Anita Rao (name changed), mother of a 15-year-old in Mumbai, has been grappling with anxiety thanks to her son's board exams. Not only has she taken the ritualistic leave from work to support her son with studies, but she has also been monitoring his diet, sleep, screen-time etc., to ensure 'optimal output'. "We parents cannot afford to leave any stone unturned," she says. The mood is tense in the Khurrana (name changed) household as well, where 16-year old Ahsaas (name changed) feels that her "every move is surveilled to a great degree. My phone isn't with me. I don't get a chance to watch Netflix. The expectations are really high, and sometimes I even get nightmares about my score," she confesses.
Exams have always been a stressful time for young Indians. In 2016, the National Crime Records Bureau revealed that 2,646 students committed suicide in 2015 due to "failure in examination". Moreover, 81.6% of secondary school students in India suffer examination-related anxiety (International Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences, 2015). And this number may have increased exponentially in the last few years.
Records of students using the Maharashtra State Board's counselling services reveal that many students suffer from crippling test anxiety. Students have been dealing with stress like never before, especially because exams are going to be offline again after a two-year-long hiatus. As a result, many children have been exhibiting anxiety symptoms to the point where they need to seek help from mental health professionals.
Also read: How Indians can better their sleep
Parenting experts and counsellors share their opinion on how to tackle test anxiety and manage it.
Causes For test anxiety
While there are multiple reasons for test anxiety-- the primary one is how the child interprets the meaning of the word 'test'. Many of them believe that a test judges their capability, intent and capacity as a student and a person. This may be because of how social circles—friends, family and school—impact a child's association with the word. Dr Sheba Singh, Consultant Psychologist, Mumbai, who works with many children and parents, says that 8 out of 10 children she counsels suffer from test anxiety. "There are many causes for it, some of them being fear of failure, fear of future, and parental pressure being amongst some of them. High academic scorers fear being displaced by even one rank as it means 'demotion' to them. Average or low academic scorers may experience fear of the future. In India specifically, parents are involved, actively and passively, a lot in their child's studies. Seeking loans to fund a child's studies or coaching, seeking career sabbaticals/changing jobs or relocating to a new city are common stories, and these put pressure on a child," she articulates.
In the words of Dr Debmita Dutta, MBBS, MD, a Parenting Consultant based in Bengaluru, test anxiety is a form of performance anxiety brought on by various factors. In her opinion, a child is brought up to believe that everything in life hinges on the marks they get and this belief is usually planted in a child by their parents. "The parents who plant this belief feel that self-worth in society is linked to marks obtained in exams. They have a fixed vision of success and what it means to be successful and push their children in that direction. They have rigid expectations that they do not bother to tailor to their child's abilities and interests. The mismatch between what the child feels capable of and what is expected of them leads to anxiety. Dr Dutta further explains that children are anxious about three things, "First, they will lose their parent's love if they do not perform. Second, they will be rejected or excluded by their peers if they perform poorly. Third, they will be ignored and not valued in school." And all of it leads to test anxiety, eventually. She adds that test anxiety is a terrible experience. Those who experience it once dread it so much that the anxiety of experiencing it again sends them into another panic attack.
Understanding the symptoms
Dr Singh has observed her clients' present symptoms at both the physiological and psychological levels. "Psychological symptoms include too much worry or fear, lack of concentration, restlessness, irritation. Most parents complain that the child is unable to complete his revision because he's not able to sit in one place and concentrate. Also, the child often talks and visualises about failing in exams," she shares. She says that the most common physiological symptom observed among children is sweaty palms and feet. "Some students experience drying of the mouth, and so they have to drink a lot of water. Stomach ache, vomiting, dizziness, fainting, palpitations happen in extreme cases of anxiety," she adds.
Dr Dutta's experience says that children who suffer from test anxiety exhibit, often, the following behaviours: avoiding studying by focusing on social media or gaming, rebellion, depression, crying, anger, loss of self-worth, self-belief, self-esteem, blacking out during the exam, and a desire to skip exams or tuitions where they may need to perform. Anubhuti Das, Counselling Psychologist Dept. of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Fortis Hospital Mumbai, elaborates on emotional symptoms, including feelings of helplessness, stress, fear, and feelings of insufficiency and distress.
Strategies to deal with test anxiety
In Dr Singh's opinion, students must follow an activity schedule every day. "This schedule should include studying, exercise and leisure. Studies consume a substantial part of the time in the exam period. Students should not ignore exercise, which helps energise them for further activity and releases happy hormones. Leisure is the happiest and most important part of the day, where students may do things which make them happy such as watching a TV show, taking a nap, talking to a friend, sitting with family, any artwork, cooking etc." She stresses the role of parents in helping children cope with the stress by saying that parents can be the pillars of support for their children by telling children stories of both failure and success.
Hirak Patel, Counselling Psychologist, Dept. of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Fortis Hospital Mumbai, suggests that schools implement various techniques and activities to create a stress-free environment. "Schools can teach parents effective study and organisational skills so that the parents can implement the same in the home study plan. Teachers can encourage parents to monitor the child's progress in school and train them about using techniques to enhance study hours at home. Parents should also be encouraged to work together with the school psychologist and include behaviour modification techniques for healthy study habits in children," she opines.
Dr Dutta emphasises that students should avoid procrastination by studying daily and focusing on learning, not results alone. She suggests students solve old question papers so that they practice feeling the anxiety in a low stakes environment and getting used to it. She suggests that parents ensure that the child eats healthy, sleeps well, and does breathing exercises. As a message to students, she says, "Remember that these tests are just preparing you for real-life where you are faced with a test every day and all the time. Use these tests to learn how to stay calm and make good decisions. Do not go thinking that you need to get full marks. Also, do not focus on competition and what marks others get. Just do your best."
Anubhuti Das, Counselling Psychologist and Hirak Patel, Counselling Psychologist, Dept. of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Fortis Hospital Mumbai share handy tips for dealing with Test Anxiety
For physical coping:
Cognitive and emotional coping: