How owning my GCSE results made me stronger

This article was first published in 2019.

In August students up and down the country will be receiving their GCSE results. For some this will be a joyful day, but others might experience disappointment, sadness and dejection.

In 2018, Lily was heart-broken when she opened her results and saw that she didn't get the grades she'd hoped for.

Find out how Lily overcame her anxiety and returned to the exam hall stronger than ever.

Lily's story

This is a very personal story of a girl's struggles with anxiety and mental health, and for this reason she has asked for her real name to be changed so she can't be identified.

Looking back on her GCSE revision, Lily admits she was her own worst enemy: “I was often over-ambitious and put too much on my schedule, and I wouldn’t schedule in breaks or downtime. I would even skip lunch sometimes so I could keep revising.”

Everything kicked up a level once she took her Year 11 mocks. Suddenly, her exams became very real. Lily started to feel that everything had to be perfect and became obsessive about re-writing her notes. “Instead of doing the average amount of things, I overdid it... I wrote tons and tons on a sheet of paper without thinking 'this is too much'. And it became overwhelming when I came to revise.”

I felt like I couldn't breathe, my body went numb and I felt I was outside my body looking back at myself.

Another thing Lily remembers doing was setting herself unrealistic targets and getting disheartened when she couldn’t achieve them. This would make her depressed and increase the anxiety she felt. As Lily's anxiety increased, she started to get panic attacks.

Dealing with anxiety

Lily was diagnosed with derealisation, a dissociative disorder triggered by the exam anxiety she was suffering from.

“My school was good at mental health support,” says Lily. They provided her with access to sessions with the school councillor and offered her practical solutions, such as not having to take her exams in the school hall with the other students. That meant that if she did get a panic attack in an exam, she could easily exit the room. “I didn’t end up having to take breaks, but knowing that I had that option made me calmer.”

It all fell apart

Despite Lily’s best efforts to control her anxiety she didn’t get the results she had hoped for. She was rejected from the college of her dreams and, for a while, was utterly devastated.

“When you are in the moment, actually getting your results, it’s a very tough time. You lose perspective. I felt like people were judging me and I was judging myself.”

It was tough for Lily to see her friends moving on and not being able to join them. It was also hard dealing with the feeling that she had let everyone down and, even though her family assured her that she hadn’t and that they were proud of her, she still has some doubts.

Gaining perspective

Before, I thought, 'if I don’t get these grades my life is ruined. I won’t get into uni or the job I want.' Now I know better.

It took a while before Lily could get things into perspective, look at all her options and make the decision to re-take her exams.

"When you are doing your GCSEs all you think is ‘I want to do well, I want to do well’. I feel like I should have looked at my grades and thought of my options."

When Lily started work towards her re-sits, she found she was still getting stressed. “I realised I was still making the same mistake. So for three days of the week, I stopped trying to study and instead looked at my options. It helped inform me about my choices and showed me, even if I didn’t get the grades I wanted, I still had other amazing choices, so it calmed me down.”

“I am not going to lie,” Lily says, “it’s tough. You might cry a bit, in the moment it feels like the end of the world – give yourself time and it gets better.

There ARE options. At school I had a person who I could book an appointment with and she went through all my options.” Lily’s advice is to make the most of the resources you have to help you make an informed decision: “You always have a choice, whether it’s retaking like I did, an apprenticeship or BTEC.”

Looking to the future

This time round Lily is taking a more philosophical point of view of her results day experience: “What I went through was really tough, so whatever I go through now doesn’t seem too tough so it’s easier to cope with.”

And whatever grades Lily gets, she knows she has options. “I know I'm not going to get perfect grades... I did try hard, I wasn’t perfect, I still had panic attacks, but I have learnt to cope with it on my own . Even if I don’t get the grades I want, I feel like I have other routes."

As long as I can do what I want, I don’t care about the route.

She also has a back-up plan. “The first time I was so certain that I was going to get into my first choice of college that all the colleges I applied for required high grades. This time I have applied for a range of colleges so I have a back-up plan.”

“Once, speaking to my counsellor, she told me there is always light at the end of the tunnel. I remember thinking that was such a cheesy and clichéd thing to say. But truth be told, when it’s all over you actually can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Looking ahead, the future looks bright.

If you need support

You should always tell someone about the things you’re worried about. You can tell a friend, parent, guardian, teacher or another trusted adult. If you're struggling with your mental health, going to your GP can be a good place to start to find help. Your GP can let you know what support is available to you, suggest different types of treatment and offer regular check-ups to see how you’re doing.

If you're in need of in-the-moment support you can contact Shout 85258. It's a free, 24/7 text messenger support service for anyone in the UK. Text the word “SHOUT” to 85258 to start a conversation.

There are more links to helpful organisations on BBC Action Line.

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Results: How to bounce back