Panic attack and panic disorder
A panic disorder refers to recurrent panic attacks, meaning sudden, very strong experiences of anxiety. Panic attacks may be isolated events or related to general anxiety (see under Anxiety and social anxiety). Panic attacks are rather common: about 10 to 15 per cent of people experience one in their lifetime.
A panic attack may involve the following symptoms: a racing heart, chest pains, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath and feeling of choking. Often the attack is associated with fear of death or fear of going insane. For the person experiencing them, panic attacks are very unpleasant, but they are not dangerous and will subside on their own, usually in less than 30 minutes. Afterwards, the student may feel very ashamed.
Recurrent panic attacks cause the student to avoid places and situations where they may have an attack (lecture halls, busses, etc.). Often the fear is related to a place where you cannot escape or a situation where the student feels they are embarrassing themselves in the eyes of others.
Avoiding certain situations for fear of having a panic attack does not help the student. Instead, it may worsen the symptoms. The student should little by little practice returning to the difficult situations, because in time, exposure to them will alleviate their panic attack symptoms.
How to support learning
- If panic attacks stop the student from taking part in a teaching event, give the student the possibility to compensate for the exams by performing some activity not requiring attendance, such as completing homework assignments or participating in online discussions.
- Students may find it easier to attend courses if they can choose a seat close to the aisle or a place from where they can leave discreetly if needed. You can reserve a suitable seat for the student by putting a ‘reserved’ sign on it before the lecture.
- If the student cannot take an examination for fear of having a panic attack, you can look into alternative ways of demonstrating knowledge: discussions, portfolio, learning diary, project work, book exam, take-home exam, oral exam, peer teaching.
- The student may be able to take the exam in a separate room where the panic attack is easier to manage, should one occur.
What to do if a student has a panic attack?
- Take the student away from the lecture hall, to a calm and spacious area, for instance, to a corridor.
- Help the student to focus on something other than the feeling of panic. Friendly and calm everyday conversation could help. You can ask the student to tell you about what he or she sees in the immediate environment or ask them to talk you through a simple, everyday thing.
- You can distract the student from the panic attack’s bodily reactions by some light physical exercise, such as walking about.
- Taking calm, deep breaths eases the bodily symptoms. You can help the student by staying calm and taking deep breaths yourself, showing the student that everything is OK.
For more information, see:
Finnish association for Mental Health on panic disorder:
Finnish Students Health Service on panic disorder:
Individual study arrangements
In Finnish higher education, 4.4% of students have been diagnosed as having dyslexia (Finnish Student Health Service 2016). Reading is slow for people with dyslexia due to difficulties in perceiving and mentally processing the sounds of words and text.
Attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder may present in students as a difficulty concentrating, making mistakes of ‘carelessness’ , or encountering hurdles to independent study.
Of mental disorders, particularly depression is common with young adults. With mental disorders, it is important to listen to one’s own feelings and remember to reserve sufficient time for recovering from the strain of studies.
Anxiety means a state where a person is feeling restless and worried. Short-term anxiety and performance anxiety are very common and natural phenomena. Anxiety disorders refer to situations where feelings of anxiety are long-term and disproportionate to the situation.