Exam nightmares? You're not alone

Last updated 05:00 23/10/2012

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For  30 years after her HSC history exam in 1980, Diana Prichard regularly dreamed about going into an exam and knowing nothing. She would wake with her heart racing and feeling sick.

Ms Prichard is not alone. As many as 50 per cent of students will relive exam anxiety in their dreams for the rest of their lives.

Between 20 and 50 per cent of people have had at least one exam dream, said Deirdre Barrett, the author of The Committee of Sleep and assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

"These dreams continue decades after finishing formal education, but occur at times they're facing scrutiny or evaluation by others, especially authority figures," Dr Barrett said.

Stephen Fry, Bono and Simon Cowell suffer from exam dreams, said Ian Wallace, the author of The Top 100 Dreams. The Duchess of Cambridge dreamt of walking down the aisle naked while doing an exam, he said.

Being chased is the most common dream, followed by teeth falling out and being unable to find a toilet. The duchess's dream, which mixed the fourth most common dream (being naked) with the fifth (exam dreams), was not unusual, Dr Wallace said.

Ms Prichard, a journalist who lives in North Bondi, believes her dream relates to the history exam, which was worth 100 per cent of the mark in 1980.

Not only was she confused over the time of the exam, she said she sabotaged herself, leading to disappointing results, by tackling the most difficult question to impress the markers.

"I chose to answer a particularly challenging essay question about the Balkan Wars instead of the fail-safe option about the League of Nations," she said.

Her eldest son, who is sitting the Australian HSC maths exam this morning, does not have anxiety dreams.

"He has been very motivated," Ms Prichard said. "He manages his time sensibly, breaking up study with a quick visit to the gym, run or meal with friends."

That's good practice, Caroline Powell, the district guidance officer at Freshwater Senior Campus, said. She recommends students take a break - go for a walk, a surf - or do some deep breathing when the pressure gets too much.

She said many students were suffering anxiety, often dreaming about the exams and sometimes "unravelling" from the stress.

"It is the sense of being out of control and being overwhelmed and unable to articulate that sometimes comes with exams."

Yet when the school offered stress management classes, many of the students who most needed help would not attend.

"They didn't want to miss classes, and that's the dilemma. They think it is a waste of time because they should be studying," Ms Powell, a psychologist, said.

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 She said the best determinant of future success was how a student handled the stress.

"How you cope with [exams] is far more significant and a better indicator of your future path and success than the numbers on a piece of paper.

"I have seen kids who are terribly intelligent have a meltdown with the stress."

Ms Prichard's advice to her son?

I've told him to double-check his exam timetable! And finally, I've told him that after the HSC no one cares what mark you got. You can do anything you set your mind to, whatever the result."

- Sydney Morning Herald

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