MCAT anxiety: two tricks to use adrenaline to your advantage

MCAT test anxiety
By Carl S.

You know the feeling: an uneasiness in your stomach, a shakiness in your stride, and a growing sense of doom as you approach your test center. You may even be worried that the nerves will cause you to freak out and ruin your chances of a good score.

These feelings are normal and don’t have to ruin your test day performance! If anything, fighting the jitters will only harm your performance. In fact, science shows that if used properly, the adrenaline can help you perform better. 

Here are two free, easy, and scientifically proven ways to use that adrenaline in your favor to perform better.

How to use adrenaline to your advantage

In a famous Harvard study investigating stress and performance (Brooks, 2014), researchers wanted to investigate whether stress could be used to improve performance on a difficult math test. After creating a sense of pressure before the exam, participants were split into three groups and told to do different things: 1) “Try to remain calm,” 2) “Try to get excited,” or 3) “Please wait a few minutes.” 

What did the researchers find? 

The participants who were told to get excited performed significantly better than those who were told something else. This same effect was replicated in a karaoke singing study and a public speaking study, although singing/speaking during the exam is not a good idea. In any case, the science is clear: embracing adrenaline will help you do better. You’re going to feel the adrenaline whether you like it or not, so you should use it to your advantage. 

And how do you do that? 

Reframe your nerves as excitement. You’ve made it far enough to even consider taking the MCAT. Go in with your head held high, ready to take on the challenge of becoming a doctor. 

How to regain energy via adrenaline

You’re five hours into the MCAT and your brain is fried. Your nerves are gone and so is your energy, but you still have another 1.5-hour section left. Now what?

Monks have studied the mind for centuries, passing down knowledge on human emotions and their relationship to the body. To master these emotions, they preach things like quiet meditation, controlled breathing, and fasting. These are seemingly mundane and useless practices, but science is slowly revealing their utility. One easy practice from these monks that you can use on test day is controlled breathing.

According to Russo et. al 2017, not only do the jitters cause fast breathing, but fast breathing can also cause the jitters. The mind influences the body, and the body influences the mind.

What does this mean?

When you need that extra energy boost for the 7-hour monster that is the MCAT, you can induce adrenaline release through fast, short breathing. Just don’t overdo it and freak out your fellow exam takers. With the adrenaline rush, your energy levels will return and you’ll be able to resume the exam with the same level of excitement that you started with.

With that, you’re ready to harness the power of adrenaline and summon it when needed. Go in excited and crush the MCAT. 

Carl is a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Tokyo to engineer tools for brain imaging. Before moving abroad, he majored in Biology and minored in Chemistry at the University of Houston, receiving distinction for his research accomplishments and graduating with a 4.0 GPA.

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