Teen Mental Health, School and exams

26 May, 2016

Surviving the last few weeks of the Leaving Cert

Child psychotherapist Colman Noctor shares tips for Leaving Cert students on how to avoid stress.

Helping with exam stress

Helping with exam stress

“It’s nearly here…”

That sentence will resonate with some students as the positive prospect that they will soon have this arduous process of hard work, tension and build-up finally out of their lives. For others, this sentence will send a sense of dread through their minds as they panic about not having enough time to be fully prepared.

I am guessing that the constant stream of ceremonies to mark the conclusion of your school life will have started or be starting in the last week or so, and the induction into adulthood will soon begin to unfold.

Firstly, it is important to remember that everyone will experience the run up to the Leaving Certificate in different ways. A lot of how we respond to this anxious event is down to our temperament. Those who tend to be more perfectionistic will be frantically filling every waking moment with opportunities to delve into a book, whereas others may be on the couch watching TV.

Given the range of emotional responses, it is not possible to give advice that will suit everyone, but what we do know is that the Leaving Certificate for most young people and their parents is anxiety-provoking. The following tips should help!

Trust your process

Any great sportsman will tell you - whether it’s Ronan O’Gara kicking a drop goal to win the Grand Slam or Rory McIlroy attempting that 12 foot putt for a Major title - “TRUST YOUR PROCESS”.

This infers that the work you have done all year will stand to you in moments of high pressure. You have done the work; you know this stuff; you have listened in class; and you are ready. Even if you feel that you haven’t put in the work, you have been in school for five or six years and you probably know more than you think.

Trust that all you have done will come back to you in the moment when you need it - and it will. Lean on what you know rather than focussing on what you feel you don’t.

Remember, feeling prepared is a myth: many people, although as prepared as they can be, will not feel ready at this time. Rely on facts, not feelings, during this period.

Don’t try to run three marathons the week of a marathon

Your brain is like a muscle and, in that way, it needs rest periods to replenish and grow. No marathon runner will run a series of marathons in the lead-up to a big race. The final weeks will usually consist of small periods of 10k (or kilometres) or 15k runs to keep limber, rather than trying to run three marathons that week and end up exhausted.

Let’s learn from these guys. What is important in the coming weeks is that you allow your brain to rest and be prepared. Eat well, get some fresh air,  and try to sleep as well as you can.

Remember a sponge cannot soak up any water if you don’t relax your grip on it and neither will your brain.

Anxiety and irritability are part for the course

As we get more stressed and tense, we will notice that our patience is less, our fuse is shorter and we tend to get more upset more easily than normal. This is a wonderfully normal response to pressure and anxiety.

The stress of doing a state exam that has been drilled into you for the last two years, more than likely suggesting that this is the most important life defining event you will ever do, is stressful! Although the above is untrue, and it is not as life-defining as it is often made out, there is no value in me suggesting that it is unimportant to you at this stage. I am aware that, to you, it is huge and that’s fine; maybe you need to believe that in order to motivate you to give it your all.

However, try not to give yourself a hard time if you are a bit snappy or contrary over the next few weeks. Remember, your family love you and they understand, and there will be plenty time to make up to them over the summer.

I would advise telling your family when you are stressed. They will listen and try to help. They may not always say the right thing, but, rest assured, they are trying to get it right. Remember it’s hard for parents to get it right. By them saying ‘whatever you get is fine by us’, you can interpret as ‘they don’t believe in me’ or, if they say ‘you will do great ,we know you will get the points you need’, you interpret as ‘they are putting too much pressure on me’.

So, parents, give your stressed-out teenager some slack - and Leaving Cert students, give your stressed out parents some slack, this is hard on them too.

Some last pieces of advice:

  • Talk it out with people who are close to you.
  • Ignore others who say they are doing 25 hours study a day and those who say they are doing nothing, but really are… play your own game.
  • Enjoy the wind-down from school, such as graduations, debs, prize-givings and so on. This is the end of an important part of your life; don’t let the Leaving Cert stress overshadow this important goodbye.
  • Focus on some happy occasions after this is all over, such as a concert you are going to over the summer or your infamous sixth-year holiday.

Remember you’re nearly there…

This piece was written by Colman Noctor, Adolescent Psychotherapist with St Patrick’s Mental Health Services.