Put panic in its place

May 02, 2017
Anxiety can strike anyone, anywhere and at any time. With exams just around the corner, here are some tips to help you keep anxiety at bay and – should you need to – deal with an anxiety attack when it arises.

Words by Dawn Leane

“His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy; there’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti; he’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready to drop bombs; but he keeps on forgetting what he wrote down...” Ok, so you’re facing your professional exams, not a rap battle… but under certain circumstances, anyone can be visited by anxiety and panic.

A healthy lifestyle and good study practice are essential in the lead-up to the exam. On the day of the exam, however, apart from a few practicalities, your psyche is really the only thing within your control.

Anxiety causes cognitive processes to believe negative self-talk such as “I haven’t done enough”. In such a scenario, a cycle of physical reactions and heightened anxiety quickly becomes established. This cycle can be broken with practised interventions and it’s important to prepare these in advance. These strategies can be carried into your future career and will benefit you in interviews, presentations and public speaking.

Before the exam

On the day of the exam, avoid studying any new topics as this may impair your ability to remember what you’ve learned. Don’t study for the last hour before the exam and most importantly, keep away from other anxious people.

Take a bottle of water, some nuts or fruit, and a slow release carbohydrate into the exam. Avoid sugary snacks that will lead to a quick high followed by a slump.

In the exam hall

It’s natural to feel nerves prior to starting the exam, but excessive nervousness is counterproductive. Give yourself time to settle and use a breathing exercise to calm yourself before you turn over the exam paper.

Take time to read through all the questions and instructions carefully. Make sure you get a firm grasp of the questions and what’s required of you.

Then, prioritise what needs to be done, divide your time according to the importance of the questions, and answer the easiest questions first. This will guarantee marks in the least amount of time and help build your confidence. Don’t rush through the exam and regularly check the time.

When anxiety strikes…

  • If panic sets in or your mind goes blank, close your eyes and take several long, slow and deep breaths. This will help calm your entire nervous system. Then:
  • Identify the feeling and own it; remind yourself that your panic will end;
  • Set aside three minutes to divert your attention away from the panic; think about something unrelated to the exam;
  • Use the mini-relaxation exercises you have been practising;
  • Think positive and repeat coping thoughts such as, “I know I can deal with this”; 
  • Remind yourself of a similar situation which you survived;
  • Remind yourself of your past successes, especially exam achievements; and
  • Visualise yourself feeling more relaxed and able to get through the questions.

If you still can’t remember the information, then move on to another question and return to this question later if time allows. If you feel unwell, on the other hand, call the invigilator. They are there to help you and are experienced in dealing with such situations.

And remember, it’s only an exam! Of course you want to do well, but it’s not a life or death matter. In fact, resilience is a key component of leadership. Behavioural psychologist, Albert Bandura, suggests that “if people experience only easy successes, they can come to expect quick results and are easily discouraged by failure… the route to high attainments is strewn with failure and setbacks. Success is achieved by learning from mistakes.”

If you suffer from anxiety, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can really help. Further information and support is available from Reachout, Spunout and Chartered Accountants Support.

Dawn Leane is Director of People and Resources at Chartered Accountants Ireland and Coordinator at Chartered Accountants Support.