The mental health of students has featured in the press recently and with the exam season approaching many students are feeling the pressure to perform well…not only for their ongoing studies, university entrance requirements and other future prospects but also to live up to their parents’ expectations and those of their teachers, peers and friends alike.

The pressure to achieve and do well in exams can result in significant and prolonged stress for all students whether they excel in the classroom or are more challenged academically. The physiology and neuroscience associated with this exam-related pressure is the same as the stress-response we see in adults, which if left un-checked, results in symptoms of exhaustion and burn-out.

The brain handles stress by flooding the body with the “Flight-Fright-Freeze” hormones and this hormone mix or ‘brain juice’ gets the body ready to react to the threat, with heart-rate, breathing, blood pressure all increasing, heightened awareness with muscles readied for combat or avoidance tactics. Oxygen-rich blood is also diverted from the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain concerned with concentration, focus and thinking, to the rear brain which looks after the breathing, heart rate, blinking etc.

This is a normal stress-response and a little bit of stress can be a great motivator; but the effects of prolonged periods of mental and emotional stress have been well-proven to negatively impact health and mental well-being. Students may suffer an inability to sleep, they may feel isolated and lonely, be irritable and short-tempered, over-eat or not eat enough and all are classic signs of a student suffering stress. In its worst-case, a student may withdraw completely, self-harm, suffer depression and even suicidal thoughts.

It’s important that students understand a bit of the science behind their symptoms, this ‘normalises’ their experience. As an example, knowing that the pre-frontal cortex is impacted during the body’s stress-response and that this impacts their ability to focus, concentrate and think clearly. This has a major impact on their ability to plan, revise, study and remember information with any degree of efficiency.

Being able to help the student to re-balance the hormones in their brains and create better ‘brain juice’, will reduce the negative impact of the stress-response, this in turn will facilitate their ability to study.

As a parent or teacher there are things to consider:

  • Let them understand the neuroscience…it’ll make sense of a distressing situation
  • Encourage them to relax and do something fun…it’ll help re-balance their ‘brain juice’
  • Ensure they are hydrated and sleeping…it’ll help their brain function
  • Keep things in perspective for them…don’t add to the pressure

Lindsey at the NineDot Partnership commented “students often need help to see the ‘wood for the trees’, giving them the tools and techniques to manage their anxiety will greatly facilitate their resilience in the classroom and enable their revision and preparation. “

“Working with several schools in Surrey, Sussex and Kent, I remind the students that revision by its definition is “re” meaning again and “vise” from the verb to see…”see it again”; that the information is already stored in the brain, the hard work is done; the knack is how to sort and retrieve it efficiently, when needed. It’s an anxious time for everyone involved but it can be improved with some simple steps.”