Supporting Teen Mental Health Post Exams
With assessments underway for this years GCSEs and A-Levels, are there additional considerations that we need to make for young people’s well-being and mental health after a year of disruptions?
Whilst every year’s assessments can cause stress and anxiety to young people sitting exams, following the disruptions to education from the pandemic, taking into consideration the added pressures that this year’s cohort have faces, how can we best support them?
Stress is defined as: (n) a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances
Stress is the body’s natural reaction to fear and change, it is a response to a threat (a stressor). It can come from any situation in which we feel fearful (felt through; frustrated, angry or anxious). Feelings of stress can come from any situation or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, nervous, or even anxious. Stress can be created by circumstances or situations, and once the event is complete, the stress will generally pass. However, in some situations, stress lasts for longer and affects the impact, symptoms and reactions that affect a young person. Prolonged stress can result in more severe or long lasting symptoms.
Is stress always the same?
Whilst stress is a term that we use frequently, it is an umbrella term which covers a range of type of stress. Whilst stress is ‘stressful’, different types of stress have different impacts:
Hypostress – Stress that occurs when we are bored or unchallenged, lacking motivation
Eustress – Short term stress – gives us strength to complete a task. Eustress increases performance and motivation
Acute Stress – Feelings of ‘Stress’ or ‘Tension’ and physical disturbances
Episodic Stress – Long term stress which is damaging to health – feelings/symptoms of hypertension, migraines, strokes, heart attack, gastro-intestinal disorders
Chronic Stress – A serious state of stress (a feeling that it has no ending) coupled with struggling to function, leading to susceptibility of disease, immuno-competence, cancer or diabetes
Traumatic Stress – Massive acute stress, cumulative causes, PTSD
What stressors have this years cohort faced?
This years cohort have been impacted by all three lockdowns, which have added unexpected stresses to a year which is already full of unknowns and new experiences.
Consider for a moment, that on a higher level, this year’s cohorts have, at a minimum experienced:
In addition, some young people have additionally experienced:
- Covid (themselves or family members)
- Non-covid illness (including family members experiencing cancer, heart attacks etc)
- Long Covid
- Parents losing employment
- Uncertainty surrounding finances
- Not being able to visit elderly family members
- Fear of illness
- Loss of self-care activities such as sports, hobbies, clubs and support services
- Other mental health issues (inc. OCD, anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders)
- Living in homes which experience domestic violence, including coercive abuse
- Isolation from support systems
- Lack of access to mental health services such as therapy
It can quickly become apparent, that for some, the cumulative total of stressors can impact well-being and accelerate stress levels beyond the eustress we would typically associate with GCSE and A-Levels. For those who read our previous article about burnout (find it here), we can begin to develop a picture, that for some, the last year has caused acute or episodic stress levels.
What can we do?
Taking the time to build a clear picture of stress and overwhelm being experienced by young people, and the individual stressors that they are experiencing can allow a thorough picture of their needs to be established. Contingency planning can include:
- consideration to the impact of stress on their well-being in the present
- paying attention to the impact of stress on the longer term (post exams)
Once exams are completed, for some young people, they will then need to process the last year, factors that have impacted them and also any stressors which they may not have addressed due to the need to focus on exams. You may consider:
#1 – Boosting immunity – When we are stressed our immune systems can be reduced, for many, when stress is removed they can feel drained or unwell. Therefore, taking time now, to consider boosting immunity with a good range of fruits and vegetables, good sleep, hydration and exercise can boost immunity and prevent illness when the exams are over.
#2 – Introducing self-care strategies – Introducing self-care strategies in the final weeks of exams can benefit young people by boosting confidence and feelings of well-being. Introducing screen free time, relaxation activities, self-care evenings (bubble baths, a good book, favourite meals or music, a walk in the fresh air, exercise or a drive in the car to unwind) can support young people to feel that they can manage the demands of the final weeks.
#3 – Scheduling activities which release serotonin – When we release serotonin, we feel a sense of improved mood and well-being. This can be through exercise, sunlight, listening to music, increasing protein in the diet, meditate and probiotics.
#4 – Feel good factor activities – When we complete activities that make us feel good we release dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. All three neurotransmitters improve our sense of well-being and lift mood. Factoring in some time each week to take part in an activity which we enjoy, as well as planning some activities post exams to look forward to and create a sense of optimism can maintain a sense of motivation and hope.
#5 – Sleep and rest – Good quality sleep and rest are associated with good well-being, decreasing stress and improving mood and immunity. Supporting young people to develop clear routines around revision, having adequate downtime before bed (1-2 hours) to unwind and a clear sleep schedule can improve their mental health and support them to process their thoughts.
#6 – Stress management tools – Helping young people to utilise stress management activities in their routines can help them reduce the long term impact of stress and burnout. Considering meditation, apps (e.g. Headspace), hypnotherapy audios (see the shop), calming music or soundtracks and breathing exercises to reduce stress and engage with the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and relax).
#7 – Professional support – if a young person is struggling to unwind post exams, engaging with professional support, such as coaching, hypnotherapy, BWRT, EFT or counselling can be hugely beneficial to young people.
For more articles about mental health visit – ARTICLES
To learn more about child and adolescent mental health visit – COURSES
For resources to support child and adolescent mental health visit –RESOURCES
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