Panic attacks in tests, stopping panic attacks with Eleni Vardaki

Panic Attacks in Tests and Exams (Grade 7)

WHAT’S THE ISSUE: Having panic attacks in tests or exams is NOT a life sentence. Modern Psychology has advanced in leaps and bounds. We now have a gentle, powerful mindfulness technique called EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) Tapping that can yield quicker, more long-term results when working with panic attacks than talk therapy. 

In this article, you will journey with a 7th grader who was ready wanted to work on overcoming her test/exam-related panic attacks with me. To cover the full secondary school range, and to illustrate the importance of meeting kid where they are at, I’ve also written an article on the journey of a 12th grader who was ready to work on overcoming his test/exam-related panic attacks. 

These two case studies illustrate how much of an impact the class/school environment can have on student well-being. And in both cases, the students had supportive and open-minded parents, willing to proactively invest in their child’s positive mental health and well-being rather than risk letting it escalate into a mental illness, like a panic disorder.

PANIC ATTACKS IN TESTS: A 7th GRADE STUDENT'S JOURNEY

THE STARTING POINT

Zara” had only been in her new school for a few months when the pandemic hit. She was  experiencing a lot of anxiety. She was having recurring meltdowns at the thought of sitting the end of year exams after schools reopened. She was panicking and crying in class during tests.

Zara’s dad reached out to see if I could help his daughter. She had dyslexia, which had made test-taking and completing class assignments in certain subjects particularly stressful, even pre-pandemic. Zara’s dad was aware that some of her teachers were using old-school fear and shaming tactics on their students. 

Zara wasn’t alone in struggling with exam-related panic attacks and big emotions; the school psychologist was trying her best to meet the increased demand for support, but only had the capacity to see Zara and her other schoolmates for two brief sessions, before the exams began. Her dad had tried taking Zara to a local talk therapist, but Zara didn’t want to keep going because she was finding it too painful to have to talk about her problem. She felt embarrassed talking about her problem, and she was frustrated by the slow pace of progress. She didn’t want to talk about it.

I explained that it wasn’t necessary for Zara to talk about her problem for tapping to work. As long as Zara was open to getting out of her comfort zone to try a new self-soothing stress management technique with me via Zoom, she could still get relief. We didn’t even need to have the camera on for the tapping to work.  

Zara’s parents were trauma-informed. They were aware of the fact that working on processing traumatic levels of stress and big emotions takes time. So they decided to invest in my 12-session mentoring and EFT therapy package deal.  

INTERVENTION PART I: EFT THERAPY SESSIONS FOR BODY AND EMOTIONAL AWAReNESS

In the first 3 sessions, Zara and I used a trauma-informed principle of simply calling it “this problem” while we tapped. This helped to create a psychologically safe space for us to gently creep up on the problem. Tapping helped her to self-regulate her stress response so that she could increase her body awareness as she noticed what came up in her body when she thought of “this problem”. Sure enough, what came up was a painful discomfort in her throat that made it hard for her to talk. This was the first stress response we needed to clear, so that it stopped triggering so much stress and discomfort in Zara’s body. 

In the first EFT tapping session, Zara reported that the stress at the thought of talking about “this problem” felt like a 7/10, the tension in her throat that occurred at the thought of talking about it felt like an 8/10, and the thought “I don’t feel comfortable talking about it” felt like a 9/10. We tapped and laughed about the fact that it was no wonder talk therapy had been so painful for her – even the thought of talking about it caused her throat to tense up from stress! The more we tapped, the better she felt as the throat pain reduced from what she said felt like a “bowling ball stuck in my throat” to “now it feels more like a tennis ball” to “now it feels more like a ping pong ball”…to a 0.5/10 (“now I can barely feel it”). As a result, the thought “I don’t feel comfortable talking about it” dropped from a 9/10 to a 0/10. And the stress at the thought of talking about it went from an 8/10 to a 0. As those of us in the EFT therapy world know, for an aspect to be cleared at it’s root, it needs to be tapped down to a 0/10. 

In the second session, the stress and the physical discomfort in the throat at the thought of talking about “this problem” only went up to a 4/10. By the end of the session, the physical pain in the neck had dropped to a 1.7/10 after we did a technique called ‘Chase the Pain’, where we tapped on chasing the pain out of the body wherever it went (mostly bouncing back and forth between the stomach and the throat). The stress as the thought of talking about it had dropped to a 2.5/10, with the final thought that came up in his mind being “I’m actually pretty okay.”

At the start of the 3rd session, the throat pain was initially replaced by stomach pain (3/10), which soon ping ponged back and forth between the throat and the stomach. So we did more Chase The Pain tapping on that and any stressful emotions or thoughts that came up, until both the throat and stomach pain were down to a 0/10. At this point, Zara spontaneously started talking about her problem, comfortably, confidently – and without any need for me to initiate the conversation by asking about it. Her final thought at the end of the session: “I was worried about talking about it, but now it’s a 0/10. I’ve talked it!” 

Zara’s teachers weren’t aware of the damage that can be done when we tell a child to ‘stop crying’ and shut down her big, overwhelming panicky feelings in class. Over the years, Zara had been repeatedly shamed in class by some of her teachers for crying when she panicked and became overwhelming by big, unknown emotions during routine class tests (“Why are you crying over a test? It’s just a test! Come on, this isn’t something to cry about. Stop crying”). This was also the case in her new school. 

Understandably, Zara’s throat had developed muscle memory; it automatically tensed up and shut down her ability to talk about all the overwhelming and confusing feelings when she had a panic attack and became overwhelmed. So the first part of our intervention focused on creating a safe therapeutic space that would counteract these memories of negative learning experiences by creating a positive learning environment where it was safe for Zara to express her true feelings, without fear of judgement.

INTERVENTION PART II: EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE LESSONS & GROWTH MINDSET TRAINING

Zara’s school ended up cancelling the end of year summer exams due to COVID. So took the opportunity to back track and process any old stress from traumatic experiences in the classroom where she’d been shamed for experiencing overwhelming big emotions.

We identified and worked on the core events/negative memories from negative assessment experiences in the classroom were neutralized and stopped triggering the stress response in Zara’s body, when she thought about them in the present moment. 

We then moved on to educational lessons that helped him expand his emotional vocabulary and Growth Mindset. Panic attacks and big overwhelming emotions are less scary when we know what’s going on. Being able to label an unknown sensation in our body reduces the fear of the unknown. Both Zara’s old school and her new school weren’t teaching their students stress management and emotional intelligence skills. Zara didn’t know how to identify emotional sensations in her body, like panic, anger, anxiety, sadness, overwhelm etc. Her emotional vocabulary was very limited when we first started working on it (‘uncomfortable’, was the closest it got when asked to describe an emotion that was behind the stress). 

Even adults who know that what they are experiencing is a panic attack feel scared and overwhelmed when it happens…imagine how scary and overwhelming it is for a child who hasn’t got the emotional literacy skills to label their scary unknown emotions. 

Zara was really keen to work on filling this Social and Emotional Learning gap in her education. She loved learning about the different ways that emotions could be grouped into different categories! She was also excited to learn more about how she can enjoy having more of a Growth Mindset to create a solid foundation for her emotional intelligence growth journey. 

During a Growth Mindset lesson, she realized that she already had a Growth Mindset in most areas of development. She just had a few areas in the Mixed Mindset category. So it was more about fine-tuning. No heavy-duty mindset work was needed; she didn’t have a Fixed Mindset.  

By the time we came to the end of this 12-session mentoring program, which was a mix of EFT tapping therapy sessions and mindfulness-based Social and Emotional lessons, Zara’s final thought as she reflected on this experience was this: 


“The school system definitely needs an update. It would be great to have an Emotional Intelligence class like this in school.” 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Grade 7 students are aware that the school system needs “an update”. Grade 12 students know that “I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.” Teachers are aware that the school system needs “an update”. Parents are aware that the school system needs “an update”. 

Schools and universities know that there is a well-being and mental health problem in mainstream education. Some may choose to play dumb. Act like they don’t see. Use impression management tactics to deflect, dismiss, minimize, or ‘brush things under the carpet’. But if you’re an educator right now, you know – there’s a problem. 

I meet teachers working in schools all over the world who don’t know what to say or do when a child in their class has as panic attack. They haven’t been trained in mindfulness-based Social and Emotional Learning practices. They aren’t trained to be trauma-informed educators, recognizing the signs that a child may be stuck in traumatic levels of stress that causing them to be unable to concentrate and complete an assignment or a test.

Without systematic training, and teachers/school leaders who are open to change, national and private schools systems cannot update. Teachers and school leaders in many countries around the world are very tired and stressed themselves. Updating an education system requires that teachers aren’t stuck in their ‘fight’, ‘flight’, or ‘burnout’ states, if they are to do their part by updating their classroom practice. Teacher well-being and adult SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) has to come before student well-being and SEL training for the updates to work.

I believe that systemic change also requires that teachers’ working conditions in some schools be improved. For example, hiring Substitute Teachers to stop burdening your teaching staff by forcing them to cover for other teachers when they are sick. Or even simply adding a 5 minute transition into your school’s timetable for teachers and students to get from one classroom to another in big schools. This is the basic kind of systemic change some schools need to consider, if they are to create a solid foundation for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) initiatives that work. 

The question is: What needs to happen for the teachers, school leaders, and (in the case of state schools) politicians who are open to change to get the support and resources they need to “update” their school systemsso that schools can become happier, healthier, less stressful environments for all? 

RESOURCES

About the author

Eleni Vardaki, private support with stress or anxiety

Eleni Vardaki works online to support parent, teacher, and student well-being. Her mission is to help bridge the gap between mainstream education and the wellbeing skills we need to thrive. She believes in doable, sustainable interventions for student wellbeing in school and family cultures that value student and community wellbeing.