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Test anxiety can leave you dependent life-long

People who experience more stress have larger amygdalas. A Sacramento woman failed her drivers test (passed the written test, but repeatedly failed the driving test) more than nine times when she was going through a divorce in her late twenties. As a result, to avoid the anxiety of test-taking that required skills other than book-learning rules, the woman never attempted the test again in the next fifty years. She still hasn't learned to drive, uses public transportation, and has never left her home after sundown for many decades. When it comes to competition between independence and anxiety, the anxiety won. The issue is that some people inherit bigger brain-related fear centers, says one study, "Anxious Children have Bigger “Fear Centers” in the Brain."

Test anxiety can leave you dependent life-long.
Anne Hart, knitting, photography, and novel.

The amygdala is a key "fear center" in the brain. Alterations in the development of the amygdala during childhood may have an important influence on the development of anxiety problems, reports a new study, "Amygdala Subregional Structure and Intrinsic Functional Connectivity Predicts Individual Differences in Anxiety During Early Childhood” in the current issue of Biological Psychiatry, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry June 1, 2014.

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine recruited 76 children, 7 to 9 years of age, a period when anxiety-related traits and symptoms can first be reliably identified. The children’s parents completed assessments designed to measure the anxiety levels of the children, and the children then underwent non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of brain structure and function.

The researchers found that children with high levels of anxiety had enlarged amygdala volume and increased connectivity with other brain regions responsible for attention, emotion perception, and regulation, compared to children with low levels of anxiety. They also developed an equation that reliably predicted the children’s anxiety level from the MRI measurements of amygdala volume and amygdala functional connectivity.

The most affected region was the basolateral portion of the amygdala, a subregion of the amygdala implicated in fear learning and the processing of emotion-related information

“It is a bit surprising that alterations to the structure and connectivity of the amygdala were so significant in children with higher levels of anxiety, given both the young age of the children and the fact that their anxiety levels were too low to be observed clinically,” commented Dr. Shaozheng Qin, according to the June 16, 2014 news release, "Anxious Children Have Bigger Fear Centers in the Brain." Qin is the first author on this study.

Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, commented, according to the news release, “It is critical that we move from these interesting cross-sectional observations to longitudinal studies, so that we can separate the extent to which larger and better connected amygdalae are risk factors or consequences of increased childhood anxiety.”

Quin added, “However, our study represents an important step in characterizing altered brain systems and developing predictive biomarkers in the identification for young children at risk for anxiety disorders. Understanding the influence of childhood anxiety on specific amygdala circuits, as identified in our study, will provide important new insights into the neurodevelopmental origins of anxiety in humans.” The article authors are Shaozheng Qin, Christina B. Young, Xujun Duan, Tianwen Chen, Kaustubh Supekar, and Vinod Menon.

Now, unrelated to any of these studies, is the Sacramento example of the chronically anxious woman who was never able to pass her driver's test, but easily passed the written test. The woman remembers her dad telling her he was too nervous to learn to drive. Since there were no female drivers in the family, the woman also never learned to drive as did her own mother. It meant a lifetime of living near supermarkets and bus stops, walking to shopping, and never having the chance to attend social gatherings after sundown or outside of nearby bus or light rail stops.

It also meant never taking vacations lasting more than one or two days every few years. The woman also has been too anxious to ride on a plane or ship and feels scared riding in another person's car. She feels most comfortable at home or walking two blocks to the supermarket with her utility cart. She also lacks the ability to attend meetings in the evening where she could meet others, and remains as friendless in her mid seventies as she did in her mid thirties and mid fifties.

The root of the anxiety issue

The root of the problem could be a cultural or genetic predisposition to experience high anxiety, in fact, anxiety levels too high to attempt test-taking again that doesn't require just a pen and pencil test, but actual driving or operation of any type of moving machinery. The same type of anxiety afflicts many students.

Showing students how to cope with test anxiety might also help them to handle their built-up angst and fretfulness about other issues. The results of a new study, "Fitting Anxious Emotion-Focused Intervention into the Ecology of Schools: Results from a Test Anxiety Program Evaluation," published recently in the journal Prevention Science, show that anxiety intervention programs that focus on academic matters fit well into the demands of the school routine, and do not carry the same stigma among youth as general anxiety programs do.

Reducing test anxiety has fewer stigmas, and leads to potential prevention benefits

Showing students how to cope with test anxiety might also help them to handle their built-up angst and fretfulness about other issues. The results of a new study by Carl Weems of the University of New Orleans show that anxiety intervention programs that focus on academic matters fit well into the demands of the school routine, and do not carry the same stigma among youth as general anxiety programs do.

The research group was among the first to study the effects of Hurricane Katrina on community mental health and anxiety among youths, and the paper appears in Prevention Science, the official journal of the Society for Prevention Research, published by Springer.

Weems says, according to the May 8, 2014 news release, Tackling test anxiety may help prevent more severe problems, that anxiety problems are among the most common emotional difficulties youths experience, and are often linked to exposure to disasters. If not addressed these feelings could lead to academic difficulties, the increased risk of developing depressive or anxiety disorders, and substance use problems in adulthood.

Tackling test anxiety

It's an issue that often falls under the radar in school settings. Therefore Weems and his team turned their attention to teaching students how to handle test anxiety, as such nervousness is one way in which anxieties commonly manifest among school-aged youth. The article highlights the results of initial tests among students from grades three to 12 in five public schools in the gulf south region of the United States. The research was conducted between three and six years after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.

A group-administered, test-anxiety-reduction intervention was presented to 325 youths between the ages of eight- and 17-years-old who experienced elevated test anxiety. The intervention – through which the learners were taught behavioral strategies such as relaxation techniques – was conducted as part of each school’s counseling curriculum.

The wider age group who received the intervention found it to be useful, felt glad they had participated and effectively learned the intervention content. Overall, the program was associated with decreases in test anxiety, anxiety disorder and depression symptoms, and especially helped the older students to feel more in control. In turn, decreases in test anxiety were linked with changes in symptoms of depression and anxiety , such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The results suggest high participant satisfaction with the program.

“Test anxiety interventions may be a practical strategy for conducting emotion-focused prevention and intervention efforts because of a natural fit within the ecology of the school setting,” believes Weems, according to the news release. He cautions that school-based test anxiety interventions should not be considered a first line approach to treating severe anxiety disorders such as PTSD, but could be employed preventatively to teach students how to handle anxious emotions and internalizing problems more generally.

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