Exam stress is overwhelming my anxious son

My 15-year-old son is very anxious about his Junior Cert. It has got to the point where he is nearly having panic attacks at the thought of the exams. He has always been a bit of a perfectionist and an anxious child, but this is the worst I have seen him. How can I help him?

As we enter the run-up to the State exams, the pressure really mounts on young people. Your question highlights the enormous pressure students can feel, so much so that it can cause bouts of anxiety and panic attacks, as well as depression and other problems. Young people, like your son, who have a tendency to be worriers or perfectionists can be particularly vulnerable to this stress.

Helping your son
It sounds as if your son is talking to you about his stress, which is really important. Giving him space to vent and to let off steam is enormously beneficial. In addition, aside from the exam stress itself, many young people beat themselves up about feeling the stress or think there is something wrong with them, which only makes thing a lot worse.

As a result, it is important to help him understand what he is going through by: naming his feelings: “You are getting really stressed out”; normalising his experience: “Loads of young people feel like that, exam pressure is unreal”; and even pointing out the positives in his worry: “The fact you are stressed is a sign that you are concerned and want to do something about it.”

Help your son create a realistic study plan
The key to overcoming stress is to recognise it as a call to action. Help your son channel his stress and worry into establishing an effective and realistic study plan.

Simple things such as having a regular time and place of study, making a plan of what you are tackling each study session, and reviewing what you have learned at the end can all help.

If your son is overwhelmed by the enormity of preparing for the Junior Cert, it can help to break down revising for each subject into a series of smaller sub-tasks and then smaller again into goals for each study session.

Your role can be one of a supportive coach: take an interest in his work, review daily how he is getting on, and help him formulate good plans.

If your son is struggling with certain subjects, make sure to address this and work with his school teachers to come up with a plan to help.

Help your son have a balanced life
Ensure that your son’s study plan is only one part of his life. Make sure his plan includes time for physical exercise and activities, good social outlets and relaxing hobbies.

Such a balanced lifestyle is not only good for his overall wellbeing; it is also the best way for him to be effective in his study and in tackling his anxiety. Lots of research shows that people work at the most productive level when they take physical exercise, sleep and eat well, and have times of relaxation and social connection.

Help your son manage his anxiety and stress
It can be helpful to teach your son strategies for managing his stress and anxiety if this emerges. The key is to get him to notice the early signs of stress and to do something about it, rather than letting it overwhelm him.

This could be as simple as taking a break and going for a walk if he is stuck in study, to formally learning some relaxation techniques such as concentrating on his breathing, meditating or doing some yoga exercises (these are often best learned at formal classes; then he can practise at home and use them to help in times of stress).

Help your son challenge stress-inducing thoughts
Help your son to notice the thoughts that underpin his rising stress levels. These can be self-critical thoughts such as, “I’m no good at this,” “I’m going to fail,” or “I can’t get all the work done”; or over-perfectionist thoughts such as “I am a loser,”, or “I am worthless if I don’t get a result.” The goal is for him to become aware of these thoughts and to not see them as part of his identity.

The practice of mindfulness can also be very helpful in this regard: you learn to notice these thoughts rising and falling in your mind and you become an observer of them rather than getting distraught by them. Simply accepting them diminishes their power.

It can also be beneficial for your son to express and name these negative thoughts and even to write them down where they can be challenged or questioned – or at least seen as intruding thoughts rather than as part of his identity.

I find it useful to help young people reframe and replace these thoughts with more helpful, balanced ones such as “I will do my best when I study,” or “I am going to work step by step,” or “I’m going to try to learn to enjoy the process.”

Sometimes, writing these out as coping cards or reminders can be a help.

Putting things in perspective
One of the sources of stress about exams is the belief that they are the be-all and end-all of everything, that nothing matters beyond them, or that one’s whole life is dependent on them.

These beliefs are reinforced by society’s obsession with getting the best exam results, rather than on more enduring qualities such as doing one’s best, finding one’s talent or making a social contribution.

You can help your son put things in perspective by helping him see his life beyond the exams and also by not losing sight of the important things in life. If you hold this balanced perspective, you can act as his counterbalance to all the exam stress.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, May 2015. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.