Advice Column, Education, Tween & Teen Advice

Matric Stress – When is enough, enough?

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As hundreds of thousands of young South Africans are busy writing their Matric exams this month, they have entered into what is, for the majority, the most stressful, charged and demanding experience of their schooling experiences.  A certain measure of pressure to perform can certainly be highly motivating.  But the line is thin, and it is all too easy for the pressures of writing these final schooling exams to mount unbearably, putting matriculants at risk of being overwhelmed just at the time when they most need to feel confident, alert and focused.

People react to stress differently, and students experience different kinds of stresses.  Some have high expectations of themselves and may become anxious and fearful that they won’t achieve their own goals.  Others may feel extreme pressure from others to perform, such as from parents or teachers they really want to please.

What is important for both parents and students to understand is that stress is going to be a factor over the next few months, and it needs to be consciously managed so that it does not derail the efforts of our current Grade 12’s.

We asked Claudia Raats, Research Psychologist and Academic Development Manager from SACAP (the South African College of Applied Psychology) to provide some essential tips on monitoring and managing stress:

1. Know Yourself

“The question of when is Matric stress, too much stress, needs to be answered individually.  It helps for both parents and students to reflect on this.  Naming the fears and anxieties, and identifying the sources of the pressures the student feels brings important awareness to particular danger areas for the individual.  When the triggers are known, they are easier to anticipate, monitor and manage.  It’s also helpful identify the individual’s habitual reactions and behaviours when they are under stress.  What works to help relieve stress for you?  What makes stressful situations worse for you?  If this is clear to you then it is easier to identify when you need to take a different action such as going for a run or whether you need to temporarily avoid engagement with a particular person.  Some people react to stress by trying to distract themselves by getting involved in an absorbing activity such as watching TV or playing digital games.  While it may result in temporary relief from the stress in the short term, it can potentially create more stress if it causes the student to get behind on their study plan.  If this is the case, a different way to release stress needs to be found.”

2. Look After Yourself

“A balanced mental and emotional state provides us with resilience in the face of stress, enabling us to manage our reactions better and recover quicker when the stakes have got too high.  Our mental and emotional well-being is inextricably linked to the state of our physical health.  It is vital for students to get enough restful sleep every night, to be physically active regularly, to eat healthily and to have some time set aside in their busy study schedule for relaxing and socialising with supportive, encouraging people.  Parents can play a vital role in helping their child to achieve this balance over the next months.  They can ensure that healthy foods and drinks are available in the house.  They can encourage their child to get out and take a walk with them when they’ve had long hours at their desk.  They can help to promote healthy sleeping habits, and also provide a loving, compassionate connection full of encouragement.”

3. Avoid Stressing Yourself Out by Listening to Your Inner Critic

We all have an inner critic which is the negative internal voice that often comes out when you are stressed and anxious.  It is very important to be highly aware of negative self-talk that only inflames your fears, anxieties and stresses.  It is also helpful to have strategies to quickly and effectively silence this inner critic so that you can restore a state of balance.  When you find yourself aware of running thoughts like ‘You will never pass Matric’ or ‘There’s no way you’re going to get an A’ or ‘You’re just not bright enough’ or ‘You won’t amount to anything’, you will have identified the voice of your inner critic.  It often echoes the voice of a critical parent, or an intolerant teacher or a bully who has impacted on you. The best way to deal with this downer-character is to become aware of it, gain insights into where it came from and then challenge it with evidence from your real life that it is wrong.  For example, if you are busy studying Maths and your inner critic pipes up with: ‘You can’t do Maths, you’re going to fail this’ you can challenge this negative thought it with the reality that since you are busy studying Maths at Matric level, you have passed a lots of Maths tests and exams, and therefore you can do it.  Don’t hesitate to talk back to your inner critic and show it the proof of your success.  You can also dilute the impact of your inner critic when you engage in positive self-talk.  Regularly affirming that you are smart and that you can do it builds confidence, increases your energy and puts you on the road to success – after all, everything starts with an idea.  Let your Matric exam experience start with the idea that you can ace it.  Find success quotes and ‘can-do’ statements that inspire you and make you feel motivated, and put them up in places where you see them often during a day.  Another effective tactic to take power away from your inner critic is to externalise it.  It might seem silly in the written word but in practice this works well.  If you are battling an inner critic, disempower it by giving it a silly name and calling it out. ‘Hmmm, Negative Nancy is at it again’ or ‘Oh look, Pessimistic Pete has come out to play’.  Of course, you may also experience negative talk from external sources as well, and just as you need to guard against your inner critic, you may find that you need to protect yourself from, and avoid others who bring you down or criticise you.”

4. Identify and Use Stress Management Techniques

You want to manage stress to avoid it overwhelming you.  Pay attention to the rise of stress in you and take action to interrupt it and relieve it as soon as you are aware.  There are many different healthy tactics, techniques and activities that are highly effective at reducing stress.  For example, a few minutes of simple, conscious deep breathing, when you think of nothing more than ‘deep breath in’ ‘deep breath out’ actually shifts you away from mounting stress into a more calm and collected state.  Physical activity is an almost instant stress reliever as it effectively interrupts the stressful train of thought and quickly releases endorphins in the brain that enhance feelings of wellbeing.  If you don’t have time to take a walk, stand up and do some jumping jacks or put on a favourite song and do a quick dance or do a few yoga poses.  These are all techniques that you can use in the moment to shift you from worry, fear and anxiety into a better state before the stress has a chance to become overpowering.  It’s important to explore and find the techniques that work well for you.  It is best to avoid eating as a stress reliever, and important that if you do react by looking for food that you choose healthy snacks like fresh and dried fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

For any matriculant interested in the field of psychology and counselling, SACAP offers a wide range of qualifications including (Higher Certificate, Diploma, BAppSocSci, BPsych and BsocSci Honours) and a one-of-a-kind approach to learning: academic rigour and applied skills. Graduating confident “work ready” practitioners is key, which is why SACAP combines an academically rigorous curriculum with a strong emphasis on the ability to apply knowledge through the training of relevant skills. Registration for 2016 term one, closes at the end of January. For further information, visit:

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