How To Overcome MCAT Stress and Anxiety

A lot of times, while studying or beginning to prepare for the MCAT, our mind gets bogged down with thoughts that make us feel anxious, nervous, or worried.

At MCAT Mastery, we know exactly what you’re going through because we’ve experienced it ourselves. There’s pressure from everywhere. Time pressure especially!

So how do you stay calm in such stress-provoking times?

We’d like to share some guidance and insights that we leverage when we’re getting incredibly stressed.

This has helped us, and will certainly help you, stay calm, collected, and confident throughout MCAT prep…

While reading this, you might be tempted to wonder where this is going, you might be tempted to make assumptions early on, but keep an open mind because this is pretty powerful stuff.

Feeling worried, nervous, or anxious about the MCAT is normal…

…And although you might feel that those feelings are serving you in making you more motivated to study, the fact is that you can be even more motivated to study and do well when you’re approaching MCAT prep from a place of enthusiasm, clear-mindedness, and inspiration.

The fact is, you learn better when you’re happy.

There are many studies that have shown over and over again, that positive emotions enable us to think more clearly, be more attentive, be more motivated, be more creative, and the list goes on.

“It’s only in the last couple of years, that people have studied the positive emotions. And the positive emotions are essential for learning. It turns out those are what drive curiosity and exploration, which is how we learn about the world.” – Frank Thissen, a Multimedia Didactics and Intercultural Communication professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Stuttgart, Germany.

So not only does feeling stress and worry not feel good, it also holds us back from learning to the best of our abilities!

The question now is, how can you get your mind from being in a state of worry and negativity, to a state of positivity and clarity?

First, recognize that emotions can be categorized as either ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. When you’re feeling an emotion, it’s in either one of the two categories.

Secondly, recognize that our thoughts reside in one of three places; in the past, in the future, or in the present.

When you’re thinking, you’re thinking about what happened (past), or what’s going to happen (future), or what’s happening (now).

To explain this better, let’s list some negative emotions…

(You are probably feeling or will feel some of these during your MCAT journey…)

  • Anger
  • Worry
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness
  • Guilt
  • Regret

Now let’s look at where the thoughts reside, when these emotions are felt…

  • Anger: in the past because you’re angry about something that happened
  • Worry: in the future because you’re worried about something that’s going to happen (i.e. the MCAT)
  • Anxiety: in the future
  • Sadness: in the past
  • Guilt: in the past
  • Regret: in the past

Key Insight: Negative emotions are usually associated with the past or the future.

Now let’s list out some positive emotions:

  • Joy
  • Pleasure
  • Excitement
  • Enthusiasm
  • Delight
  • Fascination
  • Euphoria
  • Relief

Notice, all these emotions are emotions you feel in the present moment.

Think about it, when you’re laughing with friends in joy, you’re not concerned about your exams.

When you’re on a roller coaster or are having sex, you’re not thinking about how you handed in your assignment late.

When you’re engrossed in a good movie, you’re not thinking about a question you got wrong.

Key Insight: Positive emotions are usually associated with the present moment.

The present moment can be addictive as well. When you’re in the present, you’re relieved from any burdens you’re carrying (consciously or unconsciously).

Alcohol and drugs are tools that bring people in the present moment – it helps them ‘escape temporarily’ from the negativity in their lives.

Once people sober up, they’re back to reality and are looking forward to having their escape again.

Alcohol and drugs aren’t the only addictive shortcuts to the present moment; porn is another one, so is overeating, and scrolling through Facebook news feeds.

To be clear, we’re not advocating ‘escaping’ from your emotions in such ways. Our goal here is not to help you ‘escape’ from your emotions, but to manage them in a healthy way.

Knowing that you learn better, are more motivated, are more creative, have better memory, etc., when you’re in a positive place… imagine what that can do for your MCAT prep and MCAT score.

Imagine knowing that your med-school career can go by with less stress, yet higher results.

What if you could cultivate a present-state awareness at will, so you can continuously be in a state of complete positivity, enthusiasm, curiosity, and excitement while you’re studying, so you’re learning better?

Or what if you could cultivate that present state awareness even when you’re taking a break from studying, so that when you’re taking a break, you’re ACTUALLY taking a break instead of worrying about how you’re not studying.

Getting high results while being happy the whole time? That sounds like an amazing life if you ask me, and the best part is, with some practice it can become a possibility for you.


So the question is…

How do you achieve this present state awareness regularly?

That’s what we want to show you…

But first, you might not be entirely convinced of the power of being in the present moment. You might be wondering if he we’re about to go heavy into some ‘new age pseudoscience’ kind of stuff.

As the future doctor that you are, you’ll appreciate something we dug up…

We’d like to introduce you to Julie Connelly, MD who has written an article in the Journal of Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

The article is called:

Being in the present moment: developing the capacity for mindfulness in medicine. 

You can read the abstract – here’s a portion of it:

“Medical practice is beset by interruptions, contests for the attention of the physician, and urgent demands that diminish the attentiveness required for the humanistic care of patients.

This essay discusses skills for “being in the present moment” that can help doctors to overcome distractedness…

Applying these skills in everyday practice rewards the physician with renewed energy, a fresh perspective, and increased strength while preventing the stress and harm caused by a distracted or inattentive practice.”

Here’s where you hopefully caught a glimpse of the bigger picture; this isn’t just about MCAT prep, it’s about excelling in your medical practice. It’s about training yourself now, to be the kind of individual that can get through med-school and become a doctor with clarity and confidence.

I guarantee another reason why the MCAT is such a brutal process is because AAMC wants to see if you can take such high level of pressure and stress – if you can conquer your objectives while remaining calm, collected, and clear-headed.

With that said, we have tips and advice on how you can leverage everything you’ve learned so far and remain present in your daily lives and especially during MCAT prep.

In an effort to not turn this article into a mini-book, here are 2 tips you can start implementing right away during your MCAT prep…

1 – Savour Non-MCAT Prep Time

“Being present-minded takes away some of that self-evaluation and getting lost in your mind—and in the mind is where we make the evaluations that beat us up,” says Stephen Schueller, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Stephen Schueller conducted a study where subjects took a few minutes every day to savour (to enjoy completely) something they usually zoomed through.

Walking to the bus and eating breakfast, for example.

Once they did this, they began experiencing more positive emotions like joy, happiness, and fewer negative emotions like worry, sadness, and stress.

Psychologists are big fans of advising their stressed patients to savour everything they do.

During your MCAT journey, while you’re eating, taking a shower, listening to music, really do those things.

Being in the present is about using your senses attentively.

Be conscious of your breathing every now and then. In fact, pay attention to your breathing right now.

Taste your food 100%.

Experience the shower and music to its fullest.

These small moments of presence will calm your mind and create a calming momentum throughout the rest of your day and especially when you sit down to start studying.

With a clear mind, your level of efficiency in studying will improve dramatically.

2 – Get In The Flow

Have you ever been so engrossed in something you’re doing that you lose track of everything else around you? Where you’re so engaged and your focus is so intense that you’re unaware of time passing?

This could happen when you’re doing something artistic, solving a puzzle, working on an assignment you enjoy, playing a game, etc.

That state of complete absorption is what psychologists call “flow”. When you’re in this state, you’re in the present moment.

Your mind is clear and from what we’ve seen, productivity and the quality of studying increases exponentially – nothing compared to when you’re studying out of this state.

When you’re in a state of flow, nothing distracts you. You don’t need to put your phone on silent because even if it’s ringing or vibrating, you won’t notice.

Imagine being able to experience that state every time you begin MCAT prep…

One powerful way to get into the state of flow during MCAT prep is to clearly define your goals so that you always know your next step. These are short term and baby-step goals.

What are baby-step goals?

“It could be playing the next bar in a scroll of music, or finding the next foothold if you’re a rock climber, or turning the page if you’re reading a good novel…” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who first defined the notion of flow.

“…At the same time, you’re kind of anticipating.”

Before opening up your MCAT prep book, have a big-picture goal:

Example: “I’m going to complete __ chapter(s) in ___ many hour(s)”. That means, with breaks included, I have to go through __ pages every __ minute(s).

Scenario example: If I want to complete 1 chapter (40 pages) in 2 hours (120 minutes) (big-picture goal) with 20 minute of break, I know I have to read 1 page every 2.5 minutes.

As you see you’re constantly accomplishing mini-goals and getting through a page every 2.5 minutes, every 2.5 minutes you will be propelled to keep going.

Broken down like that, the goal doesn’t seem so daunting anymore.

It almost becomes a game, seeing if you can hit milestones. Games always have a way of ‘bringing us into the moment’.

A major cause of stress is not knowing exactly where you’re going and what steps you’re going to take.

For some, the above example might be zooming in too much.

Maybe your baby step goal can be to read non stop for 50 minutes. Break for 10 min – check FB, email, etc. Then go on for another 50 minutes with no distractions.

And keep doing this until you’ve studied minimum 6 hours today.

A lot of people use that system to work/study. You can also work for 45 min and break for 15.

Once you focus your mind on those smaller, baby-steps, you slowly get immersed in your work.

Hours will begin passing before you even know it.

You’ll also free yourself from the desire to check email, phone, Facebook, etc., because you’ll know you’ll do that in your break and right now, you’re in the flow.

Most of the time, you’ll end up surpassing your goals when in the flow state. Your productivity will sky-rocket and progress will speed up.

Sometimes when I have to clean my room, I just tell myself that I’ll put 5 things away. Putting away 5 things sounds way too easy to say “no” to.

So of course, I put 5 things away, and before I know it, I put the 6th thing away, then the 7th… soon I’m in the zone, in the flow, and the room is clean.

Use that strategy to get started with studying – perhaps your baby step goal is “I’ll read 5 pages” or “I’ll read just 1 chapter”. Trust me, before you know it, you’ll be in the zone.

Most stress and anxiety comes from inaction and not progressing. When you’re productive, you replace worry with the feeling of accomplishment.

Being present and getting in the state of flow during MCAT prep, will enable you achieve high productivity.

As a result, your MCAT studying performance AND your MCAT score, will flourish.

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