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A student’s guide to coping with school stressors

Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Eleni Vardaki shares expert tips for students on coping with school stressors from her work as an educational consultant. This is ­­her final story in our graduate voices series.

A student’s guide to coping with school stressors

By Eleni Vardaki

“One of the lessons we can learn from the challenges of the pandemic is the importance of staying focused on what we can control”

One of the biggest sources of stress for us humans in 2020 (which includes IB diploma students!) has been the fact that we’ve had to accept there are a lot of things that are out of our control. We can’t control what the government decides is the best way to deal with the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic. We can’t control when schools are shut down, for how long they’ll be shut or what measures are put in place for safe re-opening. We can’t control what decisions are made about how the curriculum will be adjusted and assessed, as organizations work hard to meet the unpredictable circumstances of what’s going on in different parts of the world.

For IB diploma students, the sense of losing control of your life was already a challenge, because of the  demands of the IB curriculum on our time, energy and attention. Add to that all the external factors of things we can’t control going on around the world, and that only adds to the stress of being a student during this time.

I believe that one of the lessons we can learn from the challenges of the pandemic is the importance of staying focused on what we can control. Stop wasting your time and energy worrying about things you can’t control, and channel your energy on all the things you can do something about. The first places you can look to change what is controllable are your thoughts, your behaviors, your habits—in a nutshell, the choices you make regarding how you spend your time. Do you spend your time  fixed on the negative perceptions of your situation (ideas that don’t really get you anywhere  or lead you around in circles)? Or do you spend your time using the challenges you face as an opportunity to grow and develop as a person and as a student?

In this article, I invite students to ask themselves a series of questions that are designed to support you in focusing on the things you can control. These questions are ones that you can ask yourself, as a little check-in with yourself, to figure out what areas you may need to pay more attention to. They fall into five categories: exam stress, stress caused by bad habits, relationship stress, stress caused by catastrophizing about the future, stress caused by unpleasant past experiences.

1. Exam stress

Exam stress often falls under the category of performance anxiety. We can experience performance anxiety in sports competitions, when we’ve got to do an important presentation, when we have an important assignment like an essay we’ve got to complete—anything where our performance is being assessed and evaluated in some way. So, when it comes to exam performance anxiety, here are some questions you can ask yourself as you reflect on your problem and assess whether you may need to seek professional support in reducing your stress:

  • What subjects do I feel most stressed or anxious about?
  • When did I first start to suffer from anxiety and/or panic attacks leading up to an important test/exam?
  • Is there a chance that my exam stress may get in the way of me being able to show what I know?

2. Stress caused by bad habits

  • Have I developed bad sleeping habits in my studies (i.e. cramming for exams, struggling to fall asleep before midnight, turning to chemicals like sleeping pills as a ‘quick fix’) that may get in the way of me achieving my potential educational goals?
  • Have I developed bad eating habits (i.e. stress eating/emotional eating, forgetting to eat due to stress, habitually turning to ‘comfort food’ like junk food and processed sugar due to stress) that may get in the way of my ability to concentrate better?
  • Have I developed an unhealthy relationship to technology (i.e. social media addiction, allowing apps to distract you from your studying and train of thought while studying, binge-watching Netflix, gaming for more hours than is helpful for you to achieve your goals) that may be getting in the way of achieving my goals?

3. Relationship stress

  • Am I happy in my relationships with friends/peers?
  • Am I happy with my love life?
  • What relationships in my life feel unhealthy or toxic, that may be draining my ability to focus on achieving my goals?

4. Stress caused by catastrophizing about the future

  • Am I willing to pursue a ‘Plan B’ and a ‘Plan C’, if I don’t end up what I’ve set my heart on or will I feel like the world will come crashing down if I don’t get the grades I need to follow my first choice?
  • Is my all-or-nothing/ my-way-or-the-highway kind of thinking providing me with the intellectual flexibility I need to avoid catastrophizing about the future, so that I can consider all of my options through a more grounded perspective?
  • Am I finding myself getting stuck in a downward spiral of negative thoughts that are making it hard for me to focus and study effectively?

5. Stress caused by unpleasant past experiences

  • Have I had bad experiences with school in the past that have shattered my confidence and academic self-esteem?
  • Do I feel like I’m doomed to do badly on my exams, because I’ve had a history of not doing so well in tests and exams in the past?
  • Is my fear of getting a panic attack or blanking out from stress, getting in the way of me being able to focus on my education?

And last, but not least, ask yourself if you would benefit from getting professional support to help you change whatever bad habits (whether these be bad habits such as catastrophizing about the future, which is a form of negative thinking, or bad sleeping habits) and to work on building your confidence and self-esteem back up.

“It’s not easy, to open up to someone and talk about the things you are feeling stressed about in a way that is constructive and focused on solving the problem”.

Society has conditioned us to believe that only ‘weak’ people ask for help and this is simply untrue. The truth is that it takes a bucket-load of courage to reach out to someone and ask for professional help. It’s not easy, to open up to someone and talk about the things you are feeling stressed about in a way that is constructive and focused on solving the problem. A lot of IB students choose to commiserate about how stressed they are and  hold on to that stress, sometimes even a sort of ‘badge of honour’.

You’ve got to be willing to take responsibility for your life, how you feel, and for your health and well-being in order to get to the point where you have the courage to ask for help and that takes strength.

Reach out to your school counsellor, if you are in an IB World School that has a full-time or part-time counsellor on staff who has the skills to teach you how to de-stress and get yourself mentally and psychologically prepared to do well in school. Ask your teachers for advice on how to improve your study and emotional self-care habits at the end of the lesson. Ask people in your friendship circle, in your local community, in your family for advice. Sign up to a yoga class for teenagers. Sign up to a mindfulness workshop for high school students to learn new techniques for how to de-stress and get focused on your goals and dreams.

Don’t suffer in silence. It takes more than working with teachers and private tutors to do well academically. Your psychology matters. Your habits matter. Your emotional state matters.

Use this as an opportunity to learn more about how you can improve your study and emotional self-care skills and habits. Your future self will thank you for it!

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Eleni Vardaki is part of the minority of DP teachers who have experienced the programme from the perspective of a student. She completed her IB diploma at the Anglo-American School of Moscow in 2004. In 2010, she received her Master’s in Education from the University of Cambridge, and since then she has worked as a classroom teacher, workshop leader, middle manager and virtual youth mentor. She now works online supporting students, parents and teachers to help them bring their stress levels down through private sessions and online workshops as a Youth Mentor for Stress Relief. For more information about her work, visit elenivardaki.com.

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