Category: Anxiety

Seven steps to help your child with exam stress.

Board and school/college final exams are around the corner. This is the time to prepare, to think and plan, to build your own and your child’s immunity to educational pressure and exam stress. We all want our children to be successful and happy, and it is high time we figured out how. Formulas often don’t work because each child is unique. Therefore, it is important to figure out what you and your child need to do to manage anxiety.

Watch out for anxiety-prone thinking:
Students who are keen on academics and want to excel in a given exam may sometimes go through intense anxiety. In fact, as exams approach, most students will feel anxious. Some anxiety is normal. Anxiety is what pushes us to work hard, focus on our goals and not become lazy or distracted. However, anxiety beyond a level is detrimental and affects performance negatively. Now, each person has a different threshold for anxiety. And this level is determined by each person’s unique biology or temperament and socialisation or learning from childhood. While we cannot change biology, it is the learning part that we can work on.

Anxiety is often triggered by the unknown, feeling that things are out of control, or focusing on outcomes that one fears. While most students who are well prepared usually feel confident and less anxious, some of these students may undergo intense anxiety. This happens if they indulge in unrealistic or erroneous thinking. Such children/teenagers may hold catastrophic beliefs around their results (e.g., coming second in an exam is the same as failure), have unrealistic/perfectionistic expectations, and their entire self worth is tied to their performance (e.g., have to top each exam, else I am not good enough). In order to prevent children and teenagers from becoming overly anxious, parents play a very important role by being realistic, and not reinforcing unfortunate beliefs. You can help a child who is highly anxious by discussing the worst case scenario so that there is a plan B in place and the unknown is not so scary.

Separate academic success from child’s worth
Another harmful tendency is to use academic performance as the only criteria for assessing a child’s worth. This is not only extremely damaging to the child but also to the society at large. There can only be a few “toppers” in a specific area, but there can be several “toppers” in many different areas, such as art, photography, music, dramatics, entrepreneurship, sports, etc. When we widen the possibilities of not only where success may lie but also what success means, success becomes more possible.

There are two problems that need to be addressed: wanting each child to be a “topper” as per set external standards (i.e., exam results); and, pushing each child to be that topper, whether the child is even remotely interested in it or not, and has the ability to do so or not. Parents can help children and teenagers build a stronger sense of self worth that is not tied so deeply to academic performance.There are many successful and happy people who have carved out a niche for themselves in an area after having been average students academically and doing different things until they found that one area which really excited them. We do not have to make the next generation go through the same long process and instead help them find their passion earlier in their lives.

Moderate self and child’s academic expectations:
Teenagers, especially in India, go through immense pressure and stress related to their educational pursuits. The pressure to excel is placed on them not only by parents but also by schools. In addition, while some children are quite self-driven and competitive by nature, their anxiety also stems from the desire to excel by the standards set by their peers.

Each child has his or her own personality, temperament, unique strengths, talents and abilities. While each child may be bright and capable in his or her own way, every child may not be interested in or suited to engaging in purely academic pursuits or becoming an engineer or doctor. It is important to assess where our child stands academically and whether his/her expectations as well as our expectations from his/her performance are realistic.

Do not impose own dreams/career choices on child
It is important to self reflect and make sure that as parents we are not imposing our own dreams and/or ambitions regarding academic/career choices on our children. Otherwise, we will be trying to put a square peg in a round hole – it will never fit. There are, unfortunately, scores of adults and young people who have been badgered into making educational and career choices they were not keen on and are not happy with. Quite a few of these teenagers and adults go through life struggling with low self esteem, anxiety and depression as they do not find what they do satisfying and are unable to put in their best efforts. In addition, everything they try to do is to somebody else’s standard, and that standard seems impossible to meet.

Help child discover areas of interests:
Exposure is the key to helping a teenager find his/her areas of interest. Once interested the teenager may develop enough discipline and motivation on his/her own to pursue their goals without parents needing to nag! Openly discussing the pros and cons of different career options and ideally having them speak to someone engaged in a career they are interested in, or visiting that person’s workplace, provides a more realistic picture. The idea, therefore, is not to leave teenagers to their own devices. It is important to be actively engaged in helping children discover for themselves their own interests and then making it clear that you expect them to put in their best efforts towards realizing their dreams. There is no substitute for hard work, no matter what field – arts, entertainment, business, medicine, etc.

Provide study tools and improve study habits:
Sometimes children perform at average or below average levels academically either due to a learning disability or due to being ill prepared because they do not have the study skills required. Often, the appropriate educational resources, including good teachers, are just not available. While universal good education should be a protected right, the reality is far from ideal.

Helping children and teenagers learn how to organise their time, to plan and make a study schedule, and to break big projects into small parts and tackle one part at a time is sometimes all that is required to alleviate their anxiety. In other situations, involving special educators, arranging for extra help, such as tutors, or sitting down with the child and helping them in areas where they need help can reduce the child’s anxiety and improve their academic performance.

Inculcate healthy lifestyle practices:
Parents often need to teach themselves and their children ways to calm themselves. For example, deep breathing, meditation techniques and positive thinking are very helpful, especially when one begins to feel anxious. In addition, a healthy diet, sufficient sleep and regular exercise are essential for helping the brain function at an optimal level. Engaging in leisure activities or hobbies is also a great antidote to stress. In very practical terms, for both you and your child, this might mean shutting off the wifi in the house at a set time each night, limiting screen time, connecting with each other and sharing a few laughs, and stepping out of the house to take a break, get some fresh air, and exercise.

It is important to pay attention and help your child now. Poor self esteem combined with unhelpful, unfortunate beliefs, high levels of anxiety, and pressure from parents or school to perform, is a deadly combination, which can lead to depression and/or extreme frustration and suicide. A life is too high a price to pay for someone else’s definition of success.

How to take care of your emotional health.

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While we all do worry about and take care of our physical health, how many of us truly think about and try to ensure our emotional well being?  Our emotional well-being impacts how good we feel and how well we work. It even impacts our physical health in more ways than we realize – blood pressure, headaches, ulcers, etc., are all very often physical outcomes of psychological problems.  And all too often the cure we attempt fixes the symptoms rather than the cause.
The blues can hit anyone, anytime – summer or winter. You have a big event coming up, like your wedding or your child’s wedding, a big promotion that gives you more responsibility, more visibility – all good things…. but then there is the anxiety that creeps up. Of course, if things don’t go your way – did not get the much anticipated promotion or a relationship ended – there is a bigger and more complex box of emotions to deal with.

All of us go through such events in life.  Sometimes we are able to maintain our emotional balance and sometimes things seem overwhelming. This isn’t about being emotionally strong or weak; it is often about how much stress we are under. So, how do we watch out for when the usual anxious pangs begin to turn into panic or even panic attacks? Or, the blues just don’t go away. Given below are some  general guidelines that work for children as much as they work for adults:

– Diet and sleep. Take care of your diet and your sleep. Tired and hungry children are known to be cranky, and so are adults! Stick to a regular bedtime and bedtime routine, get enough sleep, and eat healthy.

– Exercise. Exercise is a well researched component of the treatment strategy for mild depression and anxiety. Exercise helps the body secrete endorphins, the feel good neurotransmitters. It also tires the body and helps in cases where sleep is disrupted due to stress.

– Interests and hobbies. Find some interests or hobbies that you enjoy pursuing. It could even be part of work that you do. Joy and wellbeing is experienced in what psychologist, Csikszentmihalyi, describes as “flow”.  It has been described as moments of “effortless concentration and enjoyment”.”Flow” is not passively watching TV or sitting in the sun (which can also make you feel happy), it is engaging in any activity which completely holds your attention, like reading a good book or connecting with a close friend. It involves actively pursuing some goals you set up for yourself – it could be at a game of chess or a business deal you are negotiating.

– Calm at bedtime. Bedtime or in general night time is usually not the best time to try and resolve conflicts or reflect on your worries. You will often only lose sleep and magnify you difficulties. In the light of day rationality prevails better and problem solving is definitely better after a good night’s rest!!

– Mind-body connection. The mind and body are definitely connected. And Indians or Asians, in general, are known for somaticizing or expressing emotional pain in the form of physical ailments. Consciously or otherwise, we tend to allow ourselves our physical aches and pains and even seek help for them, but not so for our emotional pains. Watch out for the elderly relative who just lost her spouse and seems to be coping fairly well. Most likely her blood pressure and diabetes have worsened!! Severe panic attacks look very much like heart attacks. When there are no physical reasons for a medical condition, look at the emotional. Addressing emotional stress in such cases is of prime importance.

– Meditation. Learn meditation or find ways by which you can get into a meditative state. An intense game of tennis or a long run can be meditation in action as it helps remove all thoughts and worries from the mind and compels one to focus on the immediate moment.

– Voluntary work. Volunteer when you can. Nothing works better to put our problems in perspective than closely interacting with or witnessing how difficult life is for a section of our society, be it the terminally ill, street children or people less privileged than us. This is a strategy that also works wonders with teenagers. It also helps give life a greater sense of purpose and meaning.

– Unclutter and prioritize. Unclutter your life. It is not important to be a super mom, super worker or super anything. Delete things from your to do list that you have a hard time juggling and are not essential to do.

– Love thyself. Finally, learn to love yourself!! Nobody else can be as critical of you as you can. Beating yourself up for small or big mistakes will only make you feel miserable. Also, perfection is an unachievable goal!! Develop some positive self talk and try to be your best advocate.

– Professional help. Most importantly, seek professional help i.e., counseling or psychotherapy. If you are losing sleep, losing weight, or gaining weight, get help. If you are self medicating by using sleeping pills too often or using alcohol to uplift your mood or help relieve stress, get help. Depression preceded by the death of a loved one, separation, or divorce most often leads to suicides. If you are going through any of these experiences, consider help. Also consider help if you are feeling depressed after loss of employment or any such dearly held and significant goal. If you observe anyone engaging in uncharacteristic behavior or behavior that concerns you, get a consultation. Professional help benefits not only those who are suffering from a severe psychiatric disorder but also those facing interpersonal issues. In addition, it is not just for fixing problems: if you want to be proactive, and untangle some of the tangles before they become problems, seek a consultation. And, when you do seek professional help ask the provider about his or her level of training and experience.

(Originally written for enricheducation)

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