The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is an exceptionally challenging exam that requires numerous hours of preparation. While the MCAT is a stepping stone for students to achieve their dreams, it often comes with feelings of stress. For many students, MCAT anxiety is a very real issue.
Because of this, dealing with MCAT anxiety is crucial when preparing for the test. Stress management strategies can improve your emotional and physical well-being, as well as your performance on the exam.
Here are some effective ways to reduce MCAT stress:
1. Don’t Ignore Your Negative Emotions
It is never a good idea to ignore or suppress your feelings because doing so only serves to increase your anxiety. You will be able to overcome your worries once you recognize them. The exam results are out of your hands, so remind yourself that worry is a natural response to uncertainty.
2. Set Realistic Goals
Getting a 514 on the MCAT is an admirable goal, but it also brings huge pressure. Aim for smaller, measurable targets along the way, regardless of your long-term objective. The best goals are those that you can control. Examples of this are taking one practice test a week or reviewing 100 flashcards.
These objectives are more significant and practical than a score-based objective. Smaller achievements are especially helpful if you’re feeling discouraged or stressed out.
3. Try to Have a Healthy Diet
Too many students fall into the trap of eating fast food because it’s quick and easy, drinking too much caffeine because they have to stay focused for long hours.
Your body is like a machine that works best when properly fueled and hydrated. Functioning during MCAT prep includes learning and remembering new information. More than ever, you need foods with a powerful mix of vitamins, fiber, protein, and healthy fats that science has shown to improve health, especially brain health. The ideal diet for brain health is one that is well-balanced and includes a wide variety of nutrients, such as these:
- Proteins low in fat, such as white fish, plain Greek yogurt, beans, peas, lentils, chicken, and eggs.
- Good fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, found in avocados, fatty fish like salmon, nuts (walnuts in particular), seeds, and extra virgin olive oil.
- Dark, leafy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, Swiss chard, and kale, which contain vitamins K, B6, and B12 for better concentration and memory. These vegetables also contain antioxidants.
Foods high in complex carbohydrates, such as whole-grain bread, brown rice, oats, quinoas, barleys, corn, and other similar crops.
4. Stay Hydrated
You should drink enough water every day, but when you’re stressed out, it’s even more crucial.
- Water enables faster chemical processes in our body.
- Water makes it easier for the brain and the rest of the body to send and receive messages.
- Water helps supply our brain with the nutrients it needs to function properly.
- Water detoxifies our body and brain.
- Drinking water helps keep the body temperature stable.
Dehydration stresses our body, which causes the brain to release stress hormones and trigger a stress response. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine states that an adequate amount of fluid to drink daily is about 15.5 cups (130 ounces) for men and about 11.5 cups (95 ounces) for women.
Exercise lowers cortisol levels and releases endorphins. It causes your heart to beat faster, sending blood to all your organs, including your brain. Exercise increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain responsible for memory retention. People who exercise frequently have larger prefrontal cortexes.
Aside from helping you forget about your problems, engaging in physical activity can also boost your mood. Exercising forces you to concentrate on your body rather than your thoughts because it involves performing actions in a repetitive pattern. Concentrating on a single physical activity can generate a feeling of vitality and optimism. This can, in turn, bring peace and clarity.
Some people report that they experience an immediate lift in their mood after participating in physical activity. Those emotions typically continue and build up over time. As you continue to stick with a regular exercise schedule, you may see an improvement in your sense of well-being.
You can feel better emotionally by doing something as basic as gardening or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Any form of exercise can improve your health and reduce stress. However, it is essential to pick an activity you look forward to rather than one you despise. For example, don’t choose swimming as your activity if you dislike the water. If running makes you nervous, training for a 5K race won’t help you feel better. Try different things until you find something you like. If you’re having fun while working out, you’re more likely to adhere to your routine.
6. Get Enough Sleep
There is a widespread misconception among students getting ready to take the MCAT that pulling an all-nighter will help them catch up with their studies and improve more quickly. However, your body requires sleep to process information and retain memories.
The body may respond to sleep deprivation by producing extra cortisol, a stress hormone. The hormone cortisol is responsible for your “fight or flight” response, which includes an increased heart rate in preparation for a potential threat. Therefore, you’ll find yourself stuck in a stress/sleep-deprivation cycle that can severely affect your life quality. In general, depending on a person’s age and a variety of other factors, sleep specialists advise that individuals should get 7–9 hours of sleep per night. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule will help you perform better physically and mentally. You will wake up feeling revitalized and rejuvenated if you get a decent night’s sleep, and you will be ready to tackle another day of studying.
7. Use Progressive Muscle Relaxation Techniques (PMR)
Progressive muscle relaxation is a fantastic stress-relieving technique that can be done before exams, before bed, or at other times when anxiety leaves you feeling physically tense. This method aims to achieve a state of full relaxation throughout the body by tensing and then relaxing each muscle.
If you practice enough, you can learn to release the tension in your body very quickly. This can be especially helpful for students because it can help them relax before bed and have a deeper sleep or calm test-induced panic before or during an exam.
8. Try Meditation and Breathing Techniques
During times of stress, you may not be able to think as clearly as you normally would. Breathing exercises are a quick technique to de-stress. These may be used almost anywhere to reduce tension in a matter of minutes, and they are particularly useful before or even during tests, as well as in other situations when stress seems overwhelming.
Try inhaling for three seconds, holding your breath for a second, and exhaling for six seconds. Breathing out for longer than you breathe in can activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn slows your heart rate and signals your brain to relax. Try to inhale with your stomach, not your chest. You will see that this simple technique reduces your stress level significantly.
It would help if you try to meditate for at least fifteen to twenty minutes each day. Become familiar with various meditation techniques and allow your brain to rest. There are a variety of apps to help you with your meditation. You may try out apps like Headspace or Calm. As you get better at meditating, you’ll learn to observe your body’s stress without judging it. If you accomplish this, you can let it pass quickly and easily.
9. Listen to Music
Music is an excellent stress reliever and brain booster. You can use it to reduce your tension and, depending on the circumstances, to either settle down or excite your mind. It can be used as a stress reliever while doing other things, so it doesn’t take much time. Music is a great background for your daily routines, and it can make you enjoy what you’re doing more and take the stress out of your day. Play classical music while studying, lively music to wake up, or gentle tunes to relax.
10. Go Out
Our stress levels significantly drop when we get outside and enjoy the fresh air. Studies have shown that those with a stronger connection to nature are generally happier than others.
Move your studying outside (if it won’t distract you), go for a walk, or pick a tree and relax in its shade. If you live in a place where it’s hard to get into nature, you don’t have to go very far. Opening a window, turning on some nature sounds, or looking at images of the outdoors can help you relax.
11. Follow a Schedule
When you don’t have a clear plan, studying for the MCAT can feel incredibly stressful. Keeping track of so many things could be a daunting task.
Consider setting a schedule, breaking your study time into manageable chunks, and making a detailed study plan. This can help you feel more in control of your studies and clear your mental clutter. Without a strategy, you lose valuable time and mental energy deciding what to study rather than starting immediately. Your brain will be better able to recognize when it is time to study if you establish clear habits.
You can better manage your studying with the assistance of well-designed study aids and materials. They can remove the element of uncertainty from your planning.
12. Don’t Forget to Take a Break.
It’s not realistic (or healthy) to think that you can study without any breaks. Set aside time each week to not do anything related to the MCAT. You should also schedule time for your classes, work, and other responsibilities. Depending on your preferences, this could mean a few hours off every day, a full day off every week, or a combination of both. This may give the impression that you are avoiding the issue, but there are times when you need a break to gather your thoughts, take a step back, and re-evaluate the situation. The best way to deal with excessive stress is to stop studying for a few days so your body can return to a state of relaxation, and you will be more focused when you return.
13. Express Your Feelings.
There is truth in the proverb, “a burden shared is a burden halved.“ If you keep your emotions bottled up, they will eventually become an anchor that will drag you down. Sharing your thoughts with others puts them into perspective and makes them seem less overwhelming. You’ll be amazed at how much lighter you feel once you open up about your MCAT anxieties.
You may also try looking for an MCAT study group. You’ll feel less isolated when you find out that you are not the only one who is stressed about the test.
During test preparation, you should find effective ways to reduce MCAT anxiety. Obviously, you can’t do all the tips mentioned above every day. If you did, you wouldn’t have any time to study. You may combine many of these strategies.
Dealing with MCAT anxiety is important because passing the MCAT means getting ready for medical school. If you are under a lot of stress when preparing for the MCAT, there is a strong probability that you will be under a comparable amount of stress while attending medical school. The more you use stress management techniques now, the more effective they will be when you need them in medical school.