Exams are back! How hypnotherapy can help with the pressure
There have been no formal examinations in the UK since 2019 and this summer will see the return of these exams for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Exams are always a tense time for the people taking them, but add to that a tougher GCSE regime, a rise in mental health difficulties amongst young people in recent years, and a global pandemic, and it is hardly surprising that more and more teenagers are struggling.
The pressure of GCSEs
When GCSEs were reformed in 2015, the coursework element was removed from most subjects, there was a move from a modular system to final exams and content became highly academic and more challenging. The reforms were criticised by students, teachers and parents alike for the additional pressure and detrimental effects on mental health that were being seen.
Students in Year 11 experience a build-up of pressure from their teachers that usually starts at the beginning of the academic year, sometimes earlier. As a secondary school teacher myself, I am well aware of the importance of the GCSE results to schools and teachers and how that manifests itself through a relentless focus on revision, mock exams and extensive preparation.
There are also regular discussions about post-16 choices and ensuring that students have made applications. Add to this the pressure from parents who encourage regular revision and attendance at after school and holiday sessions, and the pressure continues to mount. There is no denying the importance of GCSE grades for many post-16 options, particularly A-Levels, so this is all entirely well-meaning and comes from a place of wanting the best for our children, but it is added pressure nonetheless.
Exam settings are hardly comfortable and relaxing environments. They are usually large halls, endless rows of desks and upwards of 150 people with a set of strict rules and procedures that must be followed, a requirement for complete silence, and invigilators patrolling the aisles. All of this makes for quite an intimidating experience that is not necessarily conducive to putting students at ease.
Students can be required to sit over 20 exams, lasting 1-2.5 hours each. The first GCSE exam is 16th May and the last is on 28th June, which is a period of over six weeks. Whilst the examinations become relatively spaced towards the end of this time frame, six weeks is a long time to maintain a higher level of focus, mental effort and concentration, not to mention continued revision.
All of this coupled with the requirement to achieve a particular set of results in order to progress to the next stage of education or training for most students, and the pressure to perform increases further.
Finally, we must remember the fact that those taking exams this summer have experienced over two years of disrupted education, school closures, remote learning and a global pandemic that has affected all of us in profound ways. This year, it really is a recipe for an extreme challenge!
The mental health of young people
Concerns around the mental health of young people at exam time are nothing new and also not unique to GCSEs. A survey of teachers and school leaders in 2017 found an increase in mental health issues among primary school children around exams, as well as a reported increase in panic attacks, depression, anxiety and sleeplessness.
Around the same time, a report by the Commons Select Committee on education stated that the national reporting of Year 6 SATs results was creating too much pressure on students and teachers.
Students who report low anxiety quite simply do better in exams. In fact, when all other factors are controlled, one study found a difference of one GCSE grade per subject between self-reports of low compared to high anxiety levels.
More generally, the statistics on young people and their mental health are concerning. Numerous studies in recent years have found a deterioration in mental health, some of which is attributed to the pandemic. Rates of mental health problems and presentation at A&E have increased, and there are ongoing concerns around self-harm, problems with sleep and eating disorders.
It is also important to be aware that a 2014 study found that 94% of students reporting high levels of exam anxiety actually reached the threshold for a clinical diagnosis of a psychological disorder, with social anxiety being the most common.
How hypnotherapy can help
Success in exams is not just about academic ability, and unfortunately even the most capable students can fail to fulfil their potential as a result of their anxiety having a debilitating effect on performance but the good news is that the negative and unwanted effects of exam anxiety can absolutely be addressed using hypnotherapy.
During a hypnotherapy session, having achieved a state of deep relaxation, positive suggestions can be used to help challenge negative thoughts and physical symptoms, and instil more helpful responses and behaviour both inside and outside the exam room.
Whilst the pressure to perform cannot be removed, the subconscious mind can be trained to better cope with the pressure and manage it more effectively. CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) techniques are utilised, as well as plenty of deep breathing and mindfulness exercises that can be practised regularly.
Positive visualisation is also a really effective strategy for helping young people with their anxiety and it is also something that can be done outside of the hypnotherapy session.
I like to ask clients to imagine the entire exam experience in as much detail as possible, from waiting outside the hall with their friends, all the way through to being sat at the desk and writing answers. The key is to ensure that they are guided to imagine everything from an entirely positive perspective, where they are in control of their emotions and feeling confident and self-assured.
I also ask clients to visualise the results day in August and to really imagine how fantastic it will feel to achieve the results they want; the joy and pride they will feel. Visualisation is a common technique in hypnotherapy because it fools the subconscious into thinking that the imagined scenario has already happened and so it then gets to work to manifest that particular scenario.
After a successful series of sessions, clients report feeling confident, self-assured, calm and in control throughout the exam period and because they can compare their thoughts and feelings to that of previous mock exams, they really notice the difference.
In addition to the benefits around the exams themselves, hypnotherapy can also help with motivation to revise and to help ensure that a healthy and effective balance is achieved. So often, the pressure of exams can result in extremely unhealthy study habits - late nights, poor diet, and lack of exercise but hypnotherapy can assist in maintaining well-being, including rest, healthy eating and time to relax. This ensures the best possible mindset for success throughout the exam period.
As if that wasn’t enough, there can be positive knock-on effects in other areas of a person’s life that last long after the exams are over. Self-confidence is such a crucial characteristic in life and when awakened, it can really help an individual to thrive.
It should be noted that as exam anxiety can be a symptom of a wider mental health concern, it should not take the place of medical treatment and advice. If you suspect your child may have anxiety that goes beyond their exams, please speak to a GP before starting hypnotherapy.
 Putwain, D.W. (2008). Test anxiety and GCSE performance: The effect of gender and socio-economic background. Educational Psychology in Practice, 24(4), 319–334.
 Herzer, F., Wendt, J. & Hamm, A.O. (2014). Discriminating clinical from nonclinical manifestations of test anxiety: A validation study. Behavior Therapy, 45(2), 222–231.