MILAN – “I will just dry up”, “I am too far behind”, “I am afraid of the marks”. These are some of the thoughts buzzing around in the minds of the Italian Maturità candidates just a few days before the exams, experienced by 1 youngster in 2 (51%) with anxiety and worry. A study by Sanpellegrino Campus* revealed this. Their minds on the holidays (33%), feeling under-prepared (22%) and lacking self-confidence (29%), are the main reasons for this state of mind. The experts advise healthy eating (42%), proper hydration (43%) and healthy mental relaxation (49%), such as reading for pleasure, watching an action movie, or visiting the countryside. It is not advisable to abuse stimulants like caffeine and taurine (63%), or to develop a pessimistic attitude beforehand (37%).
Fears and problems surrounding the Maturità
What do the Maturità exams mean for a student? For six young people in 10 (58%), it is their number one duty in life; for others, it is just the last obstacle before the end their schooldays (24%). What attitude do students approach exams with? The main feelings experienced by students at this time are anxiety (22%) and worry (37%). “My mind will go blank”, “I am too far behind”, “I am afraid of the marks”, are some of the most commonly recurring statements made by students. 15% claim they are relatively relaxed, while just 18% feel calm.
What are the main problems facing students at this time? Pretty much 1 youngster in 3 (32%) admits to finding it hard to concentrate properly; others consider they are in a state of nervous overload (26%), or admit to not being able to remember very much (21%). What is this due to? On various forums and social networks, students admit the main problems and distractions result from their minds already being “at the beach” (33%), feeling under-prepared (22%), and a significant lack of self-confidence (29%).
The importance of nutrition and hydration
Therefore, how should we prepare to face the exams? The nutritional aspect proves to be fundamental: according to the experts, proper hydration (43%) and a healthy diet (42%) are crucial. Nutritionists and psychologists are agreed that proper hydration helps maintain concentration at a high level (42%), stimulates the cognitive faculties (38%), and helps replenish the substances lost in hot weather and through exertion (22%).
Luca Piretta, a specialist in Gastroenterology and Digestive Endoscopy, and in the Science of Human Nutrition in the Department of Clinical Sciences at "La Sapienza" University in Rome claims: “One basic piece of advice is to avoid mixing eating with studying. Eating while studying is never a good idea: the body needs time to absorb food, without suddenly being distracted by the exertion required for concentrating on studying. A more suitable diet for the Maturità student is based on a hearty breakfast (one study showed that youngsters who ate breakfast solved maths problems more effectively), followed by 4 small, balanced and not too abundant meals (lunch, dinner and two snacks) during the day, followed by a good rest. We must not forget proper hydration: especially with the arrival of the hot weather, it also becomes essential to drink 2 litres of water per day, to compensate for what is lost through perspiration. Finally, to promote sleep, it is a good idea to cut out coffee and foodstuffs which are difficult and slow to digest, like chocolate, spirits, fries, salty snacks and all products containing a lot of strong spices, such as paprika or curry”.
Confronting anxiety in groups
What else can help you best face the Maturità exam? One idea may be to avoid getting isolated, but rather to stay in a group. Michele Cucchi, psychiatrist and director of the Santagostino medical centre in Milan explains: “It is as if our entire lives are staked on that day. We have to overcome this huge obstacle, vast programmes of study, the external examiners, teachers within the school itself - perhaps not always our friends - and finding the will to study; as a result of which, when combined with adolescent exuberance, there might not be a second to waste on books. To do this we can try group support and understanding, go find a little patch of greenery to revise in, ask questions in our group, or call people to offer reassurance”.
*Conducted using the WOA (Web Opinion Analysis) method on around 1,200 students struggling with the Maturità, dedicated to understanding their concerns via online monitoring on the major social networks, forums and online communities, and on 50 experts in psychiatry, psychology and nutrition, who explain how best to get ready for exams.
The decalogue against exam stress *
1. Don’t get too worked up about it! It is the Maturità, but in the end, it is like the last stage of the Giro d’Italia cycle race: you have already done everything that needs to be done. The % of failure is negligible and gaining a few points more will mean really standing out from the competition, or lowering the level of emotion.
2. This is the Maturità: it is not about getting everything right, but about doing it in the right way; what will be rewarded is a conscious, reflective and considered approach.
3. You grade yourself the day before: do not expect to be graded simply on one theme. You need to dispel anxiety the night before these exams, boosting your morale the day before, feeling you have already done everything required, and acknowledging you have proudly battled in "a championship" lasting 5 years
4. Do not do any studying the day before, but get your mind on other things, perhaps looking at souvenirs, or photos of your high school years
5. Additionally, prepare for the challenge in your eating habits: getting into the habit of eating a good breakfast will serve you well for the long hours of testing. To promote concentration, resistance to fatigue, and your attention span, prepare an emotionally intelligent breakfast: mineral water, apple juice, avocado, oranges, yogurt, and sweet whole-wheat bread.
6. The night before, eat lightly, sleep well and stock up on mental energy: a slice of raw tuna in balsamic vinegar with sunflower seeds and whole-wheat bread.
7. It is normal to feel anxious: you cannot expect to sleep very well when you have something on your mind the night before a major challenge. Our sympathetic nervous systems tend not to “switch off’, but stay heightened. This is healthy and nothing to worry about.
8. Find out whether you perform better in the evening or the morning: you may not necessarily be like your classmates, who perhaps study in the evening: if you are a morning person (a lark), you should wake up early to study and then relax after dinner. On the other hand, “night birds” should have a light snack for dinner and make the most of their time later in the day to study.
9. Switch off the smartphone when you are studying: you should promote sustained focus or you will get worn out by the process of memorising; instead, take frequent breaks (every 45 min) to answer an SMS, call friends and relax, constantly maintaining high quality study time.
10. The last few questions: use group revision to calm your nerves: the kind where we can compare notes aloud with others. This will help you gather new and useful information and make you aware of what you must really focus on and learn. However, studying alone is more productive.
*Supported by Michele Cucchi e Luca Piretta