A PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF HOW AN ANXIETY ATTACK AFFECTED A STUDENT AND WHAT SHE DID IN THAT SITUATION
S.J. is a psychology graduate. Two years ago, during her second year (SY) of degree college, S.J. experienced an anxiety attack that led her to miss one of her End Semester exams. As a student in a high-pressure academic environment, this incident was significant for her. We interviewed S.J. about the circumstances and consequences of that incident.
Revathi: Can you tell me about that day?
S.J: The incident happened during our end semester examination in September. It was before our Social Psychology paper. We didn’t have a holiday before the exam. That day, I came home after giving another exam, and started preparing for the next day’s paper. I was okay all morning. It was around 2 pm that the anxiety started setting in. I was getting very anxious but I pushed through. I kept studying and studying. I hardly took any breaks the whole day. There was a lot to revise, a lot to do.
I think this is what the trigger was- I had a friend with whom I’d usually check in while studying. We’d discuss how much each of us were done with and what we were omitting. Stuff like that. That day, my friend told me that she was done with the majority of the portion. On the other hand, I had a lot left…
Maybe if I wasn’t already so anxious about everything else, I would have been able to complete all of it before I slept, and maybe I would have had a great paper. But that day, when she told me that she was nearly done, I started to freak out. I started crying.
I tried very hard to wipe my tears. I still remember- I was sitting on the bed and I was trying very hard to not cry and get back to studying but it wasn’t working. Every time I tried to go through the chapters, I was unable to register anything I read. It just kept getting worse. I could feel my heart beat very fast. I couldn’t stop crying. I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly. I felt like- this is it. I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to give the exam. I remember thinking, 'Why can’t I study? Why can’t I read through this? Why can’t I remember this?'
After that moment of anxiety passed, I tried to get back to studying but the crying would not stop. My brain kept telling me to try and try so I took 15 minute breaks, then 20 minute breaks and tried and tried, and it just wasn’t happening. Nothing was making sense.
This went on for a while. Just me, trying my best, crying it out, then trying again. I remember mom was in the next room. I went to the room at around 6.30 and I said, 'I can’t do it'. I was still crying. I had this really low, horrible feeling.
My parents were very supportive. They looked at me and said, 'Fine. You tried to study. It’s okay if you don’t give it. You can make that decision.' They were very understanding that day. They could have told me, 'It’s just an exam. You have to give it. We don’t care.' But it was nothing like that.
They just said, 'Its fine. If you're not able to give the paper despite your best efforts, don’t give it.'
Revathi: What set this particular exam apart from the others? Why do you think the anxiety attack happened at that particular time in your life?
S.J: Like I said, we had less than a day to prepare for it. Social Psychology, for me, was a difficult subject. There was a lot to remember- names and experiments and dates. It was too much to mug up. Also, at the time, there was a lot going on in my life. Everything was so… I don’t even recollect everything because things were very fuzzy. In August of that year, my parents were in a really bad accident. It was very stressful. That year, I was also a part of the planning committee of our college that year. There was too much happening at that time I guess.
Revathi: Did the idea of not giving your exam that day add to your anxiety in anyway?
S.J: Actually, no. The day the exam was supposed to happen was good for me. I didn’t regret not going for the paper. This is coming from somebody who always pushed herself to do her best, and has always been extremely competitive. I was especially competitive in school. Back then, I would have given the exam no matter what my condition was.
But this time, I didn’t care. I just took time to not do anything. I was fine. I didn’t care about what anybody would think, what my relatives would say, how it would look on my mark sheet. None of it. I was just happy with my decision because I know if I had given the exam, I would have blanked out.
There were some worries that occurred to me later on. The biggest fear I had was that I would not get the major that I wanted. I was very scared that I wouldn’t get it just because of ATKT. But it was alright- I spoke to my professors the first chance I got and we decided that I would give the exam the next year. I was surprised at how supportive and understanding some of the professors were. They very extremely empathetic and accommodating.
Of course, it bothered me sometimes that my friends were done with their exams while I felt a little… stagnant, like I couldn’t move on from this. I just wanted to get it done with and put it behind me. That was a little stressful.
Revathi: This was your first time having an anxiety attack. How did you deal with it afterwards?
S.J: After my exams ended, my mom took me to a psychiatrist we knew of. I told him all about what happened. He was very empathetic. He prescribed me some anti-anxiety medication. My mom sent me to a therapist as well. I went there for three months. I loved going because it made me feel extremely calm. She would make me do exercises that made me feel calm. They taught me things that I could do at home as well.
Revathi: There is a lot of stigma attached to taking medications for mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. What is your opinion on that?
S.J: I don’t think this is talked about a lot, but a lot of us love taking medications. We love it because it helps alleviate whatever the problem is. Since I started meds, I could stop overthinking things at night and sleep better. But sometimes, despite knowing how the meds helped me, I’d get guilty and worry about getting addicted to the pills, so I’d stop taking them. After a few days though, I’d experience extreme anxiety again. I wouldn’t be able to sleep and then in the middle of the night I’d give in and take the pill. I know there’s a lot of stigma attached to take meds and people think it’s bad, but for me, the medications made me feel great, feel okay, and helped me function.
Revathi: Academic stress is something a lot of students experience and get overwhelmed by. Is there any advice you would like to give to those who might find themselves in situations similar to yours?
S.J: I just want them to know that sometimes when something goes in a way that you did not expect, it could feel like the end of the world. It really isn’t. If something goes wrong, there’s going to be other options and opportunities that you will find. Try not to stress about exams because it’s not the end of the world if you can't give them.
Sometimes the pace that the rest of the world is moving at may not be the pace that suits you, and sometimes, instead of letting everyone else drag you along, you need to pause. That day, I decided that I needed to prioritise my mental health over my academics. I don’t regret that decision.
Today, the problem that seemed to so overwhelming at the time is nothing but a random college memory to me. My point is, no matter how bad a situation seems at the time, just know that you have the capacity to survive it all, especially if you have people in your life who have your back.
Have you ever faced an anxiety attack? What was your experience?
Be realistic in your expectations from others and depend on yourself for your own solutions