Reprinted from "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (3), pp. 14-15
I have struggled with anxiety for the past four years. I survived my first year at Simon Fraser University without any problems. I used to be the carefree one, calming down my friends before exams and telling them not to stress about school and tests. But during the fall semester of my second year, I began to feel stressed out about my classes and really anxious before and during mid-terms. During final exams that term, I had an anxiety attack, and things escalated from there.
The unbearable scratching of pencils
My first anxiety attack occurred during a biology final that semester. The morning of the exam I was really nervous—a feeling that I’d become accustomed to over the previous few months. This time, however, it was different. The feeling got worse as I entered the lecture hall. Once the papers were handed out and we had begun the exam, my nerves took over and I couldn’t concentrate. All I could hear was the scratching of pencils from the hundreds of other students. This noise seemed to get louder and louder. The room felt smaller and I started to feel claustrophobic.1 I started sweating and felt light-headed. All I could think about was how to get out of there. Finally, I asked one of the teacher’s assistants if I could step outside, and then I left the room.
Out in the hallway, accompanied by the assistant, I considered going home and failing my exam just to avoid being back in that room. However, after a few minutes and a lot of debating, I decided to go back in. I finished the test as quickly as I could, answering just enough questions to pass.
It was a horrible experience. And I ended up barely passing my class, even though I know that I could’ve done much better in a different, less-stressful-for-me setting.
I know that it’s normal to get nervous for a test. But it wasn’t the actual test that bothered me, it was the setting—being surrounded by other students in such an intense atmosphere—that caused me to panic.
Campus disability support—an “unbelievable” difference
During the winter semester, I experienced anxiety attacks during every test. Every exam, I was scared to walk inside the room because I knew I was going to panic. It really started to affect my grades. And I was worried it might start affecting other areas of my life.
So, before the start of my third year, I visited my GP—and was diagnosed with panic disorder. As we discussed ways to deal with my anxiety, he offered to prescribe me an antianxiety medication that I could just take for situations where I knew I was going to panic. He said the medication would, however, slow my thinking processes for several hours—not the best option, I thought, since exams are written under time constraints. I decided to look into alternatives.
Through the Simon Fraser University website, I found the Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD). The centre makes arrangements with students with any kind of physical or mental disability to assist them to complete their course work. I wasn’t sure if I’d qualify as a student with a disability and worried that the centre would just tell me to deal with it on my own. But after some thought, I decided that I might as well try it. I got a letter, signed by my doctor, explaining my condition. I took the letter with me to the CSD and registered as a disabled student. It was a surprisingly simple process.
The staff at the centre were extremely accommodating, asking me what the optimal setting for me to write exams in would be. We decided that I’d write my mid-terms and finals alone in a room at the CSD.
The process was simple: at the beginning of each semester I’d take my professors a form explaining the impacts of my disability and that I’d be writing exams separately from the class. The profs signed the form to show consent. When exam time came, CSD staff arranged for me to write the exam at the centre at the same time my class was writing it in the exam hall.
The difference was unbelievable. I immediately felt much more relaxed. Because I was by myself, I wasn’t distracted by the presence of other students and didn’t feel claustrophobic. I was able to focus on writing the exam instead of worrying about having another panic attack.
My professors were very supportive. Initially, I worried that they would refuse to let me write exams separately or that they would treat me differently. But most of them had other students with disabilities in their classes, and, in larger classes, there were usually one or two other students who also had alternate arrangements because of a disability.
Getting back on track
The one thing I agreed to when I registered with the Centre for Students with Disabilities was to work on dealing with my anxiety and getting myself back into the classroom for exams.
For three semesters I wrote my mid-terms and finals at the CSD. Then, the next semester, I decided to try writing my mid-terms with my class. I developed a routine before exams that helped minimize my stress. I’d calm my nerves by listening to music. I didn’t wait around outside the classroom beforehand. Once inside, I tried to find a seat away from others so that I wouldn’t feel as claustrophobic. These steps helped reduce my anxiety. And, with every exam I successfully completed, I felt more confident and in control of my anxiety.
By the middle of my fourth year, I was able to write all my exams with the rest of the class. Don’t get me wrong, exams still weren’t a walk in the park. But I learned how to deal with my anxiety by creating an optimal setting for myself, by myself.
I successfully finished my degree in the fall of 2007—an accomplishment I may not have been able to do without the support from my family, my doctor and SFU’s Centre for Students with Disabilities.
Anxiety is a problem I’ll continually face, but I now have tools to control it, so it doesn’t control me.
About the author
Brittany finished her bachelor’s degree in the fall of 2007 with a major in Computing Science and a minor in Mathematics. She is currently in the one-year Professional Development Program in Education at Simon Fraser University.