How post-exam stress follows people through life – and why it doesn’t have to

Posted August 22, 2019

With school exam results days all past now, kids will be getting ready for their next big step. For those of you well out of school though, this time of year can often bring flashbacks to your own teenage stress on results days. Ever have nightmares where you’re back in the school exam hall unprepared or, worse, undressed?! You wouldn’t be the only one, and we’ve found that nearly half of adults suffer from what we’ve coined ‘Post-Exam Stress Disorder’. From recurring nightmares to an ongoing fear of failure, people are haunted by their exam stress even decades later.

We did a national survey of 2000 adults, and of those who said they’re still traumatised, 39% told us their nightmares involve them failing a test, 17% dream about not revising enough and 11% show up to the exam “inappropriately dressed”! We’ve also found that women are more likely to have dreams that relate to lacking confidence, while men disproportionately panic over logistics like clothing or location. More worryingly, our survey told us that 24% adults feel their current sense of self-esteem is linked to the grades they ended up with at school or university. With “Post-Exam Stress Disorder”, what should be an exciting time in everyone’s education is instead taken over with panic.

Thousands of kids go through this every year. The tense lead-up to exams and then the countdown to results day weeks later. Their future rests on what letters (or numbers if it’s GCSE) get printed on those bits of paper, whether it’s 6th form college, what unis they’ll apply for, and, if they’re a school leaver, where they’ll be spending the next few years. It’s a quick – and major – leap from childhood just a few years ago, and often the first time that real-world demands are made of them. We spoke to psychologist Dr Kate Jenkins, who specialises in counselling adults with actual Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Regarding these recurring exam-time dreams, she says, “Dreams often reflect our deepest fears […] Exam dreams may be experienced by those who fear being measured against others and found lacking in some way”. She also told us she sees the lasting impact of exam stress in lots of her patients and knows there can be more done to prevent it.

But while some worry about big changes is normal, it really shouldn’t haunt teens’ lives forever. If exam time and results days were less stressful for teens though, our participants feel they’d be less traumatised in the long term. One in five of the people we spoke to thought celebrating other forms of achievement more could help reduce the pressure placed on exams. If a teen has a positive attitude to exams at the time, then no matter how they do, they’re less likely to look back on them and get shivers down their spine. But while we can’t prevent exam stress altogether, by making efforts to calm their approach to exams, we can help set kids up better for the future.

Ways to stop your child getting post-exam stress

    1. Reinforce their confidence by listing all of the achievements, not just academic ones (times when they were generous or helpful, sporting and creative success).
    2. Emphasise that exam results are just one type of achievement out of many, and no matter how they’ve done you’ll help them come up with a plan.
    3. Tell them you’re proud of them! If they’re worried they might’ve let you down, you can put that idea to rest by making it clear that you’re impressed by how far they’ve come.
    4. The pressure teens put on themselves is often the biggest issue with PESD. Studying for tests shouldn’t feel so high-stakes. Help them out by making memory games out of their course content with silly prizes (an extra Netflix episode for example). This helps train positive associations with their subjects.
    5. Help them visualise lots of different options for next steps/careers. If all they can see is medical or law school in their future, it makes reaching those goals very stressful.

As well as making exams and results day run as smoothly as possible, helping your teen enjoy studying throughout the academic year is another powerful way to reduce post-exam stress. The great thing about our tutors is that they all went through their school exams in the past few years, and they’re still sitting their own at university. They know just what your teen’s going through, so they can strike up a rapport and give really accurate advice. Lessons are tailored exactly to your child’s needs. By sorting out anxieties and filling in any learning gaps early in the year, they can approach any future exams with confidence.

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