Can being a Christian help you deal with end-of-school study stress?

Australian students are in the throes of study stress, with final high school exams underway across the country. With thirteen years of schooling culminating in a single set of exams, many students feel the pressure to achieve results which will be the proverbial gateway to their futures – gaining them entry into tertiary study, that will one day qualify them for good jobs and, ultimately, deliver financial security and career success.

In Mission Australia’s most recent youth survey of 28,286 people aged 15-19, over four in ten respondents indicated they were either extremely or very concerned about coping with stress (43.1 per cent).

68 per cent of students said their stress was driven by “self-generated pressure to succeed”.

One third of young people were either extremely or very concerned about school or study problems (33.8 per cent), while around three in ten were concerned about mental health (30.9 per cent).

Similarly, ReachOut’s nationally representative survey of 1000 people, aged between 14 and 25, found that 66 per cent of students are experiencing worrying levels of exam stress. Ten per cent of students are experiencing extreme levels of exam stress. As to what is causing the exam stress: 40 per cent of students said concern about finding a job was feeding their exam stress; and 34 per cent of students said it was concern about securing their preferred tertiary course.

Interestingly, 68 per cent of students said their stress was driven by “self-generated pressure to succeed”.

Eternity asked three Christian young people to reflect on their experiences of end-of-school study – they sat their final high school exams two years ago – and whether their faith in God and being part of a church helped them navigate the stress.

How would you describe your end of high school exams?

Annabelle: Pretty rough – I barely scraped by.

Nina: My end of high school exams were drawn out, surreal, and after the year we had, fairly anticlimactic. They were definitely stressful, but they also didn’t quite feel like what I’d been working towards that whole time. I felt like I was just sleep walking through most of the exam period.

Jin: The very last exam was a huge relief! I remember walking out unable to put my smile away (once I got over how awful that particular exam was). It felt incredibly gratifying to know this period of hard work and stress was finally over.

“It felt ridiculous that I had worked that hard for what didn’t even feel that real.” – Nina

Why do you think your experience was like that?

Annabelle: I developed an anxiety disorder (or perhaps had an existing disorder that worsened) during my HSC year. It reached its worst during my HSC exams, which was foreign to me! I had always loved school, and kept up easily. And so, in theory, the HSC should have been my cup of tea. But in reality, the pressure was too much for me. I didn’t have the skills to cope with it.

Nina: It was largely due to how many months of build up there was to a collection of only a few hours. It felt ridiculous that I had worked that hard for what didn’t even feel that real. The atmosphere was definitely tense though. I barely interacted with anyone the whole time.

Jin: Again, there was a lot of stress behind it. Alongside the stress that simply comes with these exams, I also had a visa situation that burdened me. As an international student (not an Australian citizen), I always knew that I would need to be accepted into a certain degree that would increases my chances of obtaining a visa. While I knew transferring was an option, university fees range from $30,ooo-$40,000 per year without HECS. My parents never said that I couldn’t transfer, but I didn’t want to put them through any extra burdens. Hence, I told myself that transferring wasn’t much of an option.

Did your faith in God or being part of church help you negotiate the study stress at all?

Annabelle: Yeah, I feel like it did. Walking into my exams knowing God didn’t hold me to my own, unrealistic standards took a lot of the pressure off. Plus, I constantly reminded myself (then and now) of how it says in Psalm 85:8 that God “promises peace to his people”. Whenever it felt like anxiety or stress was taking over, I was able to hold on to this promise of peace.

“My spiritual faith and prayers really helped keeping me calm and sane :D.” – Jin

Nina: I fell out of a lot of the practices of my faith that had once brought me peace and relief that year. Given the intensity of the demands and the complete contradiction of the messages I received (about myself and my performance at school, versus what I knew God valued in me), I had a hard time reconciling them. But I think that in itself was an important step to take in becoming a young adult with faith in this world. By the time exams came around, I’d found a place where I could let God in and allow his strength to help me take those tests … even though I was still anxious!

Jin: Actually, yes! I think it should be noted that throughout all this, my spiritual faith and prayers really helped keeping me calm and sane :D.

What do you know now that you wished you knew then?

Annabelle: I wish I had been more self aware and had better coping strategies for my anxiety. I wish I had known that the standards I had set for myself were unrealistic, unachievable and paralysing. But I also wish I had known that I wasn’t the only one! I wish more people spoke up about it. If I had known that other people were experiencing the same thing, maybe I would have believed that my experience wasn’t due to my own failings.

Nina: I wish I’d known to prepare for the struggles that came for me after school more than for those silly exams … I got where I needed to go using my ATAR, but I could’ve done the same without it! I wish I’d poured more of my energy into learning how to be kind to myself instead of critical.

Jin: I actually can’t think of anything that I wished I knew back then… other than that it all works out? I definitely could have put in more effort into studying throughout the entire year 12 year, not just the end … But like I said, it all worked out! To others however, I really wish I could emphasise that transferring/pathways are very real and viable options! It is so much easier to transfer to your dream degree than to get accepted straight into it. Doesn’t mean it’ll be a walk in the park, though.

“I crashed and stayed pretty burned out for ages!” – Nina

Did your experience have any effects on you after the exams were over?

Annabelle: Yes, I still can’t even sit my uni exams now without crying (something that never used to happen to me). But, if I’ve got it in the tank, I sit them anyway. It makes me feel tough and brave, and I’m proud of myself for it.

Nina: After the exams, and school in general, were over, I hit a bit of a low after what had been an increasing high. I crashed and stayed pretty burned out for ages! It took me the summer to get over the exams and the whole year to get over the year of the HSC, overall.

Jin: No, not really… I was simply relieved and loving life!

What is your opinion about the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) system?

Annabelle: I think it sucks. I don’t know what an alternative is, and I don’t know what exactly about it affected me so much. But I do know it affected me and many of my friends in a really negative way. Like me, many of them are dealing with mental illness as a result. So, it’s obvious that the current system is not working and something needs to change.

Nina: I may not get asked what my ATAR is basically ever, but I can’t deny that when I think back over the accumulation of my schooling career, my ATAR number is hanging over the whole thing. I obviously can’t say for sure, but I do have reason to believe that if I had gotten a number much lower than I did, I would’ve been extremely upset with myself. The publication of people’s ranks, especially pitting schools against each other, makes the academic worth of individual students a competition between institutions … it’s so problematic and stupid how important it feels. But I definitely got sucked into caring, a lot.

“I have heard stories of friends refusing to help one another.” – Jin

Jin: It’s fine for the most part … It is pretty confusing to understand, but in the end the individual is encouraged to try their best and let the scaling do its thing. One thing I am quite against is that it puts students in a position to compete against one another throughout the year. While I personally didn’t have much of a problem, I have heard stories of friends refusing to help one another. Perhaps it’s not a bad concept but I’m personally not competitive at all.

What are you doing now and how is it going?

Annabelle: I am studying a Bachelor of Medical Science, with a major in Molecular Biology at UNSW. It’s amazing and fun and hard and endlessly fascinating. I still have a tendency for perfectionism (that rears its ugly, anxious head during exam time) and I am still dealing with left-over trauma from the HSC. But I have made so much progress, and I am doing really, really well!

Nina: I’m at university after a gap year, and I’m loving it. Studying is still a struggle, and sometimes I feel the familiar anxiety rising around assessment time … but they don’t have the same self-worth factor. I can only tolerate the pressure and the effort required, though, because I’m completely invested in the content. If I was any less interested or devoted to a career idea, I don’t think I could stand to be studying again so relatively soon after school.

“I have made so much progress, and I am doing really, really well!” – Annabelle

Jin: I am currently studying Actuarial Studies at Macquarie University. I am in my second year of studies. I am also working (casual) at Testpoint as a Test Consulting Analyst and tutoring a bit on the side. Overall, I’m doing quite well! The content I study is definitely difficult and life does get quite busy with all the other commitments I have. Admittedly, there are times I have felt overwhelmed. However, I have been blessed with great people around me at uni, church and home who make life so enjoyable.