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I used to believe I was stupid because I suffered from test anxiety

As a kid, anytime I sat down to take a test I would freeze up and struggle to recall information that I readily knew just hours before. It felt like someone was sitting on my chest and my brain was in a lockbox but I didn't have the key. I couldn't think clearly. I was wracked with indecision. Doubt was my unwelcome companion and I'd have to will myself to choose an answer for each question one by one. For years, I believed I was stupid because I suffered from test anxiety

Reading a book on my own for the first time

Now I know I was experiencing a patterned threat response that caused my executive brain to come offline. The patterned threat response I would go into any time I had to take a test was freeze. And that's exactly what my mind and body would do as I stiffened under the pressure.

My test anxiety stemmed from my experience in a remedial reading program in elementary school. Unfortunately, I was frequently humiliated in that program. The teacher even told my parents that I was a lost cause. Humiliation, tone of voice, and rejection are all common triggers for a threat response that I experienced repeatedly in school.

So it's no surprise that I developed a patterned threat response anytime I sat down to take a test where I would freeze up. Shutting down was my brain's way of optimizing my self-preservation because it felt less risky. It was so bad that when I realized spending more time studying for tests made no difference in my grade, I made minimal effort to prepare. Because of this traumatic experience, I did not trust myself, especially when being quizzed about my knowledge. This struggle fed my belief that I was stupid.

Partly in response to my test anxiety, I went to a school with no tests or grades, Hampshire College. It was much more challenging than the average undergraduate program. We read primary articles, completed extensive research and writing assignments, and were responsible for crafting our own majors. As a result of my rigorous studies, I learned to trust myself and my intellect. More specifically, I trusted my abilities to create, synthesize and act on bold ideas.

Despite that, my test anxiety continued to present itself in strange and fretful ways as a professional. I experienced a patterned freeze response when I wanted to recall someone's name. This was especially true after relaying information I learned. I could recall the concept with great clarity but would freeze when being asked for the author's name.

I started to notice doubt quickly following suit as I froze. I would question the answer that came to mind. I fumbled on my words and even spoke disparagingly of myself, the belief I was stupid persisted in my thoughts. Eventually, I would return home (this was before I had a smartphone) and look up the name of the person I was trying to recall. Another pattern emerged - I had greater accuracy at recalling names than I was giving myself credit.

This conundrum presented as a big disconnect for me. Why was I still freezing and doubting myself?

I learned to trust my ideas in college because I was challenged to see them through. My alma mater, and more specifically my advisor, encouraged me to pursue lines of inquiry no matter how out there they seemed. I carved my scholarly path by studying the mind-body connection before it was a thing. At the time there was nary a scholarly article on the subject. But my personal experiences growing up with asthma showed a clear cause and effect I was determined to understand.

Throughout my childhood, I suffered from asthma. When I went off to college, I no longer had asthma attacks. That is until I had an emotionally distraught experience. Suddenly, I was dependent on my inhalers again until the situation resolved. This personal experience inspired within me a curiosity. I wanted to understand the mind-body connection, as well as how our perceptions of health, healing and illness impact our wellness.

My experience in college contrasted the goals of my primary and secondary education, which evaluated my intellect based on my ability to regurgitate information. Whereas, at Hampshire College, I was encouraged to pursue my curiosity and challenged to cultivate my strengths. In essence, I was taught how to truly learn on my own. Trusting myself was an essential piece of my success there. But that, in and of itself, didn't eliminate the limiting belief that I was stupid.

I don't share this story to illustrate the problems with our education system, but to demonstrate how patterns of self-doubt are created. That these patterns make a lasting impression, sneaking up again and again even after they've been "dealt" with.

There is reason to have hope for such hurtful patterns can be rewritten into empowering practices. Essential to that process is addressing and rewriting the limiting beliefs in conjunction with the neurophysiological responses to a trigger.

Being aware of my own neurophysiological reaction to triggers enabled me to distinguish between the voice of my inner critic and the wisdom of my inner genius. The feeling of someone sitting on my chest and my brain being locked away are signs that I look out for. Becoming aware of those signals was the, relatively, easy part. The work of rewriting my limiting belief was a bit harder - in addition to journaling, I needed outside guidance, support, and accountability to shift my belief on a cellular level.

Unraveling the detrimental impacts of our patterned threat responses is an ongoing process and a necessary step in learning to trust oneself. There are countless ways we've each been conditioned to doubt ourselves, particularly if we didn't fit nicely into the preconceived expectations of others growing up. Allowing such doubt (and the limiting beliefs that feed it) to linger is a disservice to you and to others.

We aren't going to solve the problems we are facing by all thinking and acting alike. We must learn to connect with our inner geniuses and trust ourselves. We must celebrate our differences and cultivate our strengths. We must let go of the doubt cast by fear instilled in us as children and follow our curiosity. And to do all that, we must rewrite our limiting beliefs into empowering life stories.

Would you like to deepen your awareness of your neurophysiology and rewrite a limiting belief into an empowering life story? What if you could make a profound shift just by writing in your journal for 20 minutes? Join us for the next Journal Jam on June 8th at 8am MST - more information and registration available online here.

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