Success Anxiety: Why Students Have to Handle So Much Pressure
Indian society as a whole has a classical notion of success. The first part is to pass the most difficult engineering or medical exams like IIT-JEE and NEET, respectively. Then comes enrollment in major management schools such as the IIM. And if you erase UPSC-CSE, commonly known as civil services, it’s success 3.0, which gives you a comfortable place in the Indian bureaucratic configuration. The stakes are high, and so is the pressure. However, sometimes this pressure is too much to handle.
“Year after year we see young people, preparing for ultra-competitive exams such as UPSC, in OPD struggling with stress and depression,” says Dr. Jyoti Kapoor, senior psychiatrist and founder of Manasthali, a mental health organization. Students fresh out of school preparing for IIT and NEET also suffer from burnout due to long hours of preparation and uncertainty about the future. In many cases, they need counseling and medication to deal with the stress,” she added.
Although the pressure of exams is felt by everyone, do some of the most ultra-competitive exams have a role to play in damaging an aspirant’s mental health?
‘Without a doubt’
“Two years into the preparation, I started to feel depressed,” says Shakir S (name changed), a business student who prepared for several government exams, including UPSC, for four years . “It was to this realization that I had given two years of my life for this. There was also loneliness,” says Shakir, who could erase written papers but failed in interviews.
According to Pragati Goyal, a clinical psychologist at Lissun, a Gurugram-based mental health organization, students who prepare for these exams are more vulnerable to mental health issues. “A recent study showed that among those preparing for medical entrance exams, 72.2% experienced high levels of stress interfering with their daily functioning. As health practitioners, we are also seeing an increase in cases of depression and anxiety among students attributed to the competitive, rigorous and targeted nature of these exams,” she says.
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Another problem is the high expectations that students set for themselves. “In our practice, we have seen an increase in the number of students, preparing for these, coming to us with mental health issues. Some of the most common complaints include low work efficiency, ability to attention and lack of concentration. However, these are not problems, but they are perceived as such. Students, sometimes, set unrealistic expectations and end up being disappointed not to meet. It is not humanly possible for anyone to study constantly and expect 100% effectiveness all along.Yet, unfortunately, everyone is chasing these unrealistic standards,” says Goyal.
Lack of experience
Since such exams require one to study for most of the day, this leaves little or no room for recreation. “There’s no room for that,” says Shakir. Instead, what’s in store is almost the same routine every day, constant competition with peers, fear of failure, parental pressure, as well as a glimmer of hope for success. , a hope that keeps you going.
“This type of preparation is tedious and lengthy and often students hold back the rest of their lives to prepare for a test. And when the results are not in their favor, they have to go back to the same routine. It’s quite frustrating and most people feel stuck as the world moves on,” says Dr Kapoor.
At the same time, Goyal points to the lack of glorification of being busy or studying continuously for hours, which makes students more vulnerable to mental health issues. “The human brain is not designed to operate at such a rapid pace, where there is virtually no time to pause,” she adds.
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away from family
Many Kota-based coaching institutes offer courses for students as young as 10 years old. Teenage students are leaving their hometowns and flocking to this Rajasthani city in hopes of entering India’s top engineering and medical colleges. Many stay away from their families and therefore lack a major support system. Alone, they must also micro-manage all aspects of their lives.
“Mental health is based on several pillars, and one of the pillars is emotional support. It is the safety net that ensures healthy growth of mind and body,” says psychologist Goyal. “Because many students live away from home, they might not get the emotional support they want,” she adds.
Under pressure, students develop all sorts of coping mechanisms, some beneficial, some detrimental. For Shakir, it fell into the latter category and involved smoking and drinking, things he had never done before he started preparing for these exams, he told FE. “Stress builds up over the years and after a while you start feeling lonely. You have no way to express yourself and you lag behind your peers so you just try to distract yourself,” he shares.
“Often, students with chronic stress try to manage it with unhealthy behaviors including binge drinking, gambling, overeating, compulsively participating in sex, shopping or browsing the internet, smoking and drug use,” warns Dr Kapoor.
tyranny of failure
“I’ve been through hell,” Shakir says of how he felt after deciding not to pursue exams anymore. “More than anything, it was the societal pressure, where everyone thought they had a right to ask about you, that impacted me,” he says.
Thousands of students turn up for some of India’s toughest exams, making the pass rate extremely low. Take the case of UPSC. About 10 lakh aspirants take this exam every year, and only 1,000 or even less pass. The rest fail.
“Unfortunately, we don’t set people up for failure. Nobody tells them that if A hasn’t worked out, there can always be a plan B. There’s so much investment in that exam, one day, that the tyranny of failure haunts for a long time,” says the Dr Sudipto Chatterjee, a NIMHANS trained Psychiatrist. “When they’re exposed to failure, they’re exposed to an enormous amount of stress, both physical and mental.”
The problem is worse in the case of those who start preparing for such examinations at a very young age. “Nobody asks them if they really want to do this. Nobody informs them that the pyramid of success is really narrow at the top,” says Dr. Chatterjee. “All their lives, these young children knew that their whole life depended on this one examination. There is no time for sports, extracurriculars or socializing, which leaves no space for their personality to grow,” he adds.
push too far
About 8.2% of students in India die by suicide, according to the NCRB report on Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India (ADSI), 2020. Although there are several reasons behind this, the impact of pressure academic cannot be excluded.
After performing poorly in Class XII exams, an 18-year-old girl from Patna, who was preparing for IIT-JEE, reportedly died by suicide in Kota in July. A month earlier, Blesson Puddu Chako, 28, also took an extreme step after failing the UPSC exam, according to media reports. Every year we come across such grim reports.
Tyranny of success?
Failing these exams is bad, but does success guarantee a life of prosperity and happiness? When the 2020 UPSC results were announced last year, a tweet from an IRS officer, who had passed the exam nearly two decades earlier, garnered a lot of attention. “I got AIR 66 on the 2001 exam (and AIR 171 on the 2000 exam), and I still ended up with #depression and #anxiety disorder. There’s life, and then there is life. Make the most of it – after all, we only have one life, this life,” tax officer Shubhrata Prakash wrote.
As many as 122 students from IIT, IIM, central universities and other state-funded tertiary institutions are believed to have died by suicide between 2014 and 2021, the Lok Sabha reported earlier this year. Not only that, 85% of students surveyed by student magazine Insight said that mental health issues were common at IIT-Bombay. About 71% of the 450 students surveyed said academic pressure was the reason.
What is the output?
Here are some mental health tips for students preparing for high-pressure exams
- Build a schedule that helps your body and mind work better
- When studying, take short breaks and recharge. Just a 5-20 minute break every 1-2 hours can refuel your body
- Eat healthy foods and sleep well at least 7-8 hours a day
- Long study hours leave less time for physical activity. As a result, the body develops lethargy and the mind begins to react negatively. Practice a physical activity
- Find a relaxation exercise that works for you. It can be just going for a walk
- Try to find a balance
- Talk to friends and family regularly for emotional support
- Don’t set unrealistic expectations