Panic attacks in tests, stopping panic attacks with Eleni Vardaki

Panic Attacks in Tests and Exams (Grade 12)

WHAT’S THE ISSUE: Having panic attacks in tests and 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, I will share with the journey of a 12th grade student who overcame his panic attacks in tests and exams. To cover the full secondary school age range, and to illustrate the importance of meeting kids where they are at, I’ve also written an article on the journey of a 7th grade student’s experience with panic attacks

Both these kids had the full support of their parents, who were willing to proactively invest in their child’s positive mental health and well-being, rather than risk letting things escalate into a mental illness, like a panic disorder.

PANIC ATTACKS IN TESTS AND EXAMS: A 12th GRADE STUDENT'S JOURNEY

THE STARTING POINT

“Alejandro” was in his final year of high school, preparing to sit three rounds of important exams. He had 4 weeks left to prepare for his final exams (which would make up 30% of his final score), 7 months before he sat the last part (70% of his final university-entry score), and 9 months before he had to sit an additional 2 university entry exams for the country he wanted to study in. He was a conscientious student with good study and self-care habits. He’d just experienced a big panic attack in a routine Math test. His Math teacher was outside of the classroom when it happened, so he hadn’t noticed it. 

Alejandro’s mum reached out to see if I can support her son as he psychologically prepared for the first of the 3 rounds of exams. The big panic attack he experienced felt like it came out-of-the blue. It had made it impossible for him to remember any of what he had studied, even though he’d studied thoroughly for the test. He remembered having a similar panic attack that came out of the blue in a Philosophy mid-year exam when he was in 11th grade, but that was nowhere as overwhelming as the second panic attack. The bigger the panic attacks got, the harder it became for him to remember what he had studied in an exam, even though he’d studied well.

Alejandro’s parents trusted him to decide if he wanted to work on this problem with me via a 4-session or 12-session mentoring package. We only 4 weeks to go before he sat his first round of exams, and he was aware that the second panic attack had left him with a deep fear that it would happen again in the next exams. He was also aware that Math was his first exam, which might  trigger another panic attack. So he went for the 12-session mentoring program, and we started working on it together.

INTERVENTION PART I: GROUNDING, IDENTIFYING BLOCKING BELIEFS, AND AUTHENTIC EMOTIONAL EXPRESSION

The first 4 sessions were focused on using tapping and grounding techniques to reduce the intensity of the stress response when Alejandro thought of the first, small panic attack from 11th grade, and to identify the blocking beliefs that were formed after the second panic attack that were holding up the fear of getting another panic attack in the upcoming exams. 

Blocking beliefs:

Big panic attacks can be so overwhelming and stressful that they can trigger the traumatic stress response in our body. A common side-effect of traumatic stress experiences is that we can form negative, blocking/limiting beliefs about our ourselves and/or the world. In this case, the blocking beliefs Alejandro had formed after the second panic attack were:  

  • “I might get another panic attack in these upcoming exams” (felt 8.5/10 true)
  • “Because I’ve already had two panic attacks in tests/exams, this means I won’t be able to change this thought that it will happen again. So it will happen again in these exams.” (felt  8.5/10 true)

Resulting fears:

  • Fear that it might happen again in the upcoming exams (8.5/10)
  • Fear of failure / fear that he won’t do well in his exams (8.5/10)

It was clear that we needed to bring down the intensity of the blocking beliefs and the fear, if he were to avoid experiencing more panic attacks in tests/exams. In addition to fearing that he wouldn’t do well in his upcoming exams because of his belief that it would happen again, he was also fearing for his health more generally, as had never experienced anything like that before.

As we worked on processing the blocking beliefs, the fears, and the left over stress from the first, smaller panic attack, it became clear that the most recent panic attack had left his body with a lot of physiological stress. He was still carrying stress in his body that wasn’t just an emotional, psychosomatic stress block, but a biological Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) stress block. So we agreed to speak to his mum, who knew of a good local Reflexologist, and agreed to book a session to help release the biological component of the old traumatic stress before the start of his exams.

INTERVENTION PART II: MEMORY RETRIEVAL & NEUTRALIZING THE CORE TRAUMATIC MEMORY

We agreed to make the most of the the wait until Alejandro had his Reflexology session to pause our EFT therapy sessions and do a stress management techniques lesson. So in the 5th mentoring session, I led Alejandro through 10 different trauma-informed stress management techniques (grounding exercises, discrete ways to apply EFT in public while waiting for an exam to start or on the way to an exam, an Exam Success Visualisation exercise to help himself reprogram his mind for success, etc). He took notes to remember them all and reflect on which ones he liked, and how he would like to incorporate them into his exam revision strategy schedule. 

In the next EFT session, as we checked how confident and resourced he felt about going back to neutralize the negative charge of the core memory (the second panic attack) when the blocking belief was formed, he noticed a repressed memory come up. Ends up he had actually had 3 panic attacks in tests, not 2The first of the 3 panic attacks happened in a geography test in Grade 10. He’d pushed it to the back of his mind, because he didn’t want to think about it after it happened. 

Because it was the smallest panic attack of the 3, he felt confident revisiting that memory to neutralize it and understand what had happened. When he revisited that memory, he realized that what he had felt in that Geography test was actually his stressed out, dysregulated 10th Grade Geography teacher’s elevated stress levels, who seemed to be overly stressed and panicky about monitoring whether her students were cheating during the test. It wasn’t his panic and stress – it was the teacher’s panic that was repeatedly permeating him, and he had mistaken as his own; the panic would increased every time the teacher paced around the classroom and passed by his desk, and decreased every time she moved on to monitor the other students.

At that point, I asked him if he was curious to figure out which of the 9 types of stress response in the Enneagram he self-identified with; it was clear he had the powers of an empath and a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) who could feel other people’s energies deeply. He immediately and confidently self-identified as having the Type 9 Enneagram stress response. That’s when he realized that as the test anxiety and panic in the classroom increased around him from 10th, to 11th, to 12th grade, with the escalating pressure to perform in tests and exams, he had the power to feel all that panicky energy around him. It became harder to protect his own energy space – to prevent other people’s panic energy from entering and overwhelming his personal energy space. 

This insight was confirmed by the fact that he didn’t even have Test Anxiety; his PHCC Test Anxiety Questionnaire score was only a 20/50! Whereas the cut off point for having Test Anxiety is 35 points. Furthermore, when he felt resourced and confident enough for us to go back and neutralize the negative charge of the big panic attack using Trauma-Focused EFT in the 7th and 8th session, another aha moment happened – he felt sad, because even though his friends and classmates had also experienced panic attacks, he was the only one working it. As the traumatic memory was neutralized, he felt sad for them that they hadn’t yet ‘seen the light’ – seen that there was a way out of the darkness of test anxiety and panic.

The process of his transformation reminded him of “The Allegory of Plato’s Cave”, which he had learned about in his Ancient Greek Philosophy class; it felt like coming out of feeling trapped in Plato’s Cave, where all you can see is the scary shadows of reality (see images in video below, 3.30 minutes to 4.25 minutes), realizing how much more beautiful and peaceful reality is when you turn away from the shadows of reality, and see the light and the real objects themselves. Meanwhile, he was aware that his friends and classmates were still stuck in the cave of their old ways. Believing the limiting beliefs, perceiving the world through darkness and the shadows of reality.

Armed with these valuable insights, with the blocking belief “I might get another panic attack in these upcoming exams” now down to a 5/10, and the fear that it would happen again now down to a 4.5/10, we moved into the last phase of of the exam prep process: overcoming his fear of trying something different than his classmates on the day of an exam, to protect his energy and manage the exam stress.

INTERVENTION PART III: CREATING STRESS MANAGEMENT HABITS & BUILDING CONFIDENCE

In order to protect his energy from the inevitable elevated levels of stress, panic and anxiety in the environment around him, he needed to change his self-care and study habits on the day of a test/exam. Up until now, he had followed the crowd, and just did as his classmates did. He’d given in to the anxiety, panic and fear that he might forget what he’d studied by stress-studying outside the test room, all the way up to the very last minute before they were called in sit a test/exam. 

Now he knew he needed to make a conscious effort to manage his stress and anxiety on the day of an exam, and protect his energy. So he had to stop this old stress-inducing habit and become more aware of any signs in his body that he was being influenced by the panic around him, so that he could do something about it and nip it in the bud before it escalated into a panic attack. 

So in sessions 9 and 10, we tapped on any fears he had coming up that were stopping him from having the confidence to try something new and break this old habit, so that he could more confidently and pro-actively focus on managing the stress on his way to the exam, while entering the exam room, and while waiting for the exam to be handed out. By the 10th session, he’d formalized a plan for which of the stress management techniques he would practice on days when he had an exam, and had the confidence to follow through, albeit the risk that he was the only one in his class daring to get out of his comfort zone and try something new. 

By the end of the 10th session, with the Math exam coming up the next day, Alejandro’s fear that  “It will happen again, I will get another panic attack again” was only a 2.5/10, down from 8.5/10 in session 1. Alejandro went on to complete all 3 rounds of high-stakes exams without another panic attack. Despite the fact that the second round of exams was worth 70% of his total examination score, needed 2 EFT sessions before the exams started, and 2 booster sessions just to make sure he stayed calm and focused during the exam period. By the time he sat the third round of exams needed to get into his 1st choice university, he no longer needed booster sessions.    

Alejandro’s new, healthier beliefs after this journey of personal empowerment:

  • “I feel sad for my classmates, who aren’t aware that they are in the darkness because they don’t know of these methods. But I know that I need to free myself if I want to help others ‘see the light’ as well.”
  • “With enough trust in myself, and the right methods and guidance, I can achieve whatever goal I set myself.” 
  • “My entire future won’t be ruined if I don’t end up with an excellent score in one of my school subjects. If this possibility were to occur, I now realize it’s not so tragic, at the end of the day.”
Alejandro achieved an excellent overall score in his final exams. He’s now happily studying the subject he is passionate about in his first-choice university. 

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.