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Image Credit: Gulf News

Dubai: Students from Indian curriculum schools undergo tremendous stress and fear triggered by performance anxiety close to exams.

Asma Afreen, a student psychologist and counsellor who has practised in a school in India for a year, has dealt with several adolescent students dealing with examination phobia.

“For nearly a year at a convent school in Bengaluru, I counselled students from grade 9-12. I’ve dealt with complaints of going blank before an exam or unable to sleep before an exam," Afreen said.

"There have also been children having nightmares before an exam leading to disturbed sleep and patchy memory the next day,” she added.

Afreen feels competitiveness is intrinsic to the Indian DNA.

“India is a country of 1.4 billion people. Just by our sheer numbers, our stakes are higher, our competition is fiercer and the number of people competing for each university seat and each job role is higher. That has filtered down to schools.”

For nearly a year at a convent school in Bengaluru, I counselled students from grade 9-12. I’ve dealt with complaints of going blank before an exam or unable to sleep before an exam. There have also been children having nightmares before an exam leading to disturbed sleep and patchy memory the next day.

- Asma Afreen, a student psychologist and counsellor

She added that Indian parents needed to manage the expectations they place on their children.

Exam anxiety

“Every Indian parent, hoping to prepare their children better, invariably and unintentionally, start pushing their child to perform better academically.

"Indians are extremely social people with usually large family networks; and there is a strong tendency to compare their children with those of peers, relatives and colleagues which leads to additional stress for the children involved.”

The American Psychology Association’s manual points out that exam anxiety is characterised by a marked and persistent fear of social or performance situations in which embarrassment may occur.

At the core of this anxiety is the fear of failure which hampers the child’s performance in exams, added Afreen.

Afreen said the best way to tackle it would be to get parents and teachers to manage their expectations about a student’s performance and not place too much burden of outcome on the young mind.

“Parents and teachers should ensure adequate exam preparation, planning and keep a positive, encouraging environment to ensure that the child is not stressed before an exam. Emphasising the child’s strengths and setting realistic expectations can make the child grounded and help him/her handle failure better.”

What students can do to fight back the phobia:

According to Tanya Dharamshi, Clinical Director and Counselling Psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai, there are several measures a student can take to overcome exam phobia. Here are some:

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  • Turn your bedroom into a ‘sanctuary’: Free the room of electronic devices, textbooks, revision aides and other exam-related paraphernalia. If you use your room to study in, ensure all school work is packed away every night and not visible from your bed.
  • Establish a nightly routine: This can include a warm bath and a cup of warm milk/herbal tea to using a scented pillow spray and listening to calming music. Create an environment which is comfortable and free from anything exam related.
  • Improve your diet: Do not skip meals or opt for ‘fast food’ to save time. Wholesome meals and healthy snacks help keep blood sugars stable and are all ‘fuel’ for the brain.
  • Avoid stimulants: Limit cigarettes and caffeine consumption during the day and refrain from both at least six hours prior to bedtime. This includes fizzy drinks and chocolate.
  • Exercise on a regular basis: Even a walk around the block can ‘freshen’ the brain, provide a welcome pause for thought and help keep things in perspective. Encourage children to have hobbies and interests outside the classroom. Sport and exercise can help improve mental health and increase resilience to mental health problems.
  • Tech-free time: Ensure at least one-hour of tech-free time before bed. Remove any temptation by leaving phones and tablets outside your room at night as their noise and light can interfere with sleeping. LCD screens on phones and tablets emit light that is blue enriched. This light influences the body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) and delays the release of the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin.
  • Maintain a regular sleep pattern: Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, including at weekends, and do not nap! Irregular sleeping has a delayed release of the sleep hormone melatonin, which helps to set both the sleep and wake cycles for the body by as much as three hours.
  • Deep breathing: Take a long deep breath while counting for 5-8 seconds, then hold it for 5-8 seconds. Repeat several times to relieve anxious/stressed feelings. This can help re-centre you during a busy work day.
  • Notice the positives in yourself every day: We can easily get caught up in the things we’re unhappy with or think we should improve on, and often forget the things we have achieved or enjoyed.

What can parents do?

  • Remain emotionally connected with your child and be privy to his/her thoughts and feelings
  • Counter negative self-talk with words of encouragement and be the buffer
  • Encourage organised preparation for exams to let your child feel more confident
  • Do not draw comparisons or place unrealistic expectations
  • Make sure your child is well rested and has nutritionally balanced meals. Encourage the child. Physical symptoms like nausea, lack of appetite, rapid heartbeat need to be checked.
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Asma Afreen, a student psychologist and counsellor