For any UP student, June can be an incredibly stressful time. Most of your time is spent studying for, or worrying about your exams. The last thing a student needs is for all that stress and worry to build up and result in a panic attack during their paper. These panic attacks tend to happen unexpectedly, and involve feelings of intense discomfort or fear, while other symptoms include a lack of concentration, shortness of breath, profuse sweating, increased heart rate, and trembling. Yolanda Nongauza, a counsellor at UP Student Support, defines test anxiety as “an unpleasant state characterised by feelings of tension and apprehension, worrisome thoughts, and the activation of the autonomic nervous system when an individual faces evaluative achievement demanding situations”.

Nongauza says that test anxiety is situation specific, which leads to differences in the extent to which an individual finds examinations threatening. She adds, “Within this general conceptualisation there are broad and narrow definitions. Narrow definitions focus on fear of failure (emphasising how performance is judged), or evaluation anxiety (emphasising how test anxiety can be located with other so-called subclinical anxieties including sports performance, public speaking, and so forth). These emphasise a social dimension where the performance is judged by others”. Nongauza further added, “Fear of exams and test situations is widespread and appears to become more prevalent. Test anxiety may have a detrimental effect on test performance. If an examination particularly affects the person’s future opportunities, it may be even more stressful”.

An automatic reaction for someone experiencing a panic attack in a lecture hall could be to run, but there are alternative reactions. According to Nongauza, “One of the suggested methods to reduce anxiety is relaxation, of which one of the most applicable techniques is progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). PMR or active relaxation, is a technique in which the individuals attain relaxation through active contraction of a group of special muscles and then release them in a progressive manner. Based on new research, complete relaxation can be experienced as a result of practicing this technique for at least four or five sessions”.

There are things a student can do which can increase or decrease the chance of a panic attack during an exam. Poor preparation and procrastination can have an influence, as going into an exam knowing you are underprepared can lead to a fear of failure, resulting in a panic attack. Nongauza says that having a study plan can help students be more prepared, as they will know how much time they have to study. “Start sooner rather than later – stress increases as exams get closer, so do not put yourself under unnecessary stress,” Nongauza said, adding, “Have a sleeping and eating routine, and be physically active. This will improve concentration and motivation to study; you will not feel tired and exhausted”.

Illustration: Michelle Hartzenberg.

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