Introduction

Take a quick glance at the picture above. What do you see? At first glance, you probably see a group of students taking a test. But the longer you look, the more you begin to relate to them.
We’ve all been in this situation; you’re writing a final exam and you know if you don’t do well, you will fail the course – it’s stressful. Our education system in this day in age is structured around test-taking, whether you agree with it or not, this is how it is, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon, at least in Canada.
This article won’t be commenting on what’s wrong with our current educational structure. Rather, I will discuss my experience with mental illness throughout my schooling, as well as tips on how to deal with stressful times, and prioritize your mental well-being over a score on a test.

Everybody experiences some form of ‘mental health illness’

I use this term loosely; whether or not you have a diagnosable illness is up to a doctor to decide, but psychological struggles during tough times in school (or outside of school for that matter) are something we can all relate to.
Usually when people hear the words ‘mental illness’ tossed around they think severe depression, anxiety, or even more extreme cases like schizophrenia. Although these issues are very real and affect millions of people across the globe, mental illnesses can take on a much more subtle form. Often, they are the most harmful when you don’t even know you are suffering from one.
Whether it be anxiety for a big presentation, or an inability to concentrate on daily school tasks, mental health has a profound impact on how students perform in school. For the sake of this argument, I am going to take General Anxiety Disorder as an example.
According to a study conducted by the University of Malaysia, “Anxiety is a subjective feeling of tension, apprehension, nervousness, and worry associated with arousal of thenervous system (Spielberger, 1983). The high level of anxiety causes a persons normal life being difficult such as interfered activities and social life. Anxiety is one of the wide varieties of emotional and behaviour disorders (Rachel and Chidsey, 2005). Students with anxiety disorder exhibit a passive attitude in their studies such as lack of interest in learning, poor performance in exams, and do poorly on assignments. The anxiety’s psychological symptoms among students include feeling nervous before a tutorial class, panicking, going blank during a test,feeling helpless while doing assignments, or lack interest in a difficult subject whereas the physiological symptoms include sweaty palms, cold, nervousness, panic, fast pace of breathing, racing heartbeat, or an upset stomach
(Ruffins, 2007).”
As arbitrary as it may seem, anxiety does have an impact on school performance. Personally, I have experienced anxiety before an important test and have actually blanked, even though I knew the information. The same can be said for giving presentations. The overwhelming feeling of dread and nervousness I would feel before giving a presentation would be so bad that I would completely blank and just stand there with a straight face.
Anxiety is a powerful psychological force that can either work in your favour, or heavily against you. This study conducted by the University of Malaysia as well as the Procedia Social and Behavioural Sciences group created a diagram that outlines the impact of anxiety on school performance:
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This study aims to find out why our brains can block out important information when it is time to perform, even if we are more than prepared to ace that test. It’s imperative to understand the effects this can have on us because it affects all of us. Various studies aim to figure out why certain events happen that can be attributed to anxiety, for example: why does an NFL kicker miss a field goal wide right from 34 yards, even though he can make the same field goal 100 times in a row in practice? Why does a piano player miss several notes during a remarkable performance, even though she can play this song in her sleep? These are questions that remain generally unanswered in the realm of mental illness studies, but that doesn’t mean we can’t understand it for ourselves to make an active change in our own lives.

What does anxiety look like on the inside?

Have you ever felt nervous? Stupid question, I know. Your muscles get tight; your voice adopts a higher pitch because your vocal cords are being squeezed. Your breaths: shorter. Your posture: slouched. Your thoughts: disseminated.
Humans have been studying the brain for thousands of years, dating back to the Egyptians. Considering this, it baffles me that we still haven’t figured out something as simple as anxiety. I mean, anxiety is at the core of what it means to be human. If we think back to our primal ancestors, they used fear as a ‘fight or flight’ response to deal with predators. This primal tool has remained with us throughout history, and now it just gets in the way.
The reason why anxiety can feel so intense is that your body releases adrenaline, thinking that you are in a life or death situation, when in reality, you were just asked to give the Starbucks employee your name to put on a coffee cup. We’ve all been there, so don’t feel ashamed. This overwhelming tensing of your body from head to toe is your body thinking there is a 500-pound black jaguar ready to pounce at you on any moment.
The most important step to coping with anxiety is to understand it. Your brain is smart, so it knows how to dissect a situation and determine whether it is dangerous or not. The thing is, what is dangerous to us today relies more on a social hierarchy type of platform, rather than a life or death fight with a rhinoceros in Sub-Saharan Africa: Hence the term, Social Anxiety.
social anxiety disorder
Our brains light up when we perceive a threat [Source: Gabrieli Lab, MIT]
Take a look at the diagram above and consider it from our ancient ancestors perspective. Consider that we are observing the life of one of our ancestors who lives in Africa about 15,000 years ago. This man (because men were hunters at the time) knows he will be leaving tomorrow to go hunting in an extremely dangerous area. He has one of two choices: the first is for him to assume that he will run into a pack of hungry lions and become their dinner for the night. His second choice is to imagine himself spearheading a 2-ton elephant and feeding his tribe for the next week. It’s interesting to see how our brains react to positive stimuli: they light up. See, if our Native ancestor envisions himself making the big kill, his brain lights up – he basically becomes smarter and more aware of his surroundings. If he is more aware of his surroundings, he is more likely to get the kill, and better suited to be successful.
Fast forward a couple millennium’s, and you have the modern-day human, stressing over a non-life threatening presentation they have to give in front of 30 people that frankly, don’t care about the presentation at all. These are vastly different situations, but the brain reacts in stunningly similar ways.
Although I can’t find any brain scans of our ancient ancestors (sorry) I will make the assumption that their brains would light up in a similar way that ours would to potential threats.
Humans have definitely come a long way in terms of understanding our neurochemistry, yet, something we seemingly understand so well still plagues millions of teenage students every day.

That big assignment is tomorrow, how do you envision yourself performing?

Are you going to take home that mammoth of an elephant? Or are you going to be eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger? The choice is yours.
Although life-decisions in this day in age are generally not life threatening, the effects that everyday tasks can have on our brain can seem so, especially if you have a diagnosable mental disorder such as social anxiety.
The problem I have with mental health awareness is that although we are generally aware, we aren’t directly educated on how to deal with anxiety or depression. Instead, we are sent to the doctor to get a prescription.
It’s a shame that students fear public-speaking when you consider we are social creatures at our core, and it is confusing to think that even though you can be more than prepared, you can still fail that big math test. It just goes to show that your mind can play tricks on you; your performance in any given situation depends on how you envision yourself performing in that situation.
Now you may be wondering, “So, if I picture myself doing good on that math test, I will automatically do good, right?” Well, if you are prepared for the test, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t do good if you truly believe you will succeed.

The same goes for any other challenge presented to us in the 21st century – if you truly think you will succeed, chances are, you will.

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