Exams and the days leading up to the exam can be a period of time riled with nervousness, fear and concern — there’s the expectation to do your best. With all this stress and anxiety lingering, how do you stop a potential panic attack?
It’s easy to get overwhelmed and even for students who feel prepared, they may unexpectedly experience a panic attack during an exam. With the advice of school counsellor and psychologist, Kara Binstadt, this article will guide you through the things you should know about panic attacks, grounding techniques and what it means to have a panic attack.
Read on to find out more.
What is a panic attack?
“A panic attack is a periodic, short bout of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes and gradually passes,” Kara says.
Experiencing a panic attack can be an intense experience. Because they are relatively uncommon, some people might not know what they’re feeling when it comes.
Kara tells us that a panic attack will have at least four of the following symptoms:
- Accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Sensations of shortness of breath
- Feelings of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady or light hearted
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Feelings of unreality
However, panic attacks do not last long nor are they life threatening!
Now that you know how to identify one, we’ll walk you through some techniques to help you get through a panic attack.
How to Stop a Panic Attack During an Exam
It’s normal to feel scared in the face of a panic attack. “It’s unsurprising that during a panic attack many people fear they will lose control or ‘go crazy’,” Kara says.
“It can be difficult to stop a panic attack in its tracks, but there are some techniques to stop or cope with a panic attack,” she adds.
In the case that you have a panic attack during an exam, you can choose to stay in your seat or let yourself out of the exam room when feeling the wave of the panic attack — do what is best for you and don’t worry about what the people around you will think.
Techniques rooted in mindfulness can lessen the intensity of the experience. Kara has three tips:
As said above, panic attacks are relatively uncommon, and not knowing that you’re experiencing a panic attack or its symptoms can make experiencing one all the more daunting.
“Know the signs and identify you are having an anxiety attack,” Kara says, “and remind yourself it will pass soon and that you are okay.”
Talking logically to yourself can be helpful; repeat to yourself that it’s going to be okay, and go through what might be causing your panic attack in your mind.
It might seem an obvious point but, during a panic attack, it’s easy to forget. However hard it might be during a panic attack, taking big slow and deep breaths really helps.
“Slowing your breathing can slow your heart rate,” Kara explains.
Practicing the box-breathing technique can ground your awareness. This consists of breathing in for four seconds, holding for another four, exhaling for four seconds and holding for another four.
During this, just try to focus on your breathing and let go of other thoughts that may be causing you to be anxious. Be intentional with your breathing.
#3: Be present
“Try to focus on your surroundings and be in the present with some grounding techniques,” Kara says.
There is a wide range of grounding techniques and they might work variously depending on the person. Some may work better, some not so much.
Kara gives two examples:
- “5-4-3-2-1” method: Think of 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel or touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.
- Muscle relaxation: Tense one muscle at a time and then relax it starting with your fingers and working your way to larger body parts. Repeat these techniques until your body is relaxed. It is best to have practiced this technique first.
This will help you to slow down your thoughts, and really just be attentive to yourself — in order to feel calm.
If you’ve experienced a panic attack, you might firstly have many questions about what it means for your mental health.
“Panic attacks can be experienced by most people but a panic attack does not mean you have an anxiety disorder,” Kara says.
“Most people are capable of experiencing a panic attack when faced with something they dread, but only few people will suffer from or be diagnosed with panic disorder. Anxiety disorders are not caused by having to sit exams. Rather, experiencing increased anxiety around exam time is to be expected and not necessarily indicative of an anxiety disorder,” she explains.
If you continue to have panic attacks or have concerns about the way your anxiety affects your daily life, it’s recommended to seek professional support. For resources/organisations you can turn to for your mental health, you can head here.
Throughout exam preparation, attending the exam and afterwards, it’s important to release the feeling of dread. Being kind to yourself and releasing your attachment to any expectations can be a great starting point.
Lynn Chen is a Content Writer at Art of Smart Education and is a Communication student at UTS with a major in Creative Writing. Lynn’s articles have been published in Vertigo, The Comma, and Shut Up and Go. In her spare time, she also writes poetry.