivate and encourage instead.
- Do not overload with work. Give time for sport, relaxation and socialising.
- Allow each student to work in his/her unique way. For example, one student may like to study straight after school but another may prefer to relax for half an hour before launching into studying.
- Encourage laughter before learning.
How Anxiety Solutions CBT Psychology Practice can help students doing their HSC
- are extremely stressed/uptight/tense/edgy
- are finding it difficult to study
- have broken sleep
- are always tired
- cannot stop your intrusive thoughts
- are obsessing about your results
- feel nauseas
- have irritable bowel
- are experiencing headaches
- have no appetite
- not want to socialise
- are having panic attacks
- hate yourself
I strongly recommend that you seek treatment and soon. The science of neurobiology shows that neural networks get thicker and more entrenched over time unless you break the cycle. This means that your symptoms will worsen and be harder to undo if you do nothing.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been proven to be the most effective means of reducing symptoms of stress and anxiety. At Anxiety Solutions CBT Psychology Practice we have taught effective CBT tools to hundreds of students whose symptoms were reduced in a short space of time, sometimes as little as 3 weeks.
Your current and future mental health is important. Take care of it now. Call 02 9328 5899 for an initial, no commitment session.