The stress chemicals that propel our body and brain into a brilliant, fizzing state of readiness for action sometimes over-react. It’s not clear why some people tip into panic while others stay outwardly calm and perform perfectly under pressure, but there’s likely a combination of factors, such as:
- How others behave around us
- Existing levels of stress
- Past experience
- How we feel on the day
Occasionally, the result goes beyond the sort of panic we’ve all experienced and becomes a full-blown “panic attack”. A panic attack can happen out of the blue, when you aren’t even facing a stressful situation. You can think you’re dying. (You’re not.) If someone has several of these, a GP may diagnose panic disorder, and recommend talking therapy or other remedies. The breathing strategy I give below will help in the early stages of a panic attack, but I recommend sufferers see a doctor, because by the time genuine panic has taken hold, the breathing strategy probably won’t make enough difference.
So, back to a more “normal” type of panic and especially in relation to exams…
You’ll remember it, that feeling when you open the exam paper and find you can’t answer the first question. Or the second. By then, you’re in such a state that you think you can’t answer the third either.
Or perhaps the moment of horrible panic comes the day before the exam, when you suddenly realise you’ve forgotten to revise something.
Whenever panic clutches us – and this doesn’t just apply to exams but any point in our lives – we need an instant strategy to calm down the chemicals that are making us over-stressed. Nervousness is good (and helps us perform at our best), but panic is not. Panic is an extreme state of nervousness which stops us thinking straight.
Anti-panic strategy begins with breathing. When we’re stressed or panicking, breathing becomes imperfect. We tense stomach muscles and our breathing moves to the top of our chest. The answer to this is to move our breathing downwards. Some people call it belly-breathing.
So, try this now and then you can teach it to your pupils:
- Put one hand high on your chest and the other on your stomach. If you are breathing in a relaxed fashion, the lower hand will move more, and the one on your chest hardly at all. If you make the lower hand move more as you breathe, you’ll find that other muscles, for example in your shoulders, relax, too. Do this for a few breaths and notice how your body relaxes more as you let your stomach go soft and relaxed.
- Now you are ready to learn this simple relaxation exercise. You can use this freely and copy it for pupils. Once they’ve practised a few times, they won’t need to listen any more and can do it on their own.
That exercise can be used throughout life and no one knows you’re even doing it.
A great way to start and finish each school day and a brilliant way to wind down before sleep.
Nicola Morgan is an award-winning writer for teenagers and the author of Blame My Brain and The Teenage Guide to Stress. She offers training on aspects of adolescence and has created Brain Sticks™, teaching resources about the brain and mental health. Nicola is proud to be a co-author of Collins GCSE Study Skills publishing September 2015. See more here.