Having worked in mental health for 25+ years, I have personally witnessed a number of interesting trends and problems. For example, one disturbing trend that has developed into a problem are the number of American boys immediately placed on ADHD drugs simply because they claim to have problems focusing. While there might be a small number of boys who suffer from legitimate issues impacting their ability to focus, there are far more boys that simply don’t focus on things they aren’t interested in – yet are still put on drugs to correct the assumed problem. A second issue that may soon become a problem are the number of kids seeking medication to help with their “test anxiety.” Are these kids really suffering from a specific form of anxiety relating to tests that suggests a deep-rooted psychological issue, or instead merely responding normally with anxiety when faced with tests that largely dictate their overall scores in school?
“I have test anxiety.” Yeah, well so does the rest of the class.
In addition to working in the field of mental health, I have also worked as an adjunct college professor for nearly as many years. As a result of my duties in my clinical practice and in the classroom, I have had the great fortune of counseling and teaching thousands of young people. One common, expected line I hear from these folks when asked how they are doing in school is almost always some excuse of “test anxiety” being a roadblock to their academic success. Are these individuals all suffering from a form of mental illness involving anxiety and tests? And if seemingly everyone has these same experiences, does this mean everyone has this problem? And if everyone has this problem, is it really a “problem,” or instead simply a normal human function to experience nerves just before having to perform on a measurement that will determine your future?
Is test anxiety just an excuse?
If we assume that most normal, healthy people deal with nerves and anxiety before taking a test, then the question might turn away from whether or not this is “mental illness,” and instead focus on how the assumption of being nervous before tests may serve as insulation in the case that the student performs poorly — “It wasn’t my lacking ability for the bad grade, but instead my test anxiety.” The point is that most people DO experience anxiety before tests, and that test anxiety is normal. Furthermore, learning to focus and remain calm in test situations might better be looked at as a set of skills to develop, rather than a debilitating mental disorder largely controlled by genetics and DNA, leaving the individual helpless to the condition. Ironically, learning how to control your nerves while successfully mastering a task (i.e. a test) is the real test when you think about it.
There is no doubt that one’s ability to manage anxiety before life tasks (i.e. tests, sporting events, etc) has a lot to do with the level of success one will experience. The problem, however, is when we take normal human responses to life events (i.e. not being able to focus when bored and being labelled “ADHD,” or being nervous before a big test and then assumed to be a victim of “test anxiety”) and falsely accept that we are helpless to the ways in which we respond. The reality is that it’s normal to have attention and focus challenges when you’re bored, and it’s normal to experience anxiety before taking tests — the challenge is to develop effective coping skills that allow you to perform your best in these situations, not turn to prescription drugs that are not needed and lead to additional problems.