It’s a stressful time for everyone. The latest news that the IB has cancelled exams will be causing massive amounts of stress for many students (and teachers). Here are some ways you can cope.
Stress is caused by things happening to us (stressors) and how we think about those things (appraisals). In psychology jargon, we call this top-down or bottom-up processing. The bottom-up means we get stressed by what happens in our environment (external stimuli). In this case, the announcement that the exams have been cancelled is causing massive amounts of bottom-up stress. I fully realize this is not the case for many students and some will be loving the idea of exam cancellation. But for those of you who were really working hard, you’ll be feeling the effects.
External factors are not the only cause of stress. How we think about things can also cause stress (top-down processing through our appraisals). Thinking differently about stressors can help reduce stress. So here’s some strategies you might find useful.
Circle of Control
It’s natural to think about how this is affecting you personally. I would like to encourage you to quickly follow this by thinking about other people as well. This current situation is having a massive impact globally. It’s natural to worry about your future and to be concerned. This is even more reason why we need to minimize the focus and attention on exams and IB scores. I know, I know, this is 12-13 years of work for many students and hard work from teachers. But we must think about the “we” before we think of the “me.”
You might be worried about scholarships, university acceptance or gaining course credit. Please put this into perspective. You should know that this is an unprecedented event in modern times. Universities and college boards will be working as hard as everyone else to figure out how to deal with this situation. You can’t control this, so spend less energy worrying about it.
Another way of thinking about this is to distinguish between your circles of control, influence and concern. This comes from Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.
According to Covey, we have our circle of control which are the things we have complete control over (e.g. what we eat, what we watch on TV, who we spend time with).
We then have a circle of influence which includes the things we can, well, influence. This includes your grades in school or how strong your friendships are.
We then have a circle of concern, which are the things we might think about but which we have no control over (e.g. how the IB will deal with no exams and what grade you’re going to end up with as a result).
This video does a good job explaining the circle of influence and Covey gives a real life example. My favourite line and the message I would like to share is, “This man’s success was not dependent on his circumstances, it was his chosen response to his circumstances to focus on his circle of influence that made all of the difference. ” This can apply to you as well – you can make a difference right now by focusing on your circle of influence, rather than your circle of concern.
External stressors (e.g. university entrance and exam cancellations) are in our circle of concern, but they’re often not something we can control or possibly even influence at the moment. If we spend our time worrying too much about things in our circle of concern, we may feel helpless and vulnerable. However, if we empower ourselves to focus more on the things in our circle of control and influence, we can take more control of our lives by thinking and acting in a positive manner.
If you’re feeling stressed or vulnerable, perhaps write down a list of the things that are causing you stress right now. Then categorize which circle they come under. You can then start writing down a list of actions based on the things you can control and influence.
For example, if I was a student worried about how the cancellation of exams might affect my university applications, scholarships or course credits, I would begin by sending an email to my college counsellor at school expressing my concerns and asking them for advice and to keep me in the loop about what I can do regarding the situation. I might then contact the universities I am applying to and ask how they are intended to deal with exam cancellations. I doubt I would get a reply as they will be very busy, but it will make me feel better to take some action. I would then turn my attention to my school work and my grades in school for the rest of year, since this is something I can control. I’d like to think teenaged Travis would think of his grandparents and phone them up and ask if they need anything since my worries are very small compared to theirs at the moment. I might even visit elderly neighbours to check if they’re OK.
The bottom line is try your hardest to put your focus, effort and energy into the things you have control over and less on the rest.
If the news and social media is stressing you out, shut it off.
Locus of Control
This is similar to one of my favourite psychology concepts – locus of control. Some people have an external locus of control. This means they think that the factors that influence their lives are beyond their control; they’re external. In other words, they have a large circle of concern and their circles of influence and control are very small. Whether they succeed or fail, these people believe, is determined by external forces they can’t control.
Other people have an internal locus of control. They believe that they are the captain of their ship, the architect of their destiny, the master of their fate. Their circles of control and influence are large and their circle of concern is small. If they do well in school, get a good job or become successful, are all a result of their own individual efforts, talents and actions.
Which one is better? The research is pretty well-documented that people with an internal locus of control tend to be better off. This is especially the case when it comes to stress. If you believe you are in control, you will probably experience lower levels of stress.
The main message I want to give students is this: things are going to happen in life that will stress you out. That is inevitable. It is beyond your control. What is in your control is how you think about these things and how you react to them. Try focusing on what you can do to make things better. Focus on the things in your control. Keep an eye on those things you’re concerned about, but don’t let them consume you.
- You can’t control how the IB is going to figure out what grade you’re going to get. But you can control how hard you work for the remainder of the school year. This could influence your teacher’s predicted grade they give you, which will probably influence your scores.
- You can’t control how universities will deal with university admissions. But you can control how well you prepare academically, physically and emotionally for university to begin in the fall.
- You can’t control who becomes ill. But you can control how much you put yourself and others at risk.
- You can’t control the news. But you can control how much time you spend on the internet and reading social media.
- You can’t control the IB’s decisions or what has happened. But you can control how much effort you put into learning from this experience.
I hope this is helpful.
Travis Dixon is an IB Psychology teacher, author, workshop leader, examiner and IA moderator.