Panic Attacks During Examinations

Every child wants to do well in school. Who doesn’t?

However, when a child meets an obstacle, she may not know how to overcome it. The problem seems to be so much bigger than her. The problem gets blown out of proportion. Soon she felt helpless.  When no help is given, she may gradually lose hope.

I would like to share with you my experience with a girl I coached who regularly experienced panic attacks during exams.

I worked with her and tried to understand the underlying causes of her fears.

To her, examinations are her greatest nightmares.  While her parents had always been very supportive and encouraging, she had this fear of being scolded by her mother. Sometimes, she grew so scared that she would cry herself to sleep.

This year, 2 weeks before her SA1, she started to panic again.  She created all the bad mental pictures of her mother scolding her while she’s standing at the corner of her room, holding her Math exam paper with a big fat zero written in the marks column.

As the exam approached, it got worse.  The night before the exam, she couldn’t sleep and she tried counting sheep till about 4am before she eventually dozed off out of sheer exhaustion.  Her pillow was drenched in tears.

As she stepped into the classroom, her chest felt tight and she was feeling breathless.  As she sat on her chair and taking her pen out of her pencil case, her hands were shivering and her palms were wet.

“What’s going on???”  Her mind was in turmoil and she wanted to run out of the classroom.  But she knew she had to stay.  “My mom will scold me if she knows that I left the exam hall.”

It was tortous to sit through the paper.  While she knew she studied hard and knew her stuff, she just couldn’t seem to think properly. Her thoughts were swirling in her head with only images of the various kind of punishment she would get from her mother after she failed this paper.

In her mind, she had already decided that she will fail this paper.

When the teacher announced that the time was up, she was relieved that it was over.  But her happiness only lasted for a few seconds.

While casually flipping through her Paper 2, she realised she had left almost half of them completely blank!

Again, that sudden calmness in her surged into the zone of anxiety and she felt a sense of coldness rushing through her spine.

She knew she had been right all along – she’s going to fail.  Her prophecy had finally come through.  So, she knew she could predict her future – she would always fail her Math.  She would always panic during the examinations.  This defined how she thought of herself.

She told me this haltingly, fearing how I would respond.  Would I judge her?  Would I would inform her mother and get her into trouble?

The most common words I heard was “unsure”, “very scared”, “nervous”, and “regretful”.

“What were you regretful about?” I asked her.

“I was regretful that I was careless.”

“What made you think you were careless?” I asked again.

“Because my mother said so…So I believe I’m careless.”

So parents, what do you think is the cause of this girl’s panic attacks?

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