Test Anxiety: Is it a Disability?


Actually test anxiety is not a disability. Most individuals experience some degree of anxiety when they face a test of any kind. Anxiety that causes our brain to freeze while taking a test is really about what we tell ourselves concerning our own ability to do well on any given test. The limbic area of the brain is responsible for responding when we feel threatened. It gives us three choices: fight, flight or freeze. Obviously the first two are not viable options for a student during a test. Consequently, our brain chooses the freeze option for us and causes the limbic area of the brain to stay on the defense until the threat of the test is determined to be over, once we walk out of the testing room. Have you ever wondered why all the answers come to mind after you are done with the test? The brain freeze you experienced during the test in response to the anxiety you felt, has now thawed allowing the cortex to start processing information freely again!

Stress may prevent us from retrieving information during a test that we thought we had committed to memory while studying. The best response to overcoming the tendency to experience brain freeze during a test is to use good study habits that actually associate the information to something we know and can be easily accessed during a test. Then if we note that anxiety is increasing, manage it by disputing irrational thoughts that vie for attention. Talk to yourself in a positive manner about how well you have studied. If you note anxiety while you are studying, force yourself to organize the information efficiently and manage the anxiety so as not to distract you from storing information in long-term memory. According to research, if you allow anxiety or anything else to distract you while you are trying to memorize information during study times, your brain may not be able to find that information when it comes time for retrieval during a test.

Take note of your breathing while you are studying and/or testing to make certain that you are breathing deeply. Your brain needs the oxygen in the blood to prevent hyperventilating and confused thinking. If your heart rate increases because you begin to panic during a test, you still can make the choice to calm it down so that your brain is not further inhibited in terms of processing information. In other words, take charge of your body and your mind by calming yourself down so that your limbic system is not in charge of your processing, and your cerebral cortex is allowed to do the job it was designed to do. 

Individuals who actually do have a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder may find that having extra time while testing helps them remain calm during a test. They too would benefit from managing anxious thoughts and feelings as mentioned above. See a DSPS counselor to discuss how to personally apply the above techniques in order to manage anxiety during a test.

Written by Diana Hamar, Shasta College DSPS Counselor