x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Feeling tense and nervous? It must be exam season

Managing stress is vitally important for students at this time of the year, says Justin Thomas.

If there’s a thin line between genius and insanity, there is an even thinner one between teaching and psychotherapy. At no point in the year is this boundary more blurred than during the week of final exams. As the examination period descends at the university I work at, many students are filled with anxiety, worry, fear, procrastination and panic. By the time it’s all over, disappointment, dysphoria and despair will also come to dominate the minds of an unfortunate few. Tellingly, the Arabic for exam – imtihan – is related to the word mehna, meaning distress, ordeal or tribulation.

The emotions associated with exams also fit well with traditional psychological models of common mental health problems. Anxiety is associated with excessive concern about future loss, while depression is born of excessive focus on past losses: real, symbolic or imagined. For example: “If I perform poorly, I might never get into medical school.” Or: “ I used to be top-of-the-class, now I’m just average.”

The massive spike in anxiety levels at Zayed University is palpable at this time of year.

Tables in the cafeteria are strewn with lipstick stained energy drinks, the coffee shops are packed and the temporary scars of sleeplessness are much in evidence. Even those who are usually “too cool for school” begin nervously probing for information: “Will Freud be on the exam?” And my personal favourite: “Will it be difficult or easy?”

The day of the exam is characterised by full attendance. Perhaps for the first time since the start of term, no one is absent. This is also one of the few occasions when the entire class arrives before the teacher. Desks are piled high with last-minute revision materials, and the atmosphere is pregnant with the twin sisters of fear and hope.

As the door closes behind me, each face simultaneously registers an apprehensive appreciation that the moment has arrived.

Beyond Zayed University, similar scenes have been playing out the world over. Most students experience pre-exam nerves, and for a vast majority it is not a problem. For some, it might even give them the competitive edge. These are the students who are consistently able to convert anxious concerns into well-planned study regimes. Their anxiety fuels a thoughtful, careful performance, rather than giving rise to blind panic and a flood of self-doubt.

Unfortunately, there are others whose anxiety and worry routinely assume problematic proportions. For them, anxiety impedes concentration, interferes with sleep, and gives rise to a host of physical complaints: headaches, muscle tension and stomach upsets. Ultimately, their anxiety takes a heavy toll on exam performance.

In addition to this performance-degrading aspect of anxiety, there are also other, more general, negative consequences.

At the heart of anxiety is a tendency to be highly intolerant of uncertainty.

The overly anxious will go to great lengths, attempting to minimise this uncertainty: over-preparing, reassurance seeking, obsessively checking and re-answering questions. However, despite their best efforts, uncertainty can never be totally eliminated and the window for worry is always slightly ajar.

One particularly problematic strategy for avoiding uncertainty, is to choose to fail. If you just quit, uncertainty is avoided and you are secure in the guarantee of an F-grade. Another massively dysfunctional strategy is to cheat. The correct answer to uncertainty, however, lies in cultivating a tolerance or even an appreciation of it, rather than desperate attempts to eliminate it.

I believe a vital skill for today’s educators is to help students overcome the emotional barriers to optimum performance.

Or better still, prevent them falling into patterns of excessive and unhelpful worry and anxiety in the first place.

The role of the educator is changing, the internet and other emerging technologies are expediting this transformation. Indeed, one student wrote the following in an essay on education: “Google is my adviser and Wikipedia my professor.”

She was drawing attention to the fact that the day of the all-knowing sage of the stage is over. Educators in the information age still need to know their stuff, but the ability to motivate and help students better manage their emotions is increasingly important. The line between teaching and psychotherapy has become thin to non-existent.

Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States