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Exams, presentations, and final papers may come with intense emotions. According to Dr. Ian Connole, a counselor at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, “The weeks around finals can be incredibly stressful. Anxiety and panic are often spurred by incessant thoughts about the future, what needs to be done, and ‘what if’ scenarios.”

Stress, Anxiety, & Panic: Some Differences

Neha R., a junior at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, says that she recognizes stress and anxiety by looking at when and how your body responds to a situation. She says, “Stress makes me feel tired and irritable and not into what I need to do. Anxiety is the fear of something that could possibly happen.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health:

Stress is a mental and/or physical response to a situation, such as having multiple papers due in a week and feeling uneasy about getting them done.

Anxiety, which can be acute or chronic, is a more severe response, such as constantly thinking of all those papers, or feeling emotional when working on them.

Panic attacks are highly intense and unanticipated. Typical symptoms include sweaty palms, racing thoughts, and a rapid heartbeat, lasting about 10 minutes.

Panic can be caused by acute stress, and is usually longer in duration than a panic attack, but less intense.

High levels of anxiety are unfortunately common among students. In a 2007 survey at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, almost 50 percent of the students said they’d experienced at least one panic attack during their time in college.

More information about Anxiety & Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are a physiological response to a psychological perception of threat, flooding your body with hormones such as adrenaline. Your psyche’s goal is to get you ready in case you have to flee. This is also known as the flight or fight response.

While most beneficial for our hunting and gathering ancestors, these attacks now mainly serve to just freak us out. The good news is that a panic attack won’t hurt you, even though it might feel like a heart attack. But having one does let you know that you need to slow down.

Here are some symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks:

AnxietyPanic Attack
Physical symptomsMuscle tensionHyperventilation (heavy breathing)
Trouble sleeping/nightmaresShaking or trembling
RestlessnessFeelings of choking
Frequently racing heartbeatChest pains
Shortness of breathNausea/upset stomach
LightheadednessFeeling faint
SweatingFeeling feverish, flushed, or cold chills
Emotional symptomsTrouble concentratingConfusion or disorientation
Irritability or easily agitatedFeeling like you’re “going crazy”
Fear or easily startled/jumpyRacing thoughts
“All or nothing” thinkingDetached from surroundings

Preparation and Coping

Preparing for anxiety-inducing situations can help you cope while in them.
As famous news anchor Walter Cronkite once said, “It’s natural to have butterflies. The secret is to get them to fly in formation.” Here are some suggestions:

Taking an Exam
Prepare

  • Outline what you need to study and break it into manageable pieces.
  • Start studying way in advance. Reserve the night before for quick review and good sleep.
  • Use your school’s academic resources if you need support.
  • Eat, hydrate, and relax a bit before the test.

Cope

  • Stop and breathe when you get the exam. Yes, you will have enough time.
  • Focus. This isn’t the time to judge your study habits or worry about your grade.
  • Pace yourself. Skip tough questions and go back to them later.
  • If you don’t know an answer, let it go and move on to those you do.

Finishing a Paper
Prepare

  • Use an outline and gather all the information you need.
  • Devote more time to the start of the writing process, and less as you go along.
  • Work without distractions for 30-60 minutes. Then take a 5-10 minute break.

Cope

  • Take a break if you get frustrated.
  • Change locations. New stimulation at a café or the library can help shift your thinking.
  • Avoid self-medicating. Alcohol and other substances will cloud your brain and prevent it from feeding you great ideas to write about.

Giving a Presentation
Prepare

  • Rehearse, to familiarize yourself with the flow of information and timing.
  • Be humorous. Include a few (appropriate) jokes. This will set both you and your audience at ease.
  • Make it a conversation. Create some questions for the audience, a quick poll, a volunteer demonstration, or an activity.

Cope

  • Wear your confidence, literally. Put on something special but that feels comfortable.
  • Remember: Your nerves won’t be noticed unless you point them out.
  • Remind yourself that you’ve practiced and are ready.
  • Most people get nervous speaking in public, and that’s okay. You’ll get through it.

If stress and anxiety are constants for you, mobilize your social networks. Call a family member or go for a walk with your friends-and talk out what’s making you feel anxious.

Your school’s counseling center is also a great place to gather information, talk to a professional, or locate a support group. Some campuses even offer online biofeedback programs and relaxation rooms. By using these tips for preventing stress and its management, you can keep your butterflies afloat as if they were choreographed.

Take Action!

  • Tune in to how you experience stress.
  • Prepare in advance to prevent panic.
  • Leave time for rest and a good meal before an exam.
  • Understand that public speaking makes most people nervous.
  • Develop coping mechanisms to quell anxiety.

More tips about remaining calm

Avoiding "What If"

Dr. Ian Connole, a counselor at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, suggests some strategies for combatting “what if” thoughts. He says, “In these moments, it’s important to do things that help [you] get back to the present moment.” Here are his ideas:
  • Break tasks into small, manageable chunks.
  • Maintain positive self-care (physical activity, sufficient sleep, and good nutrition).
  • Acknowledge “what if” thinking as what comes with stress for you. Instead of listening to each thought, go back to memories or friends that provide encouragement.
Dr. Connole emphasizes, “The best chance to create the future and outcomes we desire is through our actions in the present moment.”

More prevention strategies

Preventing Panic

Healthy habits can reduce the occurrence of debilitating anxiety, and allow you to better handle things when they become overwhelming.

Dr. Jack Watson, a professor of kinesiology at West Virginia University in Morgantown, says, “Sleep and physical activity are the biggest things. Students function best when they get at least seven hours of sleep and some physical activity. It doesn’t need to be a formal workout or trip to the gym. Short bouts of 10 minutes are manageable and make a difference. Take a walk with a study partner and discuss the material: Win-win!”

Thomas K., a graduate student at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, says he uses self-reflection. “I try to rationally question thoughts, fears, and anxieties to understand them. [Then I can] more realistically categorize and contextualize the sources and move past them, understanding what really deserves weight and focus.”


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Get help or find out more
Anxiety and Depression Association of America, College Students

ULifeline, Stress on Campus

Scholljegerdes, K. and Vye, C. (2007). Under Pressure and Overwhelmed: Coping with Anxiety in College. Praeger, Westport, Connecticut.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. Random House, New York.