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  • Debbie Dougherty

My Student is in the Bathroom Having a Panic Attack! Teaching in the Age of Anxiety

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

Debbie S. Dougherty
Students are Anxious. Picture by Freya Clark

It is the end of the semester and teachers all over the world are facing an emerging problem that is threatening our ability to educate. Ours students are anxious. Not just kind of anxious, or even reasonably anxious, but massively anxious, in a way that I have not seen in my 20+ years of teaching higher education. Research supports my experience, with first generation students having higher anxiety and insomnia than traditional college students. I have seen desperate social media posts from my teacher friends over the past few years, lamenting the chaotic state of the classroom. Students don’t show up. They can’t complete assignments. They walk out of exams after 15 minutes. They refuse to do presentations. While I used to take this behavior personally, I have come to realize that my students are using maladaptive coping to manage unprecedented levels of anxiety.

Teachers at all levels of the educational enterprise need to learn to adapt. But how? Most of us are not counselors or psychologists. We are experts in a topic (like organizational communication, business ethics, textile management, veterinary medicine), not in managing other people’s mental health issues. I have looked everywhere for advice for how to handle anxiety in the classroom, which tends to boil down to “send the student to the counseling services on campus.” This is excellent advice in the long term. This advice does not address the immediate issues that occur when a student has a panic attack in the classroom. Academic performance is one of the major issues that triggers anxiety in college students. Ironically, when students have a panic attack in the classroom, their anxiety is a barrier to academic achievement. How do we, as educators, respond in the moment in a way that addresses student anxiety while honoring their goals?

I have firsthand experience with anxiety. Not only have I experienced anxiety, but I have seen it in close family members. I won’t give you the details, but I will say that anxiety made me worry excessively, ruminate over small problems, and made me prone to fight, flight, or freeze responses. Everyday that I showed up and engaged was an act of courage. It is a good reminder that when students show up to class, complete assignments, and do presentations, they are being courageous. Sometimes, however, they need help.

I am going to #share with you an example of what I did when a student had a panic attack in class. Then I want you to please share your experiences. In this way, maybe we can guide each other through the end of the semester blues in ways that empower our students. I describe this event with the permission of my student. This incident happened sometime in the past. I pull this from my notes taken immediately after the incident.

Managing a Student Panic Attack

In my class, my final is a video recorded presentation. The students can work alone, or they can work in teams. The students must be in class when the video is being presented. Afterwards, they stand in front of the class and answer questions. It is a great experience and I love to see the practical culmination of their learning over the semester.

That day, one of my students showed up and then disappeared before her presentation. I did not know what to do. Her backpack was still in the room. Was she coming back? Was she sick? She sent me a message telling me that she was in the bathroom having a panic attack and could she talk to me after class. I told my other students, “Stay here. I will be back."

I found her locked in a stall in the bathroom. I asked her if she would come out so we could talk. She said "no." I asked her if I could come into the stall with her. She unlocked the door and I slid into the little space. She was huddled on the floor in the corner. I sat on the floor with her and asked if she experienced frequent panic attacks. She said “yes.” I asked her what strategies she uses to manage her anxiety. She has a counting process, but it wasn't working. I asked her if she was open to trying something different with me? She said “yes.” I walked her through a muscle relaxation and breathing exercise that I developed for my public speaking students.

I asked her how she was doing. She said she was doing better.

I said, "let's get you off the floor." She held out her hand and I pulled her up.

I said, “with your permission, I want to walk with you back to class so the other students can watch your video.”

She said “okay.”

I asked her if I could put my hand on her shoulder.

She said “yes.”

We walked back to our classroom, my hand on her shoulder. She sat down at her desk. I started the video. I could see that her breathing was uneven, so I sat on the floor beside her and told her she was doing a good job. I reminded her to take deep breaths. Together we watched the video.

At the end, I told the class, “Sometimes it takes incredible courage to walk back into the room. That took a lot of courage my friend. Well done.” The other students applauded. The student looked proud of herself. We spoke briefly and the class ended.

Action Steps?

I try to end my blogs with action steps, yet I don't know what to recommend. My student was having a panic attack, but her presence that day made it clear that she wanted to present her video. I gave her choices about my participation. She accepted my help. I placed myself with her, on the floor in the stall of the bathroom, on the floor in our classroom. I offered her comfort. She accepted. I walked with her and she was successful. This situation ended well. I would like to hear your stories. What do you do when a student panics?

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Dec 16, 2022

Hi Debbie,

This article came timely! Thank you for sharing. I actually encountered a similar situation last week: a student emailed me before their scheduled final presentation day, saying that she would not come to do the presentation because she just got back from the "psych ward." And she's "not really looking for solutions," but just notifying me of her absence. I emailed her back to encourage her to come to class, she could simply watch other classmates' presentations, but never heard her back until yesterday. She emailed me about her final grade. I answered her questions and seemed to solve her problem. She will be fine, I suppose. But I wish that she would have the experience of completing…

Debbie Dougherty
Debbie Dougherty
Dec 27, 2022
Replying to

Thank you. I will try to do more like this, although I don’t always handle things as well as I did this time!

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