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What Do I Do if I Totally Freak Out in an Exam?

Totally freaking out in an exam is possible for any of us. I took about 20 exams during law school, and I was well prepared for all of them. I am not given to any extraordinary levels of anxiety. Still, I had a minor completely-freak-out moment on one exam. 

Biomechanics tell us why.  Part of my legal practice involves the subject matter of how police officers deal with stress, and the impact that stress can have on their mental and physical performance. The science of this topic is established and well known. In short, as your body incurs stress, your heartbeat tends to rise. As your heartbeat rises, your mental and physical functionality decreases. If your heart beat spikes suddenly, you will have the standard symptoms associated with a panic attack.

In short, your resting heart rate is 60 to 80 beats per minute (“bpm”). As your heart rate increases to 115 bpm, your fine motor skills–close control over your fingers and hands—begins to deteriorate. At 145 bpm your complex motor skills begin to go. At 160, your hearing starts decreasing and you begin to have tunnel vision. At 175 bpm, your cognitive processing completely breaks down, and you can have a “freezing up” sensation in which you have trouble taking any action. Stress and the body’s responses to it are powerful forces.

A high stress biomechanical reaction is not likely to happen very often in a law school, because in fact, your body is probably not sufficiently stressed out by an exam to have it happen. You also have had a certain amount of inoculation against exam anxiety, because if you are in law school, you have taken a lot of tests already.

Still, for whatever reason it can happen, and it does happen. As I said, for me, it only happened once. I have seen it happen to others. One guy in our class who was obviously smart enough to do the work washed out of law school two or three times because he could not handle the anxiety of exams.

What is there to do if it happens to you in an exam?

What I recommend to you is what I have heard recommended to my police officers by experts in the biomechanics of stress: breathe. For some reason, if you are under stress and begin to experience a heart rate surge, if you can get control of your breathing, you can stop an anxiety attack. As you begin to take long deliberate breaths, the body reacts by stopping the climb of the heart rate, and begins slowing your heart rate down.

That’s right. Biomechanics can work in your favor here. Take a series of deep breaths, and it will turn your heart rate back in the right direction. Your mind racing, your tunnel vision, your loss of fine motor functions; it will all return to normal. And it can stop as quickly as it started.

I didn’t know about all of this when it happened to me. But thankfully my intuitions about how to handle the situation proved correct. In my case something about the exam triggered an anxiety response. My face started getting flushed, I felt a little sweat develop on my face, and I felt cold.  My mind started to race a bit, and I could not concentrate. I developed some tunnel vision and started looking around trying to get my bearings. I could feel my heart beating. It was very odd.

The only other time I can remember this happening to me was when I was in El Salvador as a student during the civil war in 1989, and I realized that I was being followed by some scary looking character in a black suburban and dark sunglasses.

How is that for an analogy? A law school exam is like a murderous thug.

But when it happened to me in law school my intuitions saved the day. I started out the exam by drawing a blank after initially reading the question. For some reason I didn’t have any clue how to answer it. My anxiety attack had already taken me out of the game before I read the question. I started thinking to myself: “Self, you are not ready for this exam, you have no clue, you are running out of time, you need to get started, what are you doing?” and thoughts like that. I totally panicked.

Thankfully, I had enough sense to know that these were crazy thoughts, as the exam had just started, and I had plenty of time. I knew I knew the material. I had taken the drug. So what did I do? I decided I needed to remove any anxiety that was related to exam time pressure out of the equation.  I got up, turned and walked right out of the exam. I told myself: “Self, I don’t know where I am going, but I am not coming back until I am totally settled down, and we are going to have a big “do over” for the beginning of this exam.“

So that is what I did. I ended up going into the bathroom, splashed my whole head with cold water, dried myself off and walked around in the law school foyer area for about 10 minutes before I went back into the exam. I sat down, turned the exam back over, and restarted. All the anxiety was gone, and I did fine on the exam.

Knowing what I know now, I probably would just have sat there in the exam room and used deep breaths to reverse the panic attack I was having. But leaving the room worked just fine as well. The key idea is that if you get into a panic, you need to do something to totally jog yourself out of the mind-frame you are in, and then breathe your way to resetting your emotional state. Then rejoin the exam and perform like you have prepared for.

One Comment

  1. Person
    Posted November 1, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for writing this! I had to sit an exam a few weeks ago and I experienced tunnel vision and my hearing messed up, in the end I had to leave the exam but ever since I have been dreading my next exam, also the fear of not knowing whats wrong with me.. I couldnt find anything to explain this experience. So once
    Again thankyou for explaining this.

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