This article was originally written in Irish, but an English translation has been printed too, in the hopes that this excellent piece can reach a wider audience.
It is fashionable to be under pressure and to be working late and hard. This is often the status quo in the corporate world and work life. It is seen as a feat if you are doing everything until you are worn-out and exhausted and the implications of this on the individual are not taken into account.
The culture of pressure continues after college and I would like to discuss it as the danger of pressure is not talked about often enough. Of course, the pressure is helpful sometimes, it is an encouragement to reach goals but when it is excessive, it becomes harmful.
I learnt about the danger of pressure and the effects on the body during the Christmas exams and I shall explain this and the experience I got from other people.
I have vast experience of exams between college and secondary school and of course pressure came with them, but this time there was more than normal exam pressure in question for me.
One’s ability in college is judged from your grades and therefore I did not want to get good grades or a pass, I wanted to get exceptional results and I believed with a lot of work that I could achieve this. I am one of those strange people who put effort into the Junior Certificate and therefore I admit I put pressure on myself academically from a young age but until now I was able to deal with it.
This time the pressure and stress were overwhelming. I followed the mindset of the proverb ‘imíonn an túirse ach fanann an tairbhe’ (tiredness passes but the reward stays). I was not going to stop or slow down despite understanding that I was tired and that I was not respecting my body. I continued because I believed the pressure was worth it but I now understand that that is not true. I spent long hours in the library, going home in the darkness to go asleep and wake up in the morning to do the same thing.
A lot of the pressure definitely came from myself, being in final year but I believe that the culture of pressure in society and college was in question also. A large percent of modules was dependant on the final exam and they were packed together with five exams in six days and therefore I continued studying too intensely as a machine would.
As an economics student, it is in me to be logical and rational but I was not at all. I started to bite my tongue in my sleep during study week and the doctor said that it was a result of the pressure. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I got bad mouth ulcers that lasted to Christmas Day. My skin was terrible, I had no appetite and I was not myself at all.
I was crying before every single exam apart from one, walking along the N11 to the RDS, even before an exam that I was completely at ease about. This was not my normal behaviour and there was no sense or reason with it.
I reached the pinnacle of pressure on the Sunday before the second week of exams. I came home from the library and had to prepare my lunch for the next day and afterwards, I had planned to go to sleep. I put a packet of pasta back in the press and unfortunately an entire bottle of olive oil fell on the ground, broke and there were oil and glass everywhere. I did nothing for two minutes apart from stare at it, hoping my eyes were playing a trick on me and that there was not a right mess in the kitchen. It was after midnight at this stage and I was exhausted with upcoming exams on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and it was not ideal that I had an awful state to clean up at that point.
I collected the glass and put it in the bin and started cleaning the oil with old newspaper but this took some time because the oil needed to be completely absorbed into the newspaper before it would be cleaned up. I was on my knees, completely at wit’s end. I started crying because it was almost two o’clock in the morning and my Mum heard me and came to help me. We cleaned it together and when I went upstairs I was still upset because all I wanted was a good sleep and I could not be tired of my exams.
My Dad heard me and thought something terrible had happened, which hadn’t but with the pressure and tiredness my feelings were thousand times worse and stronger. The oil spillage was not a terrible event in itself but I was so tense and under pressure at that point, with an exam in ten hours and completely exhausted and burnt out. I finished my exams and I was happy with them but I was numb afterwards, instead of being delighted or relieved. I became very sick in January with a lack of energy for two weeks and I believe that this was my body trying to recover from the exams.
Looking back on it now, I don’t think that there is an easy solution. Nice sentiments to reduce stress such as take a break, go walking, or talk to your friends are suggested. In reality, the problem is that you feel like you can’t stop or slow down and often this advice is not too helpful. I think the root of the problem needs to be improved, that being to reduce the pressure at the end of term and implement more continuous assessment. Pressure should not be viewed as a sign that you are working hard, as a positive trait or be praised.
It is a large epidemic with serious implications on the individual but it is not talked about enough. It is therefore that I believe that the pressure is not worth it because of the harm it has but this is not talked about enough. In my own case, although my examination results are not released yet, whatever results I get are not worth the lack of respect I showed to my body. I have never taken nor will ever take study drugs, but I truly understand now why people do. It is scandalous that people feel they have to take them because the pressure is so high to get good grades.
There is a famous study that put rats under pressure due to the presence of a certain gas and they developed stomach and mouth ulcers from the pressure. I read about this years ago but did not see the effects on my own body until now.
I wanted to collect more information about exam pressure and effects on the body. I put up a story on Instagram to get experiences from other people. To be truthful, I didn’t think I would get many stories from people but the complete opposite was true. I received stories from people I speak with often but also from people that I don’t see often and all of their experiences were very different.
There was person A who suffers from very bad psoriasis on her hands when she is under pressure during exam season. It results in terrible pain and it is not pleasant when it starts to peel. She said that it has become worse since college but she is very grateful that it is just on her hands. Person B told me that she used to be getting sick daily for months coming up to the Leaving Certificate because of her anxiety. She was affected by the Leaving Certificate every single day, well before it had started, which is terrible.
A final year student shared her experience with UCD Christmas exams. She had three exams within 24 hours. She was very worried that she would not get enough sleep that she got sleeping tablets. She was anxious that she would not fall asleep with the stress and that she would be exhausted for those exams. People in her course had similar feelings, including one person who became too ill to sit the exams. She suggested that more continuous assessment would be preferable to reduce pressure and to more accurately report people’s ability. She had dreams months later that she missed the exam. She said that the pressure at the time was immense and that it was unbelievable that she felt the effects of pressure, long after the exams.
Person D sent me a story from her younger sister in the first year of secondary school and I had to read the message again to make sure I was correct and that she was that young and suffering from exam pressure. She had no problems with anxiety or motor function but a new, strange and unusual thing happened to her in the fortnight before the exams and during the exams themselves. She developed an involuntary tic and a breathing switch. It happened only because of exams and stopped after them and the doctor had no doubt but that it was related to stress. She was breathing as you would after crying and simultaneously raising her hand up high, clicking her fingers and her head would jolt. She would do this almost every 30 seconds and she was upset by this because it was so strange and involuntary. She agreed that stress is often unaccounted for in the system and she was shocked when she saw her sister under the effects of pressure.
There were other stories from people who lose and gain weight, have irregular periods when they’re under pressure and one person who became very sick during the Junior Certificate and was unable to finish it.
It is clear to me from my own experience and from other people that it is not worth it to be suffering mentally with the stress in your mind but also physically. I am reminded of the death of Avicii last year and it is thought that pressure had an impact on this tragedy and the pressure that was on him is clearly seen in his documentary programme.
We need to be aware of the pressure, individually and in society and recognise that it can be damaging and harmful. I focused on experiences relating to exams but of course, pressure is in question in many more aspects of life. It can’t be denied, although pressure can be useful sometimes, with excessive pressure, our bodies are affected. This needs to be talked about more and efforts need to be made to reduce it and not to promote it. At the end of the day, the pressure is not worth it.
By Cecily Nic Cionnaith – Irish Editor