It’s that time of year again; the IC is at almost full capacity, the student nights are being spent sat at a desk instead of stood at a bar, and for many anxiety is at an all time high.
A recent article in The Guardian discussed the fact that childhood fears, such as the dark and monsters under the bed, are being replaced by more adult anxieties – not least, underperformance. The writer described their concern at their daughter’s virtually automatic response to the question “what is your greatest fear?” But I must admit I think that nausea-inducing heights and my haemophobia would also come in second and third place to my fear of failure.
Earlier this year, I returned to my sixth form upon invitation to talk to the current Year 13s about university. They wanted to know about freshers week and making friends and making food, which are all clearly very important and very exciting, but I went in sure that I would also reassure them about one of the most stressful times in their academic experience so far.
It is quite common for people to say and believe that if you can handle A levels, you can handle a degree and the exams that come with it. But from an objective point of view – that is, looking at the piece of paper I received mid-August last year with a series of letters on it, it would seem that I handled A levels fairly well and that could not be further from the reality.
The letter written by a primary school headteacher to pupils that were taking SATs went viral for a good reason; just as it said, someone marking an exam paper on your comprehension of an unseen text about Billy’s walk to the shops can have absolutely no idea that you are your school team’s top goal scorer, or that you always share your crisps, or that you are a fantastic painter. But just as exams fail to tell the full story of how wonderful you are, they also do not pick up on the more human side to you.
The person that marked my English Language A level paper had no idea that I had a panic attack in the middle of writing it, my English Literature response probably didn’t give away that I spent the hour afterwards in the car sobbing that I couldn’t and didn’t want to do it at university (to the Law Department’s benefit), and the examiner that read my R.S. essays probably did not comprehend that the only reason I could endure yet another exam was because I finally had beta blockers to get me through it.
But just because these aspects of you and the extent of your anxieties are not in the contemplation of the examiner’s mind does not mean that they do not matter. Just like your excellent football skills and wonderful generosity, they are an important facet of you. They don’t define you in the same way – but then neither do your grades because they are a reflection of about three hours of one day of your life. It is very easy to hold them in reverence because everyone is striving for that illustrious 2:1 just as they were for their entry requirements for university but there really is so much more to life than getting a degree, getting a job, having a family, and retiring in the south of France.
I have struggled with exam anxiety for about three years now and I can tell you that as rewarding as it is to pass and do well, the happiness never equates to the panic and worry and sheer fear preceding the exams and overshadowing the entire revision period. The Mental Health Matters Society’s approach to the exams this year has been so admirable and also so relevant today. After reading a different university’s page on anxiety that suggested one reason a student may experience it during exams is due to a lack of preparation, my hand was shaking as I went to close it, questions filling my head – maybe that was why I was feeling so apprehensive in spite of spending roughly 6 hours a day on revision. MHM’s approach is much more understanding and healthy, I feel, offering relaxing and distracting breaks such as a movie night and even colouring. While I still could not justify leaving my textbooks alone for that long, their example is a better one than mine and it did act as a reminder to me that breaks are as important as the revision itself.
There is enough pressure on our generation to succeed with terrifying unemployment statistics constantly drilled into us along with the seemingly impossible competition for the best jobs. But for people who experience the trials and tribulations of mental health day in and day out, every once in a while we may need to just heed my friend’s advice and ‘Take the 40’ in the interest of our wellbeing which always has to take priority.
If you are a student experiencing similar problems, please speak to your personal tutor and see a GP at the University Health Service to get the best advice for you.