It’s every GMAT-taker’s nightmare. You sit down to the same kinds of problems you’ve aced on the practice tests a dozen times. And all of a sudden, you can’t figure them out. You can barely remember your own name. Your heart pounds. Your hands and legs shake. Your stomach ties itself in knots and your mouth dries. You might have trouble breathing, or feel like someone is sitting on your chest. Panic attacks are very scary, especially if you don’t know what’s happening to you. The pressure on your chest and labored breathing are easy to mistake for heart attack symptoms. It can feel like you’re seriously ill or even dying.
How do you break the panic cycle?
The good news is that with a little practice, you can bring yourself out of any anxiety experience quickly. Even severe panic attacks can pass as swiftly as they came if you can relax yourself during them. There’s no wrong way to relax yourself. Whatever your preferred method is, you want to practice it regularly. Your fight-or-flight reflexes are fast, and our conscious mind is slow. The rush of adrenaline you get in a panic attack can itself be stressful and can set off new wave of panic. It’s best to head these situations off at the pass with a well-practiced relaxation routine.
The most important thing to remember in a panic attack is to be forgiving of yourself. Bullying yourself only makes you more anxious. Mentally yelling at yourself to calm down, get a grip, or snap out of it doesn’t work. Very often it makes the situation worse.
The next most important thing is to breathe. Yes, you’re breathing already. But if you focus your attention on your breathing, it can powerfully and swiftly relax you. Breathe slowly and deeply, through your nose, all the way in and all the way out. Count to five on each inhale and five on each exhale. Focus all of your attention on the immediate breath, and try to not think about anything else. If you’re alone, hum on the exhales. If you have music on, hum along. If you’re in the car, try to match the pitch of the engine noise. You can hum along with your fridge, air conditioning, or any other continuous environmental noise. The effort of identifying this pitch and humming it is very relaxing, and by filling your attention with it, you crowd out your anxious thoughts.
Once you’re breathing slowly, try some progressive relaxation. Lie on the floor or other flat surface. Start with your toes. Clench them as hard as possible for a few seconds, then relax them as much as possible. Do the same with the arches of your feet, then your ankles, calves, quads and so on. Work your way up, doing each muscle group in turn, finishing with your face–jaw, eyes, forehead. Breathe slowly the entire time.
You can extend the progressive relaxation technique with stretching. Yoga, running stretches, and martial arts practice are all good ways to get the muscles elongated. Lying on the floor is itself an effective back stretch. Lying on the floor face down with your head facing to the side is a great neck stretch – breathe slowly, and switch your head to the opposite side every ten breaths.
A lot of anxiety is caused by a feeling of uncertainty. It helps to mentally reassert the aspects of the situation that you’re certain about. Acceptance feels better than avoidance. Remind yourself that the only way out is through. Focus on the moment of experience rather than the future. Focus on process rather than results. Remind yourself that nothing catastrophic is going to happen. Worst comes to worse, you take the test again. Focus on realistic outcomes rather than dark fantasies. You took the practice tests, you paid attention in class, you put in regular study time. Your default state is high-performance. All you need to do is relax, and your natural mastery will reassert itself.
If you have severe panic attacks regularly, you should seek professional help. Chronic anxiety responds well to medication. Not every medication is equally effective on every person, but it should be possible to find the right fit for your brain chemistry. Medication is most effective when combined with talk therapy.
Written by Ethan Hein, Associate Editor at Knewton