I've confessed here that for most of my life I thought testing anxiety was made up and never really heard about it. Part of that is due to the acknowledgement of it being a relatively new thing, but, as someone who experiences anxiety daily and has had panic attacks before, the problem was more me refusing to connect my personal life with school and my students.
Let me break it down. I semi regularly talk to a New York based psychologist (not as a patient) about the human mind and she has helped me clear up a good deal of my unorganized thoughts about human behavior and the influences on it. Brilliant woman. Anxiety has triggers. While not exactly like PTSD, it can happen anywhere at any time to varying degrees of severity.
The first time a student told me they weren't "good at tests," my knee jerk reaction was to tell them they were wrong and that they needed to just believe in themselves. What a cop out of an answer. One of my best lazy teacher canned response moments. Embarrassing.
She presumably tried my horrible suggestions, but still failed. Here's where the tears started. I asked her to step outside and talked with her. This student, boasting a solid A in my class and many of her others, explained how she felt on test days. She said her stomach hurt and her heart raced. When she saw the test, she started sweat and envision a big red 63 her paper. Why that number? No idea, but it was real to her and she could see it. Before even picking up the pencil she knew she would fail and often she would.
Why? She knew the stuff. I watched her know it every single day. She sat front and center, she took notes, she participated, and she completed all her work on time, but she would fail every test.
When she described her experience on test days, it resonated with me. I don't have a fear of tests, but I do have a complicated relationship with illness and my own mortality. This is something that anxiety free people have a hard time understanding.
I experience anxiety at night most severely. Have you ever been 100% positive you were going to die? Not in the future, but before Christmas? I've been convinced with absolute certainty that I had cancer, West Nile Virus, SARS, Swine Flu, Strep Throat, and several other rare and hard to pronounce ailments. I claw at my own throat while I'm awake and apparently while I sleep to feel for inconsistencies in my glands that weren't there yesterday. Many nights I have a hard time sleeping or staying asleep and on rare occasions it's been extreme enough that I thought I was having a heart attack and went to the emergency room. At times, I've resigned myself to being a functioning lunatic.
Anxiety is like having a poorly trained talking bear in your bed. It never sleeps and always tells you what you're afraid of. When you go out into your daily life it follows you. You can SOMETIMES get it to calm down and reason with it. "This test will go alright because I studied." "Men in their mid 20s don't get osteoporosis." No matter what the mantra or how crazy your fears are, sometimes you can't make them go away and they overtake you, crippling you.
That's what I imagine my student experienced on test days. It wasn't until I saw myself in her shoes that I began to understand and was able to talk her through it. Not completely, but to the point where she could show everyone else the brilliance I see on a daily basis. She passed her ACP. What's most important is that, for even a moment, she was able to succeed in spite of her fears.
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