HSC Stress

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JOHN PETROZZI: Hi. Welcome to Living Is Easy with John and Josh. I’m John Petrozzi.

JOSH HARPER: And I’m Josh Harper.

JOHN PETROZZI: This show is about you. It’s about health and wellness and everything in between. You will learn how to improve your health. You will listen in on inspirational interviews, and it may even change the way you live your life. But by no means are we a substitute for your medical advice. So listen up and get healthier.

JOSH HARPER: What’s on the show today, John?

JOHN PETROZZI: Today, we’ve got a special guest on the show. Her name is Suzana Dekanovic. She’s a clinical psychologist and she’s going to talk to us about a really important topic today with is HSC and Stress.

It’s great to have you on the show, Suzana.

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Thanks, John. Hi, Josh. Thanks for having me on the show.

JOSH HARPER: Thanks for coming here. Now, before we get into everything, how about you give us a bit of a background on yourself, Suzana?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Okay. My background is a clinical psychologist. Essentially, what that means is that I’ve done lots of years of studies. I initially started doing a Bachelor in Psychology, so that was a four-year degree course, finished that. After that, I enrolled into a Master of Clinical Psychology degree, finished that. That was a two-year fulltime course. When I finished that, I went and stride into the workforce. I worked four years with young people and adolescents, and I really enjoyed that. I continued doing that work and I’ve been in that area for six years. I’ve been working specifically with adolescents and I’m quite passionate about that area, and also with their families. So that’s what I like to pursue.

JOSH HARPER: Is that within schools or is it a separate thing?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Well, the kids that I see get referred to me. Often, they come from schools; they come by a school. Sometimes, they come from their GP; sometimes they’re self-referrals. Sometimes, families bring them in.

JOSH HARPER: So you would have a fair idea on the HSC?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Well, look, a lot of the times, when you’re seeing a Year 11 or Year 12 student, often, that’s one of the main reasons for coming to see me. So we do spend quite a lot of time discussing some of those issues and how that is impacting their mental health and just their life generally.

JOHN PETROZZI: After hearing that, Suzana is definitely well qualified to be talking about stress, after seeing all those exams and things. Suzana, what is it about stress that we need to try and avoid, or need to try and embrace, particularly with HSC?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Look, a little bit of stress is good to embrace, as strange as that might sound probably for a lot of the HSC students out there, especially, but the important thing about stress or anxiety that a lot of students are experiencing is that they serve a purpose. The purpose is that it gets the student into action; it gets them motivated, focused. It allows them to sit down and concentrate.

We’re talking about moderate amount of anxiety, obviously. However, if a student is overwhelmed or experiencing too much anxiety, then, like I said, they’re going to be quite overwhelmed, not able, they’re going to find it much more difficult to sit down to concentrate and to do what they need to do. On the other hand, if they’re too relaxed, well, they’re not really going to be able to get themselves to sit down and study and do what’s needed.

So it’s crucial that they are experiencing some anxiety, because this is what’s actually going to get them through the HSC.

JOHN PETROZZI: So stress isn’t particularly something that we need to try and avoid at all cost, is it?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: No, you don’t want to. Like I said, it serves your purpose. It gets into action and keeps the momentum going.

JOHN PETROZZI: Well, when stress gets too much to bear, gets to excess where it stops you from actually performing or participating in normal life, as well, what kind of symptoms do you think a parent or a teacher might be able to see in an HSC student?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Some of the things to look out for- well, you want to ignite any behavioural changes, so there are things like, you know, if they once used to be quite social and the behavioural change to that might be losing interest in social contacts or withdrawing or just going to the bedroom, not wanting to talk to anyone. It could be changes in sleeping – sleeping too much or under-sleeping. It could be changes in their appetite. Then you have mood changes, so they might become increasingly irritable. They might become increasingly tearful or sad, sometimes quite aggressive. Then you also have physical changes, so they might complain of headaches, they might complain of stomachaches and things like that.

JOHN PETROZZI: So for a parent sometimes, those symptoms might actually be- they think their kid is just going through a growth spurt or they’re just having some bad moods. But in actually fact, they’re actually real signs and symptoms that possibly their child is actually undergoing a fair amount of stress.

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Well, look, during that period, it can be really hard to know, because a lot of it is probably the anxiety associated with the HSC stress. Some of it might be just, like what you said, John, you know, that growth spurt, even at that age could be a delayed growth spurt. And then, a lot of that also is just, I don’t know about the stuff that’s going on in the world of a teenager, so it could be, you know, because at that age, so much is happening. They’re forming relationships, they’ve got friendships, a lot of people are getting their driver’s license, so it’s good to keep in mind all those things can also exacerbate the anxiety that’s associated with the HSC.

JOHN PETROZZI: Well, when we come back from the break, we will talk about expectations—because you spoke about expectations before the show—and expectation seem to be one of the main keys in causing a lot of stress to HSC students.


JOHN PETROZZI: So stay tuned and we’ll come back in a few minutes.


JOSH HARPER: Welcome back to Living Is Easy with John and Josh. Today, we have a very special guest.

JOHN PETROZZI: That’s right. We’ve got Suzana Dekanovic here, a clinical psychologist. Today’s hot topic is HSC and stress. Thanks for being on the show again, Suzana.

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

JOHN PETROZZI: Before we went on break, we spoke about expectations, which can be the cause of a lot of stressful situations for HSC students. Can you talk to us a bit more about that?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Yeah, sure. When we’re talking about expectations, it’s particularly expectations that come from parents, sometimes, they come from the school, and sometimes, they come from the students themselves. The parent may not have explicit expectations, but sometimes they’re implying that. You know, the student might come from a very high-achieving family and they feel pressured to perform and to really achieve.

JOSH HARPER: And that’s a common misconception that the HSC is the last thing of your life and it controls the future. Personally, recently going through it, I didn’t go so well, doing all the things. I think I’ve turned out better, so it’s not the end.


JOHN PETROZZI: So expectations are a massive stressor because of that. Actually, I remember when I was at school and there were some kids who had high-achieving families. Unfortunately, a couple of those cases ended up that the student committed suicide because of the fact that they weren’t achieving as much as their parents had expected them to.

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: And I think, John, that’s why it’s so important to take students quite seriously, particularly when they’re showing some signs of anxiety, to see them and talk to them and just to hear their worries. And Josh, you know, it’s great that you see that there’s so much more after HSC.


SUZANA DEKANOVIC: And if students can talk to other people who have been there or have done that, I think that’s also a good way for them to understand that this is not the end. If they don’t get what they’d like to get ideally, there are so many options out there.

JOSH HARPER: That’s true.

JOHN PETROZZI: So how does the school actually give expectations? Because they need to see the exams, is that a particular expectation for the students? Or is it the fact that “Other schools have been doing this for decades, and we expect you all to be at this level by this month, and if you don’t, then obviously you don’t belong to this school”? Are these the sorts of things?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Look, I think it’s a combination. You’ve got schools that are extremely high-achieving, so there’s that expectation to start from, you know, a school that wants their students to do well because if they don’t, then that affects the school’s reputation. But then you also have just the ones, I guess, that schools set up. There’s that pressure in terms of competing with other students, because it’s all about ranking, isn’t it? It’s all about how well you do. Unfortunately, it’s all about numbers, so you can understand why there would be that pressure.

JOSH HARPER: And it’s a bit of a domino effect if you don’t really go well in that, then uni or colleges are not really an option, and they put that pressure on you.

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Yeah, exactly. And that’s how you might interpret things. “Well, if I have stuff up or if I don’t, then that’s it. There’s no future for me.”

JOHN PETROZZI: It is, I suppose, exams and those sorts of things are a method of clarifying people’s pathways or, I don’t know, I suppose without it, there’d probably be chaos. But I suppose there’s a balance, isn’t there, a balance of having too high expectations compared to what somebody can put them on to? But also you do need some sort of expectations to give yourself some sort of life goals, I suppose.

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Well, you do. And when I work with students and kids that I see, what I often try and teach them to do is to compare their personal best against their personal best, as opposed to against other students’, because if you’re doing that, you’re constantly setting yourself up to fail, if you don’t achieve as high as, I don’t know, Jane or Jack.

JOHN PETROZZI: In terms of comparing yourself to somebody, it’s always difficult to compare yourself to someone who has more family support or more money or drives a faster car, all those sorts of things. It becomes almost a futile exercise sometimes, so I really hear what you’re saying there, Suzana. Try to compare it to your past achievements and really stick on a goal that you want to try to achieve, for yourself and not for somebody else.

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Yeah, I think that’s a crucial word—“goal,” very realistic goals.

JOHN PETROZZI: Yeah. But what is it that parents and teachers can do when they actually first identify a student is undergoing a fair amount of stress from HSC? What is it that they can do to try and appease the stress and help the person out?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Well, for parents particularly, I think it’s important that they remain calm, because if parents themselves are quite anxious, then they’re going to transfer that anxiety onto their child and only exacerbate things that are already there in the first place. It’s really important that they reassure the child that, “Look, you’re doing your best. We know that you’re doing your best and we know that you will do your best.” Notice the good things that they’re doing and reinforce those.

Also, just provide that support, like in terms of practical support. Make sure that they have a quiet environment to do it in, so reduce any noise levels. Make sure that you provide them with balanced meals, because, you know, kids at that age, they’re not likely to worry too much about that. I mean, I know that from experience.

Encourage them to do things that they enjoy in moderation, so it may be a sport or a hobby that they do. Make sure they don’t give that up for the sake of studying, because sometimes, that can actually lead to resentment about studying.

If you’re really seeing that your child’s not coping, sit down and talk to them, ask questions and say, “How can I help?” Often, parents, because they care so much, they will try to do so much, and may come across as nagging, even though they just really want to help. So it’s better to clarify with your child, “Is that actually helping? Or is that me thinking that I’m helping?”

So these are some of the things that parents can do. I guess, teachers should also be encouraging, emphasizing and highlighting their strengths, what they’re good at, what’s going to help them get through it, what their strong points are. I think these are really important things amidst all this anxiety that they might be experiencing.

Finally, one of the other things that parents can just be mindful of is maybe making some concessions around what they expect their child to do around the house, so they may want to be a bit flexible around that if they don’t do something, like if they don’t make their bed. Just think twice before actually confronting their child about that, so maybe this time, to make a concession around that because of the existing anxiety.

JOHN PETROZZI: Suzana, just a quick question on times when the stress gets too much—moderate to severe sort of stress around the HSC. Where can the student or parent turn to for help?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Probably, the best way would be to start with—because each school would have a school counselor—so they can turn to the school counselor. Alternatively, if they don’t feel comfortable about going to the school counselor, they can go and see their GP. Sometimes, that’s enough; the GP might be validating enough in terms of their experience of anxiety. Other times, what the GP might do, or what the parents might do, is just take their child to see a psychologist.

JOHN PETROZZI: Well, when we come back, we’re going to talk about probably the most important part of the show, which is “What can the students do on the day, and before the day, to try and reduce the amount of stress for the HSC?”


JOSH HARPER: Hi. Welcome back to Living Is Easy with John and Josh. Today, we have a very special guest with us.

JOHN PETROZZI: It’s Suzana Dekanovic, and she’s talking about HSC and stress. What can the students do on the day to relieve their stress and stay as calm as possible to achieve the best outcome and result for their exams?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Okay. Well, one of the first things that I start with when I talk about this is to actually have breakfast in the morning. A lot of them just frown, because normally they don’t have breakfast. But the reason I say this and I encourage this is because they will need that energy to help them sustain their concentration for their entire duration of the exam. The exams are like three hours long, so they really need that. Or even to take a piece of fruit or banana or something with them.

The other thing that I advise is not to learn any new topics, particularly on the day of the exam, because this can actually interfere with the previously learned material. If you feel that you still want to learn something, then just revise the things that you’ve already learned. You might have some brief notes or things like that.


JOSH HARPER: Yeah. Trying to learn some new topics will just sort of fluster you.

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Possibly. If you seriously haven’t learned or you feel leaving it to the last minute, all I would say is if it’s come to that, then just try the most important topics and then the most important points associated with that topic. But I would seriously advise against that.


SUZANA DEKANOVIC: The other thing that I would also suggest is give yourself plenty of time to get to the exam room. If you’re someone who gets quite anxious when you get there, I would suggest not getting there too ahead of time, because if you run into your friends talking about it just might make you more anxious. But you be the judge of that.

Also, give yourself plenty of time to—before you start reading the questions and writing things down—some of the things you might want to do is some deep breathing and giving yourself some positive affirmations, like “I can do this. I’m well prepared for this exam and I will do my best.” That’s really important. That can really set you up to either be able to control your anxiety or when things do sometimes get out of hand.

JOHN PETROZZI: Well, actually, with that—if I can just make a point of that—stress often comes from within, doesn’t it?


JOHN PETROZZI: You can’t perceive a situation to be stressful unless you’ve said it’s stressful.

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Well, that’s right. But there are some situations which can be quite dangerous to our lives, like if you’re faced with a tiger. But with other situations, there are interpretations that actually provoke or that cause anxiety.

JOHN PETROZZI: Yup, for sure. So you can actually turn the situation around in your mind?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Well, you can. But the more you do that, the easier it becomes. If you haven’t practiced doing that, it can be quite hard, so I would encourage you to just be mindful of anything that you might be saying to yourself, which are not necessarily helpful or which are quite negative.

JOSH HARPER: And when doing the actual exam, do you have any tips for that?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: When doing the exam, if you’re really stuck on a question, just go on to the next one. Then, when you come back to it, just try and give it your best answer or intelligent guess. But you really want to have a plan for how you’re going to do the exam and do that before you start writing things, so you know how much time you’ve got and how much time you allocate for each portion.

JOHN PETROZZI: It really comes down to preparation, doesn’t it?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: It does. Yeah, preparation before actually starting the exam, but also preparation as you study along before the HSC starts.

JOHN PETROZZI: So often, if you’re not prepared, that’s when stress can happen, and if you’re really quite prepared, then possibly, you’ll have a lower amount of stress, do you think?


JOHN PETROZZI: So if you’ve done your summaries, you’ve done your past papers, all those sorts of things, the amount of stress that you might experience for the actual exam day might be less, because you’ve already performed it, you’ve rehearsed it in your mind and also on paper, and physically.

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Yeah, so you’ve done your best, and that’s what I say: Just make sure you do your best. Make sure you do what you can do.

JOSH HARPER: And in terms of practical assessments and major at works, do you have any advice for them?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: So, not necessarily exams but—

JOSH HARPER: Major works or performances?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Yeah. I think, it’s again, like John and what you were saying, it’s good that you give yourself enough time so that you don’t leave it to the last minute, but that you start when the work has been assigned to you.

Also, just work in small steps; that’s what I really encourage, because goals can only be accomplished in small steps – one thing at a time.

JOHN PETROZZI: What’s one of those things that, for instance, in Josh’s question, when you’re performing or presenting an art exhibition or something for examination, and your heart starts racing and beating, you get blood rushing up through your neck and into your face, words become a jumble in your mind, can we actually do something at that particular instant to try and drop our stress levels so that we can actually perform for that particular event? Or do you think it’s just a panic attack and we should just live with that and we’ll get it over there?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Well, a panic attack actually starts, it’s quite hard to stop it. So let’s not say you can’t, but you can try by doing some really slow deep breathing. There are different ways of doing that and it’s kind of what works for you. But I certainly teach kids how to do that.

One way to also try and prevent a panic attack is to also do that deep breathing. So to prepare yourself, do some deep breathing and say to yourself, “It’s okay. I can do this. I’ve done my best.”

JOHN PETROZZI: So, breathing and affirmations?


JOHN PETROZZI: And that will change our mental state fairly quickly?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Well, as long as you persist with it. if you start deep breathing and you think, “No, this is not helping me,” then you can revert back to that panic state.

JOHN PETROZZI: Because physiologically, the way it works is you have the thought, your body has a physiological response to that thought, which is the release of adrenalin through your adrenal glands. As soon as adrenalin hits your blood vessels and into your circulatory system, the muscles become tense, your heart starts to race, your blood pressure rises, your breathing level increases, digestion reduces – all those sorts of things. So because it is a mental picture of stress in your head, it produces that response, then logically, you can change your mental attitude at that particular instant to change the physiology as well and reduce your stress.

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Well, that’s right. That’s true. I mean, research has been done on those kinds of things. Like some research has shown that if you actually smile, even if it’s—I guess you could call it a “fake smile”—your brain registers that as a smile, because you’re still using mostly the same group of muscles for smiling. It then sends the message to your body that you’re smiling, so over time, what happens is that you experience a different reaction. So when you actually smile, even when it’s a forced smile, over time, you can experience emotions associated with smiling.

JOHN PETROZZI: It’s amazing thing, the mind, isn’t it? It can do so much.


SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Absolutely. So I encourage students to really pay attention to what they’re saying to themselves. Sometimes, if they really find that hard, to imagine what would they say if they were talking to their friend? How would they encourage their friend? What kinds of things would they say to their friend?

JOHN PETROZZI: That’s awesome. Suzana, you run an HSC Stress-Buster Workshop.

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Yeah, that’s coming up.

JOHN PETROZZI: When is that?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: That’s on the 12h of July, which is a Saturday at 10:30. It goes for about five hours. It’s going to be around at [0:20:38]. It’s a very interactive workshop, where we go through various things, in terms of dealing with anxiety. It’s a fun workshop. If you want any more information around that or if you want to enroll into that, it’s 04111-48921.

JOHN PETROZZI: Okay, so I’ll just repeat that number for you, guys. It’s 04111-48921. It’s Suzana, and it’s for the HSC Stress-Buster Workshop.

JOSH HARPER: And you’ll be dealing with things that we spoke about today.

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Absolutely. But obviously, it’s more in-depth. The other nice thing that we would be doing is towards the end of that workshop, I’ll actually be taking students through a guided imagery exercise, which is about 20 minutes. What’s nice about that is that I get them to relaxed and I get them to visualise them going to the exam, sitting in that exam and doing that exam, and then finishing that exam as competently and as well as they can, and walking out of that exam feeling really good about themselves.

JOSH HARPER: Are there any other websites that we can go to and help us?

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Yeah. Actually, there are some really good websites. I would encourage students and parents to go to firstly, the Board of Studies, so that’s www.boardofstudies.nsw.edu.au. Then, there’s a really fantastic website that’s done by Charles Sturt University and also the Department of Education, and the website for that is www.hsc.csu.edu.au. Finally, another really good website is the Reach Out website; they’ve got some great information, as well as some great tips, and that’s www.reachout.com.au.

So, to all you students out there who are about to do their HSC, I wish you all the best. Good luck. Just do your best; seriously, you can only do that. Remember, it’s not the end of the world. There are so many things out there after you finish your HSC.

JOSH HARPER: And thanks for coming in for us today, Suzana.

SUZANA DEKANOVIC: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. I certainly hope that it has been helpful to the students and teachers and, obviously, parents out there, listening to the show.

JOHN PETROZZI: Thanks for joining us. You’ve been listening to Living Is Easy with John and Josh. I’m John Petrozzi.

JOSH HARPER: And I’m Josh Harper.

JOHN PETROZZI: Until next time, stay well and stay happy.


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