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.
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.
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.
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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