Test Anxiety: A Guide for Parents (Part 1)

What is Test Anxiety?

Stressful teenage student having many problems

Test Anxiety is a sub-type of Performance Anxiety

Test anxiety is a combination of physiological over-arousal, tension and somatic symptoms, along with worry, dread, fear of failure, and catastrophizing, that occur before or during test situations.

Symptoms of Test Anxiety

Continuum anxietyTest anxiety is normal. We all experience a certain level of anxiety when we need to perform. Anxiety produces adrenaline which activates us to perform. It is when the anxiety becomes debilitating and you can no longer perform that is becomes a hindrance instead of a benefit. Below are some of the more severe symptoms of test anxiety which may require intervention.

Physical symptoms:

Headache, nausea, diarrhoea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, light-headedness and feeling faint can all occur. …

Emotional symptoms:

Feelings of anger, fear, helplessness and disappointment are common emotional responses to test anxiety.

Behavioral/Cognitive symptoms:

Difficulty concentrating, thinking negatively and comparing yourself to others. Exaggerated worries and expectations of negative outcomes in unknown situations. “Blanking out”/ freezing

Test anxiety is just the tip of the iceberg

IcebergAn abnormal amount of test anxiety is merely a manifestation of a much larger issue. It is the tip of the ice berg and indicates that a bigger problem lies below. If you think about a warning light in your car flashing, say the oil light, this warning light indicates to you that you need to check the oil. You wouldn’t think that the problem lies in the flashing light and try to disable the light would you? No, you know that the light is directing you to the main problem in the car. An abnormal amount of test anxiety is the same as that flashing warning light. It indicates that something bigger needs to be attended to in that person’s world.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs illustrates the point:MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svg

In order for a person to self-actualize (reach their full potential) they need to have the all the base block in place. These base blocks, starting from the base of the triangle, as they apply to overcoming test anxiety are:

  • Physiological needs: The first need that needs to be met for self-actualization to occur is physiological needs. A child needs to be able to have good sleep hygiene, healthy food, water and air in order for these basic human needs to be met.
  • Safety: Once a child’s physiological needs are met, the next need can be worked on which is safety. A child needs to feel safe in their school and family environment in order to reach their potential. Any conflict or abuse in these 2 context will hinder a child from climbing higher up towards their potential. The environment needs to be nurturing, positive and encouraging in order for a child to have this need satisfied. A criticizing and rejecting parental or schooling environment will make a child feel psychologically unsafe.
  • Love & Belonging: Once a child feels safe, the next need can be worked on which is love and belonging. A child needs to feel accepted in their family as well as their school environment for this need to be fulfilled. Parents are encouraged to see the child’s performance on tests as a reflection of the performance and not as a reflection on the child. This creates an environment of unconditional acceptance for the child which fosters a sense of belonging.
  • Esteem: Once a child feels loved and that they belong, the next need can be worked on which is self-esteem. A child needs to have a positive sense of themselves in order for this need to to be met. Their self-talk, thoughts and feelings about themselves should be encouraging and positive. Children learn to regard themselves positively if they have care givers who acknowledge their strengths and use positive language when talking to them. Children tend to internalize the language of their care givers and develop their sense of self through the eyes of their care givers.
  • Self-Actualization: Once all the above needs are met then child can fully actualize themselves. This means that they have a good foundation to achieve whatever it is in life that they set out to do. They can become the best version of themselves and grow into functional, fulfilled and productive adults.

Abnormal test anxiety occurs when these needs are  not in place. It is only when all these needs are met that a child can successfully overcome test anxiety. Perhaps think about where your child may be struggling on this triangle? Stay posted for my next blog on how to help your child overcome the various obstacles on this triangle of needs.

Why am I so jumpy? The Impact of Trauma in the Body

trauma 2Do you get a fright easily? Do you feel like you are constantly on edge and have grown a pair of eyes at the back of your head? When people tap you on your shoulder, do you jump out of your skin? These are some of the physiological responses that people may experience following a traumatic event.

What is Trauma?

In the medical model, trauma would be considered an event in which the person’s life or bodily integrity is under threat, or an event in which a person witnesses the threat to another’s life or bodily integrity. In psychotherapy however, the definition of trauma is much broader. In my view trauma is any event in which the person felt threatened enough for the release of Adrenalin to occur. This can range from giving a speech in front of an audience, to going into an operating room for a small (or big) procedure, to being held at gunpoint. If the body reacts to an event by releasing Adrenalin then it is preparing the person to either fight, flight, or freeze because the body believes it is under threat.

Natural Response to Trauma

When a person feels threatened in any way, which can range from a threat to survival to the threat to social reputation, then the body tries to equip the person with mechanisms to maintain self-preservation. Peter Levine in his ground breaking book, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, explains that the body goes through a natural trauma cycle which is controlled by the primitive part of the brain. This cycle begins when the body senses a threat in its environment. Let’s take for instance an impala grazing grass in the Kruger National Park. The impala senses that something dangerous is in its environment, perhaps he heard the rattling of some grass, or smelt a foreign scent. The impala immediately lifts its head and orients itself towards the threat. This is called the orienting response. If at this stage the impala confirms that there is indeed a lioness stalking through the grass, then the impala’s body releases Adrenalin.

Adrenal Response

Adrenalin mobilizes all the energy in the body and directs it towards the organs that are essential for fight or flight. In the case of the impala, the energy will be directed the the animal’s muscles, lungs, and heart in order for the impala to run away as fast as it can from the lion.  The chase is now on and the impala runs for its life away from the hungry lioness. All the energy in the impala’s muscles are now being utilized for this escape. The impala reaches the woodlands and the lion is now unable to catch the impala. The chase is over. The threat is over. The impala has successfully used all the resources supplied by its body to escape from the lioness. The impala goes back to grazing in the grasslands as if nothing has happened. The impala does not suffer from PTSD afterwards as it has completed a natural cycle of trauma and can carry on with life.

Incomplete Response to Trauma

When Adrenalin is released and the body goes into freeze mode then the energy in the cells is not used up. The cells go into freeze mode and the trauma cycle cannot complete itself. The cells are left with all this potential energy that was geared towards fighting or fleeing. For example, if a person was held at gun point then the safest option is to freeze in order to save their life- fighting or fleeing may very well get them shot. As much as the freezing reaction contributed to their survival, the body is left with an enormous amount of charged energy in the cells. Once the traumatic event is over the person is left in a perpetual state of heightened arousal because the natural trauma cycle was unable to complete itself by using up the mobilized energy in the cells.

Impact of an Incomplete trauma cycle on the Body

A person who was unable to fight or flee from a threatening situation, is often left feeling helpless after the traumatic event. At their core, they feel like the world is an unsafe place to be in. This feeling of being unsafe triggers more Adrenalin to be released which makes the person on high alert for any dangers in their environment. The brain is unable to discern that the feeling of being unsafe is actually coming from within the person, and not from the person’s environment. The brain thinks that the threat is coming from their surroundings and so it prepares the body by keeping it in an orienting response. The person feels on edge, jumpy, hyper vigilant, anxious and is startled easily. This is a similar state to that of the impala looking around for the lioness. When a person is looking around, a portion of the unused energy in the cells is directed towards the head, neck, and eye muscles. So looking over your shoulder every 10 minutes is also the body’s way of using up some the energy released in the original traumatic event.

traumaAm I Going Mad?

A person who is in a state of hyper arousal to their environment may begin to think they are going mad. The natural cognitive inclination of human beings is to be able to explain why they do the things they do. A person who is constantly looking over their shoulder because they feel a there is danger around them, is unable to pinpoint the threat in their environment and is therefore unable to understand why they feel threatened. As you can imagine, this is a very unsettling feeling and one may feel like they are going mad!

trauma3Completing the Trauma Cycle

A person who is walking around in a heightened state of arousal will struggle to focus on any other incoming information as they are so busy looking around them for the reason they feel so uneasy and unsafe. This means that the person may struggle to focus on work; their relationships may deteriorate as they cannot be attentive when their partner’s are talking to them; they may be more prone to accidents as they struggle to concentrate and be present in their own bodies. As you can imagine, this takes a toll on the person’s life and their quality of life and relationships quickly deteriorates. It is really important for people in this state to seek professional help in order to complete the trauma cycle using the body’s own intelligence so that they can get back to calmly grazing in the serene surroundings of their grasslands, just like the impala.

The Weight of Grief

This beautiful illustration tries to capture what grief physically feels like in the body.
This beautiful illustration tries to capture what grief physically feels like in the body.

Loss

Loss is an integral part of being human. Loss is also one of the most dreaded parts of being human. As humans we seek out relationships and form emotional bonds and special connections with others (people and pets). When these bonds are broken through death, it may feel like a part of us died with that person or animal.

Life continues, whilst you struggle to breath

Perhaps one of the strangest feelings about loss is that we have to continue living even though we may feel like we are dying inside. Your world has stopped, but the world around you continues as if nothing has happened. People are still sharing funny videos on facebook, taxis continue to cut in front of you in traffic, coffee shops buzz with chatter, and all the while you feel trapped in a bubble that contains your heavy, dying world inside. I often hear clients say that they struggle the most with this paradox. The outside world doesn’t match their inside world. The world feels surreal.

I think part of the reason why it seems so surreal that the world continues with it’s hustle and bustle whilst your world comes crashing down, is that you are faced head on with the reality that we are all going to die, including all of our loved ones. Now, I know that we all know we are going to die, but do we really? It seems as if we live life thinking that we have forever. We miss out on opportunities now because we think we can take them up later. What if we don’t have a later?  This is just one of the things that people who are grieving are faced with, along with a number of other heavy and overwhelming emotions. People who have lost a loved one realize that on some level, which might not even be conscious to them, that we are all going to die and that life is a very serious and finite matter.

Death Anxiety

The realness of life hits the bereaved harder than the everyday person standing in the queue at the grocery store. Thoughts such as “this is so trivial and meaningless” may enter their minds as people carry on with business as usual. Irvin Yalom, a world renowned psychologist, calls this brush with reality “death anxiety”. Death anxiety mingles in with the overwhelming feelings of loss and can add extra weight to the grieving process, a weight which the average individual cannot comprehend. Now, it’s not because they are incapable of comprehending the real fact that they, and all their loved ones, will die, no, it’s because we use protective mechanisms to distract ourselves from death anxiety. After all, it would be unhealthy to live each moment frozen in the fear that we are going to die. We need to also live.

Grief is Lonely

People who have loved lost ones live in this state of frozen anxiety about death. They struggle with the idea that the world can carry on as normal. Being in this state makes bereavement a very lonely and isolating process. After all, how do you relate to someone who complains about the traffic when you have experienced this significant loss and are faced daily with a debilitating death anxiety? A loss that makes your body physically feel like it is filled with stones. Paralyzed. Immobile. Still. Not part of this world.

What do you guys think? Does grief feel like a body weighted down by stones? Please share with us your experience of loss and the grieving process. Have you been faced with death anxiety? What does it feel like?

For more information on loss and grief, please click on the Loss and Grief Therapy page.

Looking forward to hearing people’s experience of loss, death anxiety and the feeling of grief in the body.