Staring down the barrel of her final weeks of school, Siobhan O’Brien knows what it means to be stressed.
Like many Illawarra year 12 students, the St Mary Star of the Sea College teen has worked hard over the past 12 months and, at the end of last term, placed first in every one of her subjects, including advanced English, mathematics, maths extension, physics and chemistry.
She has also received a long list of sporting accolades and performed an exhausting amount of community service work, including tutoring, being part of her school council and volunteering as a surf lifesaver.
With Higher School Certificate exams due to start on Monday, Siobhan admits her stress levels are high but says this just makes her want to work harder.
‘‘I’ve definitely been stressed, but that sort of adds to the drive to study more,’’ she said.
‘‘My stress has been the good kind and has woken me up and made me keep focusing.’’
According to Headspace clinical psychologist Cathy Pearson, stress and the HSC go hand-in-hand because a certain level of pressure can be beneficial for motivating students and helping them perform.
But not all of the Illawarra’s year 12 students will find it easy to walk the fine line between good stress, which makes them study harder, and the crushing pressure that can sabotage their efforts and stop them from studying altogether.
Ms Pearson said calls to Headspace’s Wollongong centre peaked each year around exam time.
‘‘‘We normally get an increase in referrals from school counsellors or GPs,’’ she said.
‘‘I think students put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform well.
‘‘The pressure comes from the implications of the HSC, getting a good ATAR [Australian Tertiary Admission Rank] score or not, and a lot of pressure is put on them about what their choices might be for the future.
‘‘There is a lot riding on the outcome and this creates stress.’’
For students like Siobhan, this stress is positive but Ms Pearson said months of assessment tasks and high expectations, culminating in a stressful period of exams, made it easy for the scales to tip the other way.
‘‘A healthy amount of stress is a good thing, it can motivate people and allow them to put in work – and that sort of stress, which won’t do damage or impede on their ability to perform in exams – is tolerable and the outcomes are good,’’ she said.
‘‘However, if you put someone under a significant amount of stress for a long time, it can become unhealthy and prolonged stress is never healthy because it can lead to depression.
‘‘I think that is why we see an influx of [HSC student] referrals close to exams, because this stress has been present for such a long time and then it becomes heightened, which significantly impacts on their ability to perform.’’
Ms Pearson said stress could sabotage students’ efforts to study and concentrate during exams.
‘‘People who are stressed will have difficulty concentrating, difficulty with memory and they start to procrastinate, because the more pressure they put on themselves, the more difficult it is to follow through with tasks,’’ she said.
‘‘They have trouble retaining information, understanding it and being able to utilise the information they are learning.’’
She said trouble sleeping, a change in appetite, moodiness and anger, as well as physical symptoms like muscle tension, sweating or dizziness, were common in students not coping with stress.
‘‘If you notice an accumulation of physical symptoms and negative thoughts, or you find your ability is becoming impaired and you are not able to spend time studying regularly, then something needs to change,’’ Ms Pearson said.
‘‘If you are so overwhelmed that you can’t retain information, you are not sleeping or you are irritable with your family and friends, these are signs you are not coping.’’
Although exams begin in two days, Ms Pearson said it was not too late for students to seek help and get a handle on their stress.
‘‘There’s lots of things students can do, [including] looking at different study habits and taking a holistic approach to studying,’’ she said.
‘‘You can also learn relaxation strategies, techniques to avoid procrastination or ways to challenge unhelpful thoughts.
‘‘As you go into your exams, be confident in the work you have done – know that you have put in the hard yards, and be confident in the material you have learnt.’’
Siobhan said maintaining a balance between school and social life had helped manage her stress levels. ‘‘I do lots of sport and have lots of time out – I have got something on almost every afternoon of the week,’’ she said.
‘‘It’s good to have a break from school work because then I can get back into it and focus again.’’
She said she had experienced ‘‘a couple’’ of breakdowns in the past year, when stress got the better of her, but her family and friends had helped get her back on track.
University of Wollongong student Renae Crossing, who is in her Honours year of an international science degree, said time had helped her to put her feelings of stress and anxiety into perspective.
Now one of UOW’s student advisors who helps year 12 students choose courses and decide on university options, Ms Crossing said the HSC was important but not the ‘‘be all and end all’’ for getting into university.
‘‘I think, at times, I did lose perspective and would feel so worried because I didn’t know what I wanted to do after school or what my results would be.’’
‘‘[The ATAR] is [just] a number to indicate whether you will get into certain university courses. It’s good to remember that it is not an indication of you as a person or anything like that – it doesn’t define you.’’