‌Exam panic

Feeling anxious or panicky is not a sign that you are about to fail an exam.

A panic attack is a severe experience of acute anxiety. Panic attacks come unexpectedly and if you do not know what is happening, you may think you are going mad, having a heart attack or about to die. Although panic attacks can be very frightening, they are not actually harmful.

What happens in your body is in response to, not the cause of, a sudden, excessive amount of adrenaline and other hormones in your bloodstream. If you wait the symptoms of panic subside and you will return to normal. As this can take a few minutes most people find it extremely difficult to just wait.

Your own fear of what is happening sets off further panic and more adrenaline is produced. You can become hypersensitive to your own bodily sensations and catastrophically misinterpret normal reactions to anxiety thus prolonging the panic.

Symptoms of panic

  • Fast, shallow breathing
  • Thumping, rapid heartbeat
  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Trembling
  • Breathlessness
  • Dry mouth or throat
  • Chest pain or tightness in the chest
  • Sweating profusely
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Feeling, or being, sick
  • Feeling very hot or very cold and shivery
  • Pins and needles
  • Feeling distant and disconnected from what is going on around you

Some of these sensations can be due to other things, such as sitting in a stuffy room or being hungry, dehydrated or in love! Remember, panic attacks are extremely unpleasant but not dangerous.

Dealing with panic

The best tactic is to try recognising what is happening and explain it to yourself in a more realistic way. In exams people panic because they tell themselves they do not have time to do so. But it is much better to spend five minutes calming down than 25 minutes fighting yourself and working ineffectively.

Panic attacks are cyclical self fulfilling prophecies: "I am panicking so I wont be able to do my exam, which makes me more panicky." It is important not to engage with the panic but to find ways to distract yourself and calm down.

Ways to calm yourself down

  • Remind yourself that your panic will end
  • Divert your attention (talk to someone, count backwards from 50, look at how different your thumb print is from your little finger print)
  • Consciously try to relax your whole body
  • Do something you find easy that makes you think (draw a doodle, write down your name backwards)
  • Talk directly to the panic: "Forget it, you are not winning, now go away"
  • Breathe slowly through your nose and make sure you exhale for as long as you inhale
  • Cup your hands over your nose and mouth to breathe in more carbon dioxide, which helps
  • Observe and explain your symptoms to yourself as mere anxiety reactions (eg "I'm dizzy because panic leads to constriction of the arteries to my brain")
  • Remind yourself that panic attacks are not actually dangerous, just unpleasant (like exams)
  • Think positive, coping thoughts such as "I know I can deal with this panic" or “I am going to relax my body and get through this"
  • Remind yourself of a similar situation which you survived and what helped then
  • Visualise a calm place or person and let yourself spend two minutes thinking about this
  • Focus on the present - think about what the person in front of you is wearing and whether it suits them, ponder whether you would do their hair differently
  • Consciously try to slow yourself down for a moment, breathe deeply but do not hold your breath
  • Do something physical - before an exam go for a walk or do a handstand; during an exam stretch your legs, roll your shoulders, lean back or look at the ceiling

Control your breathing

One of the most common causes of a panic attack is hyperventilation, or overbreathing. As our body tries to take in more oxygen (for the fight or flight response) our breathing rate increases as it would if we were running. But when anxious we tend to tense up, making our breathing shallower and faster such that our lungs cannot fully inflate with each breath. Shallow, rapid breathing and overbreathing disturb the balance of carbon dioxide in our bodies and can bring on symptoms of panic.

If you begin to feel panicky try to regulate your breathing. Slow, steady breathing will rapidly reduce panic sensations. Concentrate on breathing rather than the bodily sensations. Practise breathing like this so that you can do it when you need to. Breathing slowly and regularly in and out of a paper bag held over your mouth and nose for about 10 minutes works very well so carry one in your pocket. Cupping hands over your mouth and nose can also help increase carbon dioxide in the blood.

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