How I Manage Panic Attacks During Exam Season


I’m trapped. The room is closing in and the walls are pressing against me. My desk is pushed against my knees and my exam paper pushes against my chest. I can’t breathe.

Today I faced my first exam for the year. And, after that, I don’t think I can do the rest. The actual exam, the knowledge and the questions: all fine. But in that room; behind that desk – I’m trapped. All I wanted to do was stand up and scream as I made my way out of those four walls closing in so quickly.

But that’s not what I did. I’ve lived through panic attacks in worse situations, and one exam wasn’t going to be the end of me facing them head on. When the sea is churning and it feels like I’m being lost under the waves, being pushed further and further down into the darkness. When I can no longer breathe and it gets to be just a little bit too much; I’ve learnt to take a step back, take a deep breath, and rise out of the sea and back to shore.

Exams can easily make me and many others living with anxiety feel like we’re trapped beneath the waves, unable to surface. But that is simply not the case. Our normal coping techniques may well fly out the window, but that doesn’t mean there are none for us to use. So take a deep breath, and read these pointers about how to cope in your exams now, and in years to come.

1. Focus on the present.

Grounding is something I have always found effective when reducing a panic attack, and although you are stuck at a single desk in the exam hall, grounding can still be effective. Move your feet slowly under your desk, feel the ground beneath you. Look around (only in front of you, this is an exam after all) and find something to focus on, to remind you that you are not drowning, but safe.

2. Take a moment to regulate your breathing.

A few minutes taken to calm yourself down are better spent than 25 taken to pretend that you are fine. Take deep breathes, use breathing exercises you may normally use to help a panic attack and take the time to return to a fit state to take your exam.

3. Remember that you are not in danger.

A panic attack, although unpleasant (like exams), are not dangerous, and you will be OK. You can breathe, you are not trapped, and you will be OK. Remind yourself of when you have gone through and emerged from a panic attack before, and remember what you did then to help you now, if you can do it in the exam.

But it’s not just about what you can do during an exam if you feel a panic attack starting — you can prepare. Wearing comfortable clothing (if your school or college allows this) can help you feel relaxed and more comfortable both before and during the exam. Wearing jewelry that can be moved, spun or simply fiddled with can also be a great help to give you something to channel through. I personally have a fidget ring that I always wear and take into exams with me, and one of my friends has the most adorable dragon necklace that has a ball inside that can be spun. Sometimes just having this on hand can help you to regain control and focus, not just in exams but in everyday life.

So remember, exams may make you feel like you are trapped, but the reality is they are just an hour or two we can all make it through. I believe in you. And if I can make it through my first exam for the year, you can too.

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Thinkstock photo via shironosov

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