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Stress Management for the MCAT 

You glance at your study calendar. Your test date, scheduled in October, stares back at you, but it’s six months away! You’re as good as gold, it’s not even worth starting a new MCAT prep module or logging into office hours yet. Time passes, you’re working or focusing on classes, building up your resume, and all of a sudden…your MCAT is two months away. Cue panic.

Does this story sound familiar? Though, perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones and this story of MCAT stress doesn’t sound familiar at all. If so… what’s your secret?!

Regardless of where you lie on the stress spectrum, it is important to recognize the thin line between eustress and distress (psych/soc mini-lesson, anyone?), and practice stress management for the MCAT. Just like anything else, coping strategies are a skill, and work better if you’ve practiced them while you’re in a low-arousal state. When you find yourself getting amped up, you’ll be better able to call on those relaxation techniques and make them work in the moment – whether that’s before bed, during a practice MCAT, or even during the exam itself.

While everyone responds differently to stress, I took from science (here and here), mental health resources (here) and my own experiences to devise a list of stress management strategies for pre-meds you can apply to your MCAT study routine and beyond, organized from in-the-moment de-escalation strategies to larger lifestyle rules-to-live-by.

Stress Management for the MCAT: Tips and Strategies

PANIC! What now?

If you’ve ever been in a situation, say, staring at your first O-chem test and realizing all the mechanisms you spent the last two weeks studying have fallen out of your brain, you may notice your sympathetic nervous system start to rev up. “Don’t panic!” is easier said than done. Everyone experiences anxiety, but with a test as important as the MCAT, some may experience full-blown panic attacks. Symptoms of a panic attack include heart palpitations, dyspnea (trouble breathing), hot flashes, blurred vision, and in some cases, nausea, vomiting and convulsions. Thankfully, panic attacks are short-lived and peak within 10 minutes, but they can feel incredibly uncomfortable and very scary.

If you find yourself in a heightened state of anxiety, there are a few immediate strategies you can employ to ground yourself and get back to the task at hand.

1. Diaphragmatic breathing.

You’ve probably heard this before, but what is it, really? This type of deep breathing has been around for hundreds of years and is an integral part of relaxation in many cultures and activities, even modern-day yoga. During this exercise, you should take a slow, deep breath that fills your stomach, rather than your chest. This type of breathing is thought to be a “reset” button to your autonomic nervous system, and sends signals to increase parasympathetic activity. This video shows how to practice diaphragmatic breathing.

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2. Distraction Techniques

This is super useful if you’re a high internal monitor, meaning you have a heightened sense of awareness to your own bodily cues. You notice immediately if your heart starts racing, and pay attention to small changes in your breathing rate. Once something catches your attention, it’s impossible NOT to focus on it, which actually feeds the feelings of panic and anxiety. A distraction technique recommended by Rob Cole, LMHC, is counting back from 100 by 3’s (100… 97… 94… etc.). Not the easiest activity, right? The attention required to count by random intervals, go over your multiplication tables, or any other variation of your third-grade Fast Facts keeps your mind focused on something outside of your body, and should establish a level of calm.

3. Grounding

Similar to distraction techniques, grounding forces you to get outside of your own head. Go through your senses, finding four things in your environment you can see, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. One of my personal favorites combines distraction and grounding. I like to look around the room and identify all of the things I can see that are the color blue.

All of these techniques are best practiced at low stress, and easy to do if you start to feel panicky on test day. I recommend all of my students practice the technique that works best for them during a practice MCAT full-length, so they know how it feels to employ the skills in a test setting.

Chronic Stress Management for the MCAT

If you know you struggle with test anxiety, the MCAT is not the time to wing it. Preparation for this marathon exam is key, and that includes the mental prep involved in combating the anxiety you feel leading up to test day. It’s vital to your success to adopt strategies for stress management for the MCAT.

1. Yoga and Meditation

When I took my exam, I knew it was time to put myself in a mental health bootcamp. I was super lucky, and found a yoga studio offering a new student class, and started going to yoga every. Single. Day. I also took advantage of the student discount programs for the Calm App and Headspace. These two apps offer guided meditations that help with anxiety, sleep, and performance among other topics – everything you need to prepare for a big life event. I set aside 5 minutes at lunch and 10 minutes at the end of the day to practice meditation. For me, the routine of yoga and meditation not only gave me a much needed study break, it also helped me focus for longer periods of time and block out distractions when I needed to grind. During the COVID stay-at-home orders, with gyms closed and yoga memberships too pricey, yoga classes on social media and Youtube became my new go-to.

2. Exercise

This may be a “well, duh” point, but important to emphasize nonetheless. The Mayo Clinic notes that exercise increases endorphins (happy neurotransmitters) and allows the body to practice balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems we talked about earlier. Exercise comes in so many forms! Online videos and exercise apps are great, but keep in mind that a walk around the block can be equally therapeutic. Anything to get your blood pumping and you out of your desk chair.

3. Organization

Write it all down. Whether that means engaging with the Blueprint Online Study Planner or starting a bullet journal, seeing all of your tasks in front of you can keep you from feeling overwhelmed and makes it easier to schedule real relaxation time. Having a plan of attack when it comes to prepping for the MCAT and keeping up with school or work keeps you accountable and shows you that no matter how much is on it, you are crossing things off that to-do list! Visible recognition of your progress is both motivating and comforting. Plus, when this is all over, you get to look back and see just how much you accomplished!

MCAT stress management is another unfortunate, but necessary, step in your MCAT prep. Fortunately, once you master stress-coping skills for the MCAT, you’ll be able to use them in every facet of your life!

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