Top tips for HKDSE candidates dealing with stress, from an expert psychologist

  • This year's candidates face more pressure than usual, due to Covid-19 and ongoing school suspensions.
  • It's okay to worry about the future, but it's even more important to show yourself some self-compassion.
Joanne Ma |

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This year's DSE candidates are dealing with more stress than normal, due to Covid-19 and the ongoing school suspensions.

This year’s HKDSE candidates are facing extraordinary circumstances. Students are burdened with an unprecedented amount of stress, as worries that were previously unheard of -- such as whether wearing masks during exams will affect their performance, whether they will get infected at the exam venues, or simply how they’re supposed to remember what they revised two months ago -- emerge like a whirlwind.

In this difficult situation, Jamie Cheng Po-kwan, chairperson of the Division of Clinical Psychology at Hong Kong Psychological Society, advises students to first recognise their emotions and acknowledge them.

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“The HKDSE is probably the first life-altering event that students have to go through, so it's really okay to be anxious, it’s okay to worry about the future, it's okay to feel stressed and lost. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. [Recognising emotions] is a key step, because only if you are aware of your mental state can you find ways to manage it,” Cheng says.

Candidates should be kind to themselves, says Cheng. They can encourage themselves by thinking about what they did when they faced other life challenges. What methods did they use to manage stress and anxiety before? Maybe those can help them get through this difficult time as well.

Things like having a routine, setting a timetable, taking breaks and getting enough rest are are also extremely important during this time, too.

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Many students think they can stay up late revising, "but it’s never going to be effective because without sufficient rest, you're not going to remember anything you've revised,” Cheng says.

She also suggests candidates try to talk to themselves about what they are really scared of.

“Are they afraid of failure? Are they afraid of disappointing their parents or disappointing somebody else? Or is it conventional thoughts like, ‘I must get into university, or I’m a failure’?" Cheng asks.

They can try to calm themselves down by being optimistic and rational. “Is it the end of the world if their results are not be as perfect as they wanted? Will they get a second chance? Do they have other options? They will have enough time to plan their future after the exams and before the results are released.”

Breathing exercises may be able to help you calm down if you are feeling stressed.

Having all this information on hand allows them to feel more controlled and less stressed about the situation, Cheng adds.

No one likes to fail, so it's really okay to feel upset about not getting good results. But please be mindful that this is just about the exam, not the person.

“It's an event and it's only a part of your life, but not your whole life. Your life is not defined by an examination. Your life is defined by who you are, and what you’d like to achieve, and how you are going to get back up from your failures,” Cheng says.

Stress doesn’t just come from within yourself. Your environment can induce a lot of anxiety and unpleasant feelings as well. For example, it's especially difficult to study at home if the whole family is crammed together in a small apartment and everyone is trying to do their own work and making noise.

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In this case, communicating with your family is key. “Family members have to respect the needs of students and be considerate, especially since the exam is not going to last forever,” Cheng says.

If communication doesn't work, and other places to study aren't available, students can choose to wear headphones with low volume music or study earlier, when family members are still asleep.

“This year has been very challenging because schools have been suspended and with the pandemic going on, students really can’t learn properly," Cheng says, adding that if students are especially nervous, they could consider retaking the exams.

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If you find yourself dealing with a lot of anxiety, one easy thing you can do to focus is breathing exercises. 

One simple exercise involves closing your eyes, inhaling from the nose, holding your breath, and slowly counting to three, then exhaling from the mouth. If you would like more guidance, New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association has created a YouTube playlist of videos with voice navigation that will guide you through different exercises.

As a final piece of advice, Cheng says that students shouldn't be afraid to discuss their problems. 

“If you need somebody to talk to, talk to people. Because when you talk to them, you’ll find out that everybody is going through the same thing. You will feel connected, safe and supported. Everything will seem under control."

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