Students at a desk

How I Manage Panic Attacks During Exam Season

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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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How BuzzFeed's Podcast 'Another Round' Led to My Anxiety Diagnosis

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Two months ago, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

It was a diagnosis that was a long time coming. I’ve struggled my entire life with overwhelming and irrational thoughts, embarrassing nervous habits, and missing out on things due to debilitating nervousness. I was always written off as “quiet” or “shy,” and I accepted those characterizations.

But as I got older, my worries became all-consuming. I worried something terrible would happen to one of my children. I was afraid I was destroying all of my relationships. And I was so exhausted that I often wondered if life was worth living.

Mental illness is not something that has ever been talked about in my family. When you’re burnt out, you’re told to take a vitamin. When you’re overwhelmed, you’re told, “It’ll pass.” When you’re depressed, you’re told to pray and read your Bible.

Not saying those are bad ideas, but they just didn’t work for me.

About a year ago, I started listening to BuzzFeed’s “Another Round podcast. As I wrote in a previous blog post, hosts Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu have helped me through many slow work commutes, and have become part of my self-care routine.

But one thing in particular that strikes me about “Another Round” is how openly they talk about mental illness — especially anxiety and depression. Tracy talks openly about her experience with an anxiety disorder, her good and bad days. She’s written about her struggle, and she has advocated for the use of medication, if you need it.

For so long, I felt like needing help would make me seem “weak.” I’m someone who always appears to “have it together.” I have a good job. A great husband. Two beautiful, healthy daughters. So why, sometimes, does it seem like my world is crumbling around me? Why does it often feel like there’s someone sitting on my chest? And why have I always been too embarrassed to admit my problem to anyone — even to myself?

But hearing from people who face similar struggles —  especially strong, successful, “together” black women — counteracts years of shame I’ve carried because of the stigma of mental illness. When I listen to “Another Round,” I don’t just hear interesting stories about killer squirrels. I also hear that taking care of yourself is vital. I hear there is no shame in needing a little bit of help to get through life. I hear that I’m not “crazy.”

Admitting I needed help for my anxiety was not easy. I cried at my appointment as soon as my doctor asked if I had any concerns. I was tempted to fake a smile, nod and say I was OK, like I always did. But I had reached rock bottom and knew I couldn’t continue on like I had been.

And once my appointment was over and I left with a prescription for medication, I felt like the world had been lifted off my back.

It’s been two months since that appointment, and my life has changed drastically. My medication is working great and it’s like a fog has lifted from around my brain. I’m calmer. I’m happier. And although I still have bad days, I can manage and cope more effectively.

You never know where the encouragement you need is going to come from. It could come from someone you love. Or a stranger on the street. Or hosts of a BuzzFeed podcast.

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Photo via “Another Round” Facebook page.

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The Time I Went to a Party and Forgot I Had Anxiety

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Loud music, large crowds, drunken friends. Parties are usually something I fear.

Anxiety overrules my need for fun. It releases a whirlwind of all the negative possibilities that could occur, draining away any excitement I may possibly have. Discomfort consumes me, and when I feel uncomfortable, I become a wallflower.

I sit quietly, and I observe.

I watch as the girl who has had one drink too many, stumbles across the heaving room. I see friends laughing and gossiping. I see the guy across the hallway playing a practical joke on his puzzled friend. I see everyone around me enjoying themselves, without a care in the world.

I sit quietly, and I observe.

I can’t move, because if I move, the cloud I have perfectly positioned at a safe distance away, will rain over me. I can’t move, because if I move, the tide will ride in quickly, and I will drown in all the worries I have. I can’t move, because if I move, I will have to run, and run, and run… until I return to my safety net, where I am far away from panic and fear.

In the past, I have had to carefully judge situations to certify I’ll be protected. When I’d walk into a room, I would check for clear exits, and for a secure place I could escape to. I was constantly at unease. Luckily, it doesn’t need to be like that anymore.

I went to a party.

I went to a party, and I was the girl laughing and gossiping with her friends. I wasn’t the one observing. Instead, I was immersed in the energy and dynamics that lifted us all. The preceding thoughts I usually obtain to prepare myself for what I had always considered to be an inevitable “fight or flight” conclusion, never occurred. I didn’t need to reserve a safe place, because I felt safe at the party.

For once, I forgot I had anxiety.

It was only the next day, when a friend conveyed how proud of me she was, that I realized, I went to a party. And I had been OK. Years of anxiety, and the impossible became possible. Perhaps, I am not always the wallflower I thought I was.

I realized I am capable. I am strong enough to put aside my anxieties, and allow people to see me how I really am.

I know I am not defined by my anxiety.

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Thinkstock photo via criene.

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Why Climbing a Mountain Was a Lot Like My Anxiety

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I’ve always found it really difficult to explain my anxiety and the effect it has on me. Often I can’t even really understand it myself, therefore explaining it to others is near impossible.

I’ve been thinking of how to explain my struggle, and finally, I’ve cracked it. When in doubt, use a metaphor. So that’s what I’m doing.

It’s time to talk about the mountain I climb every day.

Let’s start off with a bit of context; last October, I climbed a mountain. It felt somewhat poetic to conquer this mountain towards what was the end of the worst year of my life. I thought climbing the mountain would be the perfect end to a dreadful year. Not only had I conquered this year, but I’d take it a step further and climb a mountain just because I could. My anxiety couldn’t touch this.

The day prior to climbing the mountain, a few of my housemates mocked me for thinking I could actually do it. Those words hurt, but more than anything they motivated me to prove them wrong. I started the climb with their words in my mind — I told myself I would do it, even if it was just to prove them wrong.

That determination didn’t last long — 20 minutes in and I was already struggling. I thought to myself that my housemates were right; if I was already struggling now, then why even bother to continue? I would never make it to the top. I might as well turn back now than in an hour or two after all that wasted effort. So I started to turn back — then I turned back again. I had to believe I could do this. I survived this past year, I could survive this small mountain!

So I started to climb again and within minutes I fell face first, but I just got up, dusted myself off and carried on. Eventually, I made it to the top. It was a struggle but I was so determined, I couldn’t feel the pain or the exhaustion. I had made it! And it felt amazing … for a total of two seconds. I realized I made it to the top, but that just meant I was only halfway. I still had to get all the way back down.

That’s when the intrusive thoughts started. I made it up without any injury, so the chances of getting hurt on the way down had surely doubled. It was a steep climb, so getting down meant I could easily slip and fall at any moment, right? I’d managed to get all this way up, but it didn’t matter because I was probably going to die on the way down. I’d never make it the rest of the way, I was doomed to fail.

This was the start of a two and a half hour panic attack on the way down this seemingly never-ending mountain. Struggling to breathe. Holding back my tears. Just wanting everything to end because it seemed like I’d never get to the bottom of this mountain and prolonging this pain just wasn’t worth it.

At the end of the day, for me, this had been one of the most emotionally exhausting days in a couple of months. To everyone else though, I’d just successfully climbed a mountain, what an achievement! Woo.

What’s this got to do with my daily experience of anxiety? Well, this is what I go through on most days. I may not literally climb a mountain, but all the mental aspects and struggles of climbing this mountain exist in my everyday life.

Those housemates who mocked me are the sound of my anxiety any time I try to do anything, telling me I’m not good enough. And every day I try to prove my anxiety wrong. I take those first steps even though they terrify me. I apply for that position I want, open myself up to people and have faith they won’t hurt me, speak up for myself and so much more.

There are obstacles and multiple times in a day I just want to give everything up, drop out of university, quit all my extracurricular responsibilities and stay in bed all day. But I fight. I do as much as I can. Even though I know that if I get that position, for example, I’ll only enjoy it for a second before I drive myself “crazy” thinking I’m not worthy of it. That one second is worth it; for that one second, I’m content before my anxiety ruins everything.

Every day, I climb a mountain and wonder how I’m going to survive this day. Every day, my anxiety exhausts me so much I consider giving up before the day has even started. Yet, every day I refuse to give up on myself and I try my best to get through the day no matter how exhausting it is. From an outside perspective, my life is a success; in reality, a struggle exists behind every single thing I do and I’m the only one who knows it.

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Image via contributor

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How I Use the Moon as a Metaphor for My Anxiety

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The moon. One side of our moon faces the sun while the other side is completely swept in darkness. The only side we ever see… the side that faces the sun, faces the light. To many, the moon is a symbol of a light in the darkness. We tell stories about the “man on the moon.” The Japanese say it is a rabbit.

What do you see?

It’s just the moon, though, right? Nothing special. It’s just there. It gives us some light in the darkness. Gazing at the harvest moon is a wondrous sight. We all see it, but do we really see?

Anxiety and the moon are quite alike.

Now, just wait and hear me out on this one.

(Really, this could apply to a whole host of “invisible illnesses.” So if you fall into the category of an “invisible illness,” keep reading.)

I see the moon hanging up there in the sky. It’s bright and beautiful, even when only a crescent. The moon is certainly not alone in the galaxy, either; a whole host of stars, planets, and other interstellar objects are around it. And not to mention, the billions of people living on this planet gaze up at it nearly every night. We write songs and stories about the moon. This moon is pretty popular, isn’t it?

But wait. Earlier I was just talking about the moon having a dark side. That couldn’t possibly be true, could it? Something so beautiful and so popular could not possibly have a side of it constantly cast in the shadows — a side we never see.

Think about all of the people we see on a day-to-day basis: co-workers, the people at the restaurant where we buy lunch, the UPS driver, nurses at the doctor’s office, the police officer directing traffic, that one lady in the blue Nissan who you meet on the road every morning you drive to work, sometimes even our friends and family. Unless they specifically tell us or let us see (not unlike before we learn that we only see one side of the moon), how are we to know that part of them is also cast into a shadow? We would never see it.

It’s amazing how we can hide our troubles. It’s amazing how we can go years directly facing the sun so our backs are figuratively constantly in a shadow. It’s amazing how people only see what is in front and can easily be completely unknowing of this shadow.

Anxiety happens. It knows no boundaries.

 

Our human minds are either in the dark or facing the sun. We often choose to forget that the moon even has a dark side in the first place. People tell us, but we choose to ignore them. It doesn’t really matter, does it?

Yes. It certainly matters.

And I am also here to tell you that you matter. If you too have a side cast in darkness that you hide from the rest of the world, I’m here to tell you that I get it. And I sincerely hope using this metaphor will help you understand those who live with invisible illnesses. There’s a reason they choose to hide this side. There’s a reason some people choose to ignore it. There’s a reason for everything.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Photo by Angelina Litvin, via Unsplash

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Why I Dream About Taking Off the 'Mask' That Hides My Mental Illness

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I have worn my mask for so long that it fits like a second skin and I often feel naked without it. I like what I look like with my mask on, it hides the parts of me that aren’t very pretty. I don’t go out in public without wearing it like a coat of armor for protection. It is not only physical in nature — it manifests itself in my behavior as well. My mask is one of happiness: smiles, energy and laughter. My mask is also one of strength: confidence, determination and toughness. I wear it to hide my truth.

What is it that I’m hiding? What do I look like underneath? Below the surface, I am a woman battling mental illness. My mask hides anxiety: fear, racing thoughts and panic attacks. My mask hides depression: hopelessness, sadness and tears.

When my mask is on, I am invincible. I can light up a room and be the person I wish I could be.

I don’t wear a mask because I am ashamed of myself and my illness, I wear a mask because I am too proud of myself to allow my mental health to stop me from living.

My mask has been a part of me for years, but it is not all of me. I have donned my mask for so long and it has been repaired many times. Perhaps that is why it slips down sometimes and I let some of what is hidden, show. When I let my mask slip for too long, I start to feel vulnerable and I pull it right back up. If I don’t like what lies underneath, what will others think of what they see?

People like the “fun me,” the woman who has it all together. But if they could see even half of what I feel, I don’t think they would know what to do with me. I don’t often know what to do with me… So I wear my mask not only to protect myself, but to protect others from the real me. I don’t want to lose my friends and loved ones, and I don’t want to put them in the position of having to leave me because I am not who they thought I was.

Lately I have seen my mask start to crack, and that scares me. At the same time, I dream about how liberating it would be for the mask to crumble so I could just be me — all of me. To be able to celebrate my strengths, while embracing the weaknesses I work so hard to overcome, would be so much easier than suffocating behind my mask.

I took my mask completely off recently. It was scary to allow myself to trust completely and to be so vulnerable, but it was also liberating, beautiful and so very special to finally feel safe enough to do so. To be seen for who I am — anxiety and depression included — and to be accepted and embraced, is a powerful and humbling experience. It was like feeling the sun shine on my face for the first time.

But then the fear of getting burned became too strong, and I wear my mask once more.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via Victor_Tongdee.

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