Exams and Anxiety: Young Aussies Struggling

Thousands of young Australians are finishing school and university exams across the country, but for many, the anxiety doesn’t stop when the pens are down.

headspace clinicians encounter many young people playing the stressful waiting game for their final exam results or university offers.

The National Youth Mental Health Foundation has issued a timely reminder that during this challenging time anxiety can be heightened.

This period of waiting and worrying can significantly affect a young person’s mental health and wellbeing.

Senior Clinical Advisor at headspace Simon Dodd said during this time, anxiety is common and can affect many people including those who are normally on top of life’s challenges.

“Anxiety becomes a problem when it occurs frequently, feels overwhelming and interferes with daily functioning,” Mr Dodd said.

“For some people, if left untreated, anxiety disorders can develop into other mental health difficulties and drugs and alcohol.”

People who believe they have an anxiety disorder should visit a doctor, or seek professional advice.
headspace Youth Advocate Niharika Hiremath, 23, said she noticed her anxiety peaked around exam time but learnt ways to manage it and support herself.
“It becomes easy to prioritise study, which is great as you want to be working hard. But then you look back and realise you haven’t had more than four hours sleep a night in the past few weeks,” she said.
“To help manage anxiety, it’s about identifying those things you know you’re prone to and doing something before it gets worse. Having external support when your internal support and motivation is lacking is important. Support from family, friends and places like headspace is great.”
  • Speak up: It’s a good idea to talk to someone that you trust about how you are feeling. You might choose to talk with your family or friends, a teacher or coach, or your mob or Elders.
  • Eating well and getting good sleep are important starting points.
  • Up your activity and exercise: Being active can have a huge impact on your anxiety levels. In fact, research suggests that regular exercise can be one of the best things you can do to reduce your daily anxiety levels. So try to get your heart rate up for 30 minutes at least three times a week.
  • Increase your relaxation: Find ways that help you to feel more relaxed and less tense. Breathing exercises are simple but really effective relaxation strategies. Mindfulness activities, listening to music and reconnecting with people or country can also help.
  • Notice your use of alcohol or drugs: Try to avoid, or at least limit, your use of alcohol and other drugs.  While these things might help you to feel good in the short term, they can make you feel much worse in the longer term.
  • Anxiety is one of the two most common problems affecting young people and the most common presenting issue at headspace centres nationwide
  • It’s estimated one in five females and one in ten males aged between 16 and 24 years old are affected by anxiety.
  • Young people may be more likely to experience anxiety if they have another mental health issue, such as depression.
  • Early intervention is important in reducing the negative impact anxiety can have.

At the end of semester you’ve sometimes got eight or nine things happening at the same time, and you’re also doing things outside of uni. For me, when exams rolled around, you’re trying to learn the whole course again – you’ve probably been doing it on and off – but then you have to factor in time for the exams. Anxiety can be key issue at this time.

Anxiety was an issue for me and I have a history of it. I also have friends who haven’t been diagnosed with anxiety, but come exam time they become a different version of themselves because of the stress and worry.

I am doing Biomedical Science and Commerce at the moment and it’s pretty full on. I’ve got friends who are doing engineering or medicine, which is also super intense. The pressure to do well is often put on by themselves, as opposed to an external source. So because of this people can stop eating properly, they stop going to the gym or doing something active, even just socialising, especially if there’s a lot of exams in a short period of time or a difficult subject. Sleep also goes out the window.

It becomes easy to prioritise study, which is great you want to be working hard, but then you look back and go, crap, I haven’t had more than four hours sleep a night in the past few weeks.

I think it’s very important to remind yourself that the exam period is a difficult time and does get stressful. For me, sometimes I try to play it by ear and then think, crap - I don’t have time to eat, I don’t have time to shower. It’s easy to stumble into exams and then deal with it the best you can. It’s important to be prepared, and remind yourself you won’t be able to perform your best if you don’t get a good night’s sleep. You’re not going to be able to think properly or clearly. Keeping things in check can really help. Take care of yourself first, and with that you’ll be able to achieve all of these things anyway.

“There might be one or two nights during the semester I pull all-nighters. But especially during exam periods, I will go to bed at 11pm and wake up at 7am for routine. Everything else I need to, I will fit around that. It’s about identifying those things you know you’re prone to and doing something before it gets worse.”

It’s really important to have external support when your internal intrinsic support is lacking. Having support from family, friends and places like headspace is great. I have days when I might not be coping or I’ve got too much on, and I’m also doing a bunch of stuff on the side. The onus falls on me as I’m somewhat of an adult. But having that extra support really helps.

I’ve been going to headspace for about five years now. It’s definitely a great option. Some people may think, what I’m going through is not hard enough, or difficult enough to warrant seeking help. I think it’s important to note that there are resources available, particularly on important things like time management, or managing stress when it comes to workloads.

When it comes to things like results, Year 12s or people getting to the end of their uni course it’s really stressful. When you’re in Year 11 or Year 10, there are no major consequences about how well you’ll do in tests. It can be the same for first and second year of uni too. But when it comes to the end of Year 12 or your degree you can put a lot of pressure on yourself to do well. It’s one of the first things people ask you – what did you get? It can be really hard for some people to deal with that. 

For further information, or to arrange an interview with Simon Dodd or Niharika Hiremath, contact:
Annie Waterworth
headspace Media and Communications Coordinator
(03) 9027 0127

If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, you can find your nearest centre