‘Tis the (Exam) Season!

by: Dr. Marisa Murray, C.Psych. (Supervised Practice)

You’ve prepared for weeks. Or maybe you haven’t? Your social life–at this point, is non-existent! Whether you’ve studied to the brink of reciting the material in your sleep or if your total exam prep has consisted of overnight cramming, when exam day arrives, the same thing often happens. Thoughts of uncertainty begin to kick in, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

It’s natural to feel some butterflies in your stomach before an exam. It’s similar to the way you might feel before playing in the big game, performing on stage, or engaging in public speaking. Pre-exam jitters can be channeled to help motivate us to perform at our best. This is known as a helpful kind of anxiety. It helps us view the exam as an exciting challenge!

It’s the unhelpful kind of anxiety–the one that causes us to fear the exam, to have difficulty concentrating, to second guess ourselves or to have physical symptoms, like a headache or a racing heart–that interferes with our performance.

With exam season fast approaching, here are some helpful tips for managing your pre-exam anxiety: 

  1. Use your time effectively: No matter how hard you try, it can feel like there is ‘never enough time’ around exam season. Fine-tuning your time-management skills can include: using a calendar or a checklist to set goals, avoiding potential distractions (e.g., phone, your guilty pleasure on television) during study time, and keeping a consistent yet flexible study routine while rewarding yourself for meeting your study goals.
  2. Engage in self-care: Take care of yourself to manage your stress levels. Getting a good night’s sleep, taking breaks (typically ones that allow for stretching, moving around, replenishing food and water intake), engaging in social interactions, and/or practicing a relaxation activity are examples of how you can release some of the pre-exam stress. Just as you schedule your study time, schedule time for yourself!
  3. Develop a study plan: Consider putting together a realistic study plan that allows for flexibility. In developing your study plan, figure out which exams require more prep time. Also, try to factor in some wiggle room for potential obstacles that might interfere with the study plan (e.g., coming down with the flu!). Most importantly, figure out what helps you reach your optimal studying – do you study better alone? Or do you better achieve your studying goals in a group setting? Do you like to study in the comfort of your own home? Or do you prefer the silence of the library? Do you learn better visually? Auditorily? What time of day do you retain information best? Try to answer these questions and incorporate the answers into your study plan.
  4. Monitor your negative thoughts: Telling yourself, “I’m going to fail this exam,” can be very convincing to the powerful mind and, yes, exacerbate anxiety! Keep in mind that there will be questions you know and others you don’t. You cannot learn everything! Try to view your upcoming exam as a new experience. Perhaps the midterm didn’t go as well as you wanted – this is a new exam. Work on convincing your mind that you will “try your best.”
  5. Make use of available resources: Many schools offer workshops and presentations related to stress management, test-taking strategies, and time-management. Look into what’s available on campus. Also, make use of your professors’ and teaching assistants’ office hours to get a better grasp on challenging course material. Finally, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for assistance in managing unhelpful exam anxiety.

Dr. Marisa Murray, C.Psych. (Supervised Practice) is a psychologist in supervised practice at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) in Toronto, Canada, under the supervision of Dr. Cassandra Pasiak, C.Psych. Dr. Murray supports children, adolescents, and adults with psychological treatment and assessment services, including psychoeducational assessments and treatment for eating disorders and body image-related issues.

Navigating the Teenage Years

We were all teenagers once, yet sometimes trying to understand what’s on your teen’s mind is harder than advanced high school calculus. What can make matters worse is when, in your parental quest to figure out your teen’s thoughts, feelings and motivations, both you and your child end up having a conflict and/or experiencing feelings of confusion, frustration, and at times, ultimate helplessness.

While teenagers sometimes aren’t as vocal and open with their parents, a crucial step in a parent confronting a teenager’s psychological challenges is helping them identify the source and then exploring options to address it.

“My teen is withdrawing from the family.”  

“You’re not the boss of me.” Or “You just don’t get it!” How many times did you say this to your parents as a teen? How many times have you been on the receiving end of those words? One of the most widespread challenges of adolescence is the parent-teen relationship. Parents often grapple with a balance between providing support while allowing teens to make their own decisions and life choices. Here are some things you can do:

  • Accept: Your teenager is exploring an unfamiliar life stage – – one in which friends and classmates are considered the most influential. You can continue to play a very prominent role in their lives often by merely letting them know that they can reach out to you when they need to. 
  • Avoid why questions: Checking-in with your child is essential. But try to avoid “WHY” questions. What you believe to be a simple question of curiosity might be interpreted by your teen as the ‘Third Degree’ leaving both of you equally frustrated. Instead of saying, “Why on earth did you do that?” maybe try rephrasing the question as “What did you hope would happen?” 
  • Plan activities: Shared interests (or maybe not…) Venturing into your teen’s world to learn about a new videogame might be an opportunity for him or her to teach YOU something new. Or maybe you can offer to teach your teen a new skill. Whether it’s teaching your teen a new recipe or how to change a tire – that might be another way to connect – – but remember: DON’T FORCE IT!   
  • Share your own experience:  Often times, teens appreciate hearing about their parents’ own teenage experiences. Feel comfortable sharing your own adolescent experiences and give your teen the opportunity to ask you questions. Most importantly, try to make connections between your skills and your teen’s current ones. 
  • Monitor screen time: Like it or not, screens – – whether they are smartphones, tablets, portable games, video game consoles, computers, and TVs – – have become an integral part of teenagers’ daily lives. If you’re hoping it’s a stage, I have news for you – – this is unlikely to change soon. As such, setting limits on screen time use for the entire family (e.g., dinner time, movie nights) will encourage face-to-face communication among family members, without teens feeling singled-out.

“My teen experienced a traumatic event. How do I offer support?” 

Talking about a traumatic event, at any age, can be overwhelming. Teenagers might not know who they should talk to, how to talk to someone, how much is appropriate to share, or where to start. Some teens might feel more comfortable talking to a friend, a sibling, or a mental health professional. Meeting your teen at a level where he or she feels comfortable is KEY! If your teen has reached out to you for support, it’s important to consider the following:

  • Try to stay calm/composed: Although you, as a parent, are also experiencing heightened levels of emotions, it’s vital for you to remain calm for your teen when talking about his or her traumatic experience so you can foster feelings of safety and security. 
  • Avoid judgment: Traumatic experiences often lead to feelings of self-blame and guilt. It’s crucial to listen openly and empathically, and, most importantly, convey the message that this was NOT the teen’s fault. 
  • Show openness to questions: Allow your teen to ask questions and try your best to answer these questions openly and honestly. 
  • Know your limits: if your teen is having difficulty talking about the experience with you, don’t take it personally. It’s not uncommon for a teenager to “not want to share” with a parent (at least initially). What’s most important is that your teen receives appropriate support. Consider reaching out to a mental health professional for guidance. 

“My teen can’t seem to meet school deadlines or focus in class.” 

High school has never been easy. At some point or another, many teens experience difficulty in school – whether it’s their ability to focus in a particular class, study for an exam, or find the motivation to do homework. For some teens, these daily difficulties pose challenges to their overall learning experience and impact their overall functioning.  As teenagers advance in school, academic demands increase, and challenges sometimes become more apparent. As a result, it is essential to understand when these challenges might be a sign of a learning disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (or more commonly referred to as ADHD):

  • Has your teen experienced changes in attitude toward school/school attendance? For example, a teenager who previously enjoyed school now demonstrates resistance or a negative attitude toward school. 
  • Has your teen expressed emotional concerns like feeling anxious or overwhelmed about completing school work or writing exams? 
  • Has your teen complained about difficulty keeping up with school work/devoting an excessive amount of time to homework compared to other classmates? 
  • Has the school expressed concern regarding challenges (e.g., applying skills and knowledge, impulsive and disruptive behaviours, difficulty with focus) that are interfering with your teen’s ability to reach his/her academic potential?
  • Is your teen experiencing consistent difficulty with planning and organization, remembering details, and time-management? 

If you answered “YES” to any one of those questions, a psychoeducational assessment might provide a clear understanding of your teenager’s cognitive and academic strengths and challenges. In addition, an assessment might also inform you and your teen of appropriate accommodations that can be made at both the secondary and post-secondary level to ensure that your teen performs at an academic level reflective of his or her abilities.