There’s a lot more stress than usual on the shoulders of the 50,000 or so Year 12 students who are locked-down in Greater Sydney for at least the next fortnight as they head into their Higher School Certificate exams in October.
Psychology Professor Viviana Wuthrich from Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health has led a major research project tracking stress, depression and anxiety in over 600 young people during their final year of secondary school in 2019 (which is continuing). Her research highlights strategies to help HSC students lower their lockdown stress levels.
Results found that between 20 to 30 per cent of students experienced severe distress over the course of their final year, and symptoms of stress and anxiety increased over time.
“The pandemic has introduced further stress with uncertainty around lockdowns, concerns about safety and older family members and the repeated changes to things like exam timetables,” says Viviana. “There are a number of things we know about managing HSC stress that will apply to this cohort, even though they're in a unique situation with lockdown.”
Professor Wuthrich‘s strategies for coping with lockdown learning include:
1 Keep in touch with friends Maintaining contact with peers is an important part of managing stress for students, regardless of whether you’re in lockdown or not. Part of that is recognising you’re not the only one going through this experience – but it’s also important to have some fun, talk and laugh and have some social downtime together.
2 Balance study and life With sport and other activities on hold, maintaining your study/ life balance in lockdown means taking breaks from screen time to do fun things. “Read a book, listen to music, bake a cake, go for a walk or just dance in your room," says Wuthrich “It’s really important that students don't try and study all day long, because they can end up getting burnt out.
3 Keep to a routine “Days can blur into nights, especially when time outside is limited,” says Wuthrich. “HSC students – particularly in lockdown – will really benefit from a routine. Start with breakfast, log into school on time, stick to your class schedule, and take recess and lunch breaks.” she says.
4 Prepare yourself (and your brain) for learning Not everyone has space to study outside of their bedroom, but it helps to set up your own ‘learning mindset’ workspace. “Our brains respond to cues in our environment, so set up your physical space in a way that helps you get psychologically in a zone for learning,” says Wuthrich.
5 There's no such thing as multi-tasking, so switch off the music It's common for people think that listening to music helps them to study, but our brains are not very good at task-switching, says Wuthrich. Home can be noisy, especially when younger siblings are also trying to home-school, so students who use headphones to block external sound could use low music with no vocals, or even white noise like the sound of wind or the sea.
6 Exercise your stress cortisol away One of the many benefits of exercise is that it burns away the main stress hormone, cortisol, says Wuthrich. Higher intensity exercise will burn up cortisol more effectively, so do something that really increases your heart rate – go for a run, do some skipping or star jumps, just a few minutes will burn up that stress.
7 Find the positives There’s evidence that by reflecting on the positive things about our situation, we can lower our stress levels. There are usually some positives – some students like working remotely and setting their own pace, for example. And for many students, lockdown means they get back a few hours each day that they may have been commuting to school.
8 Take a tip from Grandma Recent research has shown that older people have been shown to cope better with stressful situations such as lockdown, than younger people. Some of the reasons include that they are more accepting of the situation, more optimistic that it will probably work out, they reflect on how they have coped with past stressors and realise that they can probably get through this too.
9 Ask for help If you're unclear about the work you need to do or don’t understand something, contact your teacher – and persist. “Teachers are often struggling through this too, managing lots of questions, so if they don’t reply to your question in Google classroom, email the teacher direct – don’t give up,” says Wuthrich.
10 Remember the situation will pass “Remember that it’s not too long before lockdown will be over, and the HSC will be over, and all this will be in the past,” Professor Wuthrich says. The same strategy can apply to lockdown, even if it drags on for six or eight weeks. “In lockdown, for example, we’re talking about something that's going to go on for perhaps another three weeks – you have already done three weeks of this; and you actually did this last year – and it sucked, but you can definitely get through it again.”