A thinly trimmed beard rests comfortably along Ceasar Rodriguez’s jawline, framing a smile that glows with joy.
However, there was a time when that smile existed as a disguise to mask a deep pain.
Upon introduction, there would be no reason to think that Rodriguez, 30, carries the weight of an anxious past on his shoulders.
Socially, he is not an anxious man. A natural extrovert, Rodriguez radiates a friendly warmth that can instantly make anyone feel comfortable.
Rodriguez has no problem singing karaoke with his friends.
But when it comes to taking tests, the Cal State Fullerton graduate student has a history of having overwhelming anxiety.
Rodriguez spent most of his childhood feeling different.
Excessive energy and an inability to focus made it nearly impossible for him to succeed in an average classroom.
Years of therapy were unsuccessful in taming his over activity and anxiety in school.
Out of options, Rodriguez’s mother placed him in special education in second grade.
“I didn’t understand what was going on and why I was in that class,” Rodriguez said. “I started noticing that I would get distracted during tests and that I needed to be in a separate room just so that I could relax a little more.”
Rodriguez was eventually diagnosed with ADHD in 2003.
“He couldn’t learn as fast as everybody else was learning, and he would get frustrated,” Francesca, Rodriguez’s mother said.
Test anxiety started to jeopardize his education.
Rodriguez began getting special accommodations for tests in junior high school, allowing him to take them in a separate room. But he wasn’t ready to accept his disability and tried coping with it on his own.
He spent the next 10 years at Saddleback College struggling to deal with test anxiety, barely graduating with a 2.2 GPA.
“I started playing mind tricks with myself,” Rodriguez said. “I was my biggest problem.”
During tests, Rodriguez’s anxiety would paralyze his ability to succeed.
He became prone to severe coughing attacks and his body heating in nervousness. He was overwhelmed by the pressure of performing in a group environment.
Every little noise in the classroom was a distraction to Rodriguez, along with people fidgeting, clocks ticking and pencils scribbling.
He harshly compared himself to other students, feeling as if he never measured up, wondering why they were able to finish before him.
Professor Joanne Hoven Stohs teaches a course on abnormal psychology at CSUF. She said students can focus so heavily on the problem that they may unintentionally make it worse.
“Essentially, what a lot of them (students) do cognitively is they focus in on their physiological. What’s happening psychologically, its always intertwined with aspects of physi (the body),” Hoven Stohs said. “That would be one problem, that they’re coping in a poor way.
Because they’re just focusing in on symptoms, telling themselves frightening thoughts, maybe elaborating in their own mind some terrible outcome.”
By the time Rodriguez reached CSUF in 2011, it was obvious that he needed help. Reluctantly, he reached out to Disabled Student Services (DSS).
Rodriguez said DSS has given him the ability to reduce his test anxiety.
He is now able to take his tests in a separate room, free from the distractions of fellow students.
Rodriguez also gets double time for test taking and the advantage of receiving books on a CD.
Rodriguez said a key component to relieving test anxiety is arriving early.
“I find tricks,” Rodriguez said. “Just showing up early to wherever I’m going so I’m not rushing late … If I show up early enough, I can prepare myself.”
It is also important to know the material. Lack of preparation can be a major cause of test anxiety.
It creates unnecessary worry that can be avoided with proper studying.
“It’s just not distorted thinking, that’s accurate thinking … Anxiety could be easily accounted for in a very rational way,” Hoven Stohs said. “They don’t know it. Of course they’re freaking out, because they were hoping it was an easy test and it isn’t.”
Rodriguez recommends outlining and highlighting important parts of each chapter. By doing so, it becomes easier to remember the chapters’ content. Through highlighting, students can go back through the book and find key points of the material.
He also stresses the importance of staying hydrated during a test.
Fueling your body can help fuel your mind.
“I like to make sure that I’m prepared, I have a snack before, make sure that I have water,” Rodriguez said. “That way I’m working on a full load.”
Exercise is a great way to stay in shape, but it also helps to relax the mind. Working out before a test can lower anxiety and ease stress.
“I have more energy (for my studies) when I work out,” Rodriguez said. “You need to have that equal balance.”
Through proper preparation, anxiety may not be eliminated, but it can certainly be reduced.
Whatever the situation, it doesn’t help to get frustrated. Students should remain calm and realize that dealing with test anxiety can take a lot of work.
Francesca consistently encourages her son to stay strong and never give up.
“I always tell him, just because you have ADHD doesn’t mean that you cannot accomplish anything you want in your life,” she said.
Rodriguez has come to terms with his shortcomings.
He no longer gets embarrassed and says that he has learned to accept his struggles.
He is currently working on getting his master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and wants to eventually open his own practice.
“Be patient and realize that it’s not about perfection, it’s all about progression,” Rodriguez said. “Accept that you’re not going to be perfect and keep on going forward.”