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Overcome GMAT Exam Anxiety

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Overcome GMAT Exam Anxiety: Breathe!

BY MIKE MCGARRY, MAGOOSH


You study for months, mastering concept after concept, practice test after practice test, and then on the big day, in front of the test itself, you are so nervous that you psych yourself out. How to avoid this? This series of articles presents a few ideas that have the potential to transform your experience of performing under pressure, on the GMAT and beyond.

The Breath

This recommendation, at first blush, is going to sound like the oldest cliché in the book: breathe deeply. Before you completely dismiss this, let me talk for a moment about neuroanatomy.

The Autonomic Nervous System

Parts of our nervous system are under our conscious control: thoughts, skeletal muscle motion, etc. Beyond that, there are circuits that run everything over which we have no conscious control. This is the Autonomic Nervous System, which takes care of digestion, kidney and liver functions, healing, etc. The Autonomic Nervous System has two complementary sections: SNS & PNS.

The Sympathetic Nervous System

The first is the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): this is the system that revs us up in excitement, fear, or stress. When the SNS is activated, adrenaline & cortisol levels rise, heart rate increases, breathing becomes more rapid and more shallow, digestion & immune function & libido are inhibited, muscle tension increases, and blood is directed more toward the outer musculature (as would be needed in fight or flight). A little bit of SNS arousal is good every day, but prolonged SNS arousal with rare breaks, over the course of months and years, has potentially disastrous effects on long-term health.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System

The second is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), the so-called Relaxation Response. When the PNS is activated, adrenaline & cortisol levels decline, heart rate decreases, breathing becomes slower and deeper, digestion & immune function & libido are enhanced, muscle tension decreases, and blood is directed more toward the inner organs. This state facilitates focus, concentration, recall, and insight.

SNS/PNS and Test-Taking

Of the two branches, which is more helpful on a big test like the GMAT? Well, to excel, you have to be energized enough that you are not apathetic or falling asleep, but beyond that minimal level of SNS arousal, you should be relaxed, in PNS arousal. There, your intuition has the greatest free play, and you will be better positioned to draw on your potential.

The “On Switch” for the PNS

If you are in SNS arousal, how do you get to the PNS state? This is the magic of the breath. One can’t consciously direct one’s heart rate or cortisol levels, but by consciously taking slower and deeper breaths, that stimulates the PNS and all its effects. This is one of the many benefits, for example, of meditation. The breaths have to be very big: comparatively short in-breaths that expand the whole belly & whole chest, and then comparatively slow out-breaths. If you practice this regularly, you will feel the effects. Practice sitting in traffic, in meetings, standing in line. Practice before (or during) a stressful discussion with your boss or lover. If you practice this skill enough to develop some proficiency in relaxing yourself by the time you take the GMAT, you will be giving yourself one of the powerful overall advantages you possibly could have.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is open-ended awareness. If I move through my life with mindfulness, I am curious, perceptive, and present to my present circumstances. To be mindful is to notice the often overlooked taken-for-granted details of everyday life. To practice the skill of mindfulness, one might, for example, try to notice one new thing on one’s way to work each day, or try to notice each day one new sight or perspective in a place you ostensibly know very well. Mindfulness is can be externally focused on the environment, and can also be internally focused: how does my body feel right now? What is the quality of my breath? Are my muscles relaxed? What emotions are passing through me? What thoughts are running through my head? To be mindful is never to be too far away from such questions, never to completely lose track of the primary feelings of one’s self in the rush of outer events.

Benefits of Mindfulness

In recent years, psychologists have amassed a small mountain of data demonstrating the enormous benefits of mindfulness practices. Jon Kabat-Zinn is one of the leading authors in this burgeoning field. Several books & workshops are available that can assist one in developing mindfulness practices. Mindfulness practice can reduce stress, and increase both clarity and perceptivity.

Mindfulness and the GMAT

Consider for a moment your practice GMAT questions: how many times have you gotten a question wrong, only to go back and realize that you misread it or overlooked an important subtlety? Yes, that’s what many people would call a “silly” mistake, and the truth is we all make more of those than we would like. What would it mean for your GMAT score if you could drastically reduce the number of those mistakes you make? If you develop a mindfulness practice, enough to have some familiarity with it before you sit for the GMAT, then you will be able to walk into that test and read each question with the same careful eye and open-ended curiosity you have been practicing elsewhere. Your mind will be clearer, and you will feel less stress.

Of course, there’s a chance that being mindful of customers’ requests, mindful of connections with others, and mindful of cool-headed priorities in the heat of the moment might pay dividends in your career far beyond the GMAT. And, you’ll be happier.

Second article: stress and your thoughts
Third article: stress and your stories
Fourth article: concrete recommendation for stress reduction

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Beating GMAT Stress

BY MIKE MCGARRY, MAGOOSH


In Overcome GMAT Exam Anxiety: Breathe!, we learned about the breathing and its ability to stimulate the relaxing effects of the SNS, as well as a little about mindfulness, and its ability to reduce stress and enhance your performance. In this post, we are going to take on directly the juggernaut of your stress: viz, your thoughts.

Your Thoughts vs. You

Folks like us, who take tests like the GMAT, are generally successful: we’re college graduates and proficient in careers. Our heads have gotten us far, and that’s great. In a way, though, that’s precisely the problem. There are certain times when we need to think hard about something, but the mind creates thoughts 24/7 regardless of whether thoughts are needed. The mind continuous “secretes” thoughts much as, say, the saliva glands continuously secrete saliva. Not every thought that passes through our heads is true, and in particular, the more charged thoughts often are based on scanty evidence and/or wildly improbable scenarios, and yet these are the ones that can deeply drive our emotions. Often the difference between feeling confident or defeated walking into a situation has to do with the thought-cycle that is spinning at the moment. How does one bring discipline and conscious choice to bear on one’s thoughts?

Creating Space

Just as one can be mindful of one’s body or one’s breath, one can be mindful of one’s thoughts. This means simply watching the thoughts as a stream, as a passing parade. When one feels one’s self starting to get engulfed in the rollercoaster of a particular thought-pattern, one simply steps back and labels it “thought.” By that label, we are not saying it is true or false, simply a thought, no more.

If this is new to you, then at first, it will seem next to impossible. Much more than other forms of mindfulness, mindfulness of thought requires tremendous perseverance and conscientiousness. One might find visualization and related tricks helpful – for example, imagining an unpleasant scene in your head getting smaller and smaller, or imagining turning down the volume on a troubling voice in one’s head. At first, one simply realizes in retrospect, “I had that thought, and then I went on that whole emotional ride when I didn’t have to!” With practice, though, one creates space: space between one’s self and the entrance to the rollercoaster, space to insert a more positive thought — or space simply to be mindful and breathe deeply. Imagine being able to walk into your GMAT with that kind of inner spaciousness! Imagine being able to approach your career like that!

Practice

Moments when the mind is apt to be idle are the best times to put effort into this practice: in the shower, commuting time, standing in line, waiting for an appointment, etc. Of course, the very best practice would be a full-blown daily meditation routine. Many of the stress-reducing benefits of meditation simply have to do with enabling folks no longer to ride the thought rollercoasters they don’t want to ride. In addition to the myriad health and psychological benefits of meditation, such a practice would enable you to approach the GMAT, or any analogous challenge, with one-pointed clarity and balance. If you can commit to daily meditation, you will see some benefits even in the GMAT a month or two away, and you will see more and more benefits in both your personal life and career as the practice deepens over time. Short of developing a full daily mediation practice, if you just practice mindfulness of thoughts consistently, in the odd empty moments of each day, you will make significant progress derailing the thought rollercoasters that don’t serve you, thereby becoming that much more calm and confident at the moments when you need to be “on” — for example, when you take your GMAT.
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Stress and your stories

BY MIKE MCGARRY, MAGOOSH


There’s an old Chinese parable that runs something like this:

    "One day, an old farmer was working in his field with his old horse. When the farmer turned his back, the horse unexpectedly ran into the mountains. Soon after, neighbors from the nearby village visited, offering their condolences and said, “What a shame. Now your only horse is gone.” The farmer replied: “Who knows? We shall see.”

    Two days later the old horse came back, now rejuvenated after a bit of freedom in the mountainsides. He came back with a few new younger and healthy horses which followed the old horse into the corral. Word got out in the village of the old farmer’s good fortune and it wasn’t long before people stopped by to congratulate the farmer on his good luck. “How fortunate you are!” they exclaimed. “You must be very happy!” Again, the farmer softly said, “Who knows? We shall see.”

    At daybreak on the next morning, the farmer’s only son set off to attempt to train the new wild horses, but the farmer’s son was thrown to the ground and broke his leg. One by one villagers arrived during the day to bemoan the farmer’s latest misfortune. “Oh, what a tragedy! You must be very sad,” they said. Calmly going about his usual business the farmer answered, “Who knows? We shall see.”

    Several days later a war broke out. The Emperor’s men arrived in the village demanding that young men come with them to be conscripted into the Emperor’s army. As it happened the farmer’s son was deemed unfit because of his broken leg. “What very good fortune you have!” the villagers exclaimed as their own young sons were marched away. “You must be very happy.” “Who knows? We shall see!” replied the old farmer as he headed off to work his field alone.

    As time went on the broken leg healed but the son was left with a slight limp. Again the neighbors came to pay their condolences. “Oh what bad luck. Too bad for you!” But the old farmer simply replied; “Who knows? We shall see.”

    As it turned out the other young village boys had died in the war and the old farmer and his son were the only able bodied men capable of working the village lands. The old farmer became wealthy and was very generous to the villagers. They said: “Oh how fortunate we are, you must be very happy,” to which the old farmer replied, “Who knows? We shall see!”

Probably one story you have in your head is how good your life will be if you get the GMAT score you desire and get into the school you want. You may also have a competing story, about how unpleasant it would be if you didn’t get that score or had to go to this school instead of that school. Of course, there’s nothing to say either of those stories have any truth to them. There are countless examples of folks who do brilliantly on the GMAT, go to great schools, but then for whatever reason are not as successful afterward. There are also folks who never did well on standardized tests, who went to schools that others would consider unworthy, but still are fabulously successful in their careers. Furthermore, while meditation and mindfulness practice are strongly correlated with greater happiness and fulfillment, wealth is absolutely 100% uncorrelated with overall life-happiness. So, incidentally, is GMAT score.

Wait a minute! It sounds like Mike is saying the GMAT doesn’t matter. Not at all. My goal on this blog is to support the readers in their success on the GMAT in whatever way I can. I want to encourage you in doing everything that can further your success: studying content, learning strategies, taking practice tests, etc. All that is wonderful. Your stories, though, about what it all means: that’s a different matter. Your stories about what the future will be don’t contribute bupkis to your GMAT preparedness. In fact, if the stories you tell yourself generate anxiety or distraction, then they are positively detrimental to your GMAT preparedness. The truth is: no one even knows what tomorrow will bring, let alone a year or decade from now. As the poet W.S. Merwin wrote: “Today belongs to the few; tomorrow, to no one.”

We all imagine the future: that’s natural. The problem is when we become convinced about stories about the future, and they cause us stress or fear or anxiety. It is often enough to “unplug” the emotional drama of a story simply to step back and acknowledge: of course, we don’t know if that’s how the future will turn out. None of us know what the future will be. What I am suggesting is a kind of detachment toward our stories. Detachment is very different from apathy. Apathy is cutting off, not caring. Detachment is a vital engagement that, rather than locking on to any one story, acknowledges, in all humility, that the future may well contain more than I can imagine right now. In fact, I would even argue: if your future turns out exactly as you are able to imagine it right now, then that means you would be falling short of your potential, because your potential is always beyond what you can imagine.

As with what I have recommended in the other posts, this detachment from our stories about the future takes practice. After a big surprise or big disappointment, it takes practice to be able to say, like the Chinese farmer, “Who knows? We’ll see.” Of course, deep breathing and mindfulness practice will dovetail nicely with this practice. Insofar as you can practice this and develop this skill, you will find you have more of your focus and more of your emotional energy at your disposal in the present moment, and thus are ready to bring your best self forward on whatever is the task at hand. And that is precisely what I would wish for you on your GMAT.
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Collection of Questions:
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Zen Boot Camp for the GMAT

BY MIKE MCGARRY, MAGOOSH


Earlier posts have talked about the values of breathing, mindfulness, and disattaching from one’s stories. Over the course of a lifetime, a committed meditation practice or daily yoga practice would be the way to develop all these wonderful skills. What if you would like to move in that direction as much as possible between now and your GMAT, but your GMAT is only a month or two away? Starting a meditation practice would help a little, but here are some steps you can take now to accelerate your progress in this direction.

Understand, these steps are not easy, and may even appear radical. If you wanted to design a culture that would maximize human distractedness, uncenteredness, and inner dissatisfaction despite external comfort, you could hardly do better than our current electronic media-driven culture. What I advocate here flies in the face of everything this culture values, so in that sense, it is “radical”, but at the same time it is deeply consistent with what has sometimes been called the “perennial philosophy“, so in that sense, it’s also traditional in the deepest sense.

If you want a fast-track to decreasing your stress and anxiety, increasing your focus, calming your mind, and enhancing your memory and your intuition, here are the steps I recommend.

    (1) (review from the previous article) Deep breathing throughout the day: slow full breaths during virtually all activities, especially in the quiet “in between” moments of the day (on the elevator, in traffic, before a meeting, etc.) This stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), the “Relaxation Response.”

    (2) Cut down drastically on excitement. Excitement and stress feel different, but they both exercise the same pathways in the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). A little excitement is fine, but if you chase a lot of excitement, you are asking for a lot of stress. To practice one is to practice the other. This is precisely why a diminutive Zen Master was famous for saying: “Adventure — heh. Excitement — heh. A Jedi craves these things not.”

    (3) Lowering SNS stimulation means: Exceedingly little TV. Very few action movies. Very few video games. No adrenaline-inducing thrills. In fact, spend the majority of your down time without electronic stimulation of any sort, without anything electronic in front of your eyes, not “plugged in.”

    (4) Eight hours of sleep every single night. Nothing enables the encoding of new information into long-term memory more effectively than REM sleep, and in an eight-hour period of sleep, your longest REM period is in the last 1.5 hour sleep cycle of the night.

    (5) Exercise daily. Make sure a thorough stretch of the whole body is included in your workout (that’s particularly easy if your daily workout happens to be yoga or a martial art form.)

    (6) Use caffeine sparingly at most. Absolutely no energy drinks. Avoid “high fructose corn syrup” (think of that as ADD-inducing juice!) Be abstemiously sparing with alcohol. No recreational drugs at all.

    (7) Eat healthy: more fresh fruits and veggies, fewer processed foods. Eat more organic, if that’s possible. Drink plain water —- not any liquid, but plain water —- at least eight big glasses of water a day as a minimum; 3-4 liters per day would be better. Use a sauna or sweat lodge, if you have access to one (drink even more water if you do this). If you are really ambitious about cleaning toxins from your body, then do a colon cleanse (drink even more water if you do this).

    (8) Insofar as you have the possibility, spend quiet time in Nature, daily if possible. That could be a walk in the woods or walk on the beach if those are close to where you live. It can be looking up at the Moon and night sky in a relatively quiet place. For folks in intensely urban areas, with essentially no easy access to pristine Nature, it even can be as minimal as sitting and staring at potted flowers, or feeling the wind or rain on your skin. —- In the STAR WARS movies, the “Force” was described as flowing from Nature, from living things, and all the planets that played a significant role in defeating the Evil Empire were forest or jungle planets. The human mind spontaneously enters a calmer and more spacious emotional place when we spend some time walking around in Nature. Whatever else the “Force” is, it is about stimulating relaxed mindful awareness of the PNS.

    (9) For mindfulness practice, start the habit of noticing one new thing in each familiar environment of your life: your office, your own living space, familiar stores, friends’ houses, etc. Each time you are there, force yourself to notice something you have never noticed before: it may be an object, or color, or scent, or sound. It may be just a perspective or point of view. It may be a quality of light & shadow at a particular moment of the day. It may be intuitive, a vibe about the place. Force yourself to notice something new every day, or every time you are there. At first, it may feel like there are only a few possibilities, and you will run out in a week or so, but the more you practice this, the more you realize: even the most familiar place offers a veritable infinitude of new discoveries.

    (10) Practice curiosity and wonder. This is not so much inquisitiveness, needing to know the answer to things. It’s more about opening up questions that may not have any clear answer. Be curious about what other people’s experience might be like, all the “minor characters” in the film of your life. Be curious about natural things: plants, birds, patterns of water flow, etc. Be curious about histories and stories of people and things. Every day, challenging yourself to entertain genuine curiosity about something which, previously, it never occurred to you to find interesting in the least.

    (11) If you feel ambitious about practicing mindfulness, read one of the respected authors: Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mark Epstein, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein.

    (12) If you feel particularly ambitious about becoming a Jedi Master, then start a daily meditation practice.

This is a difficult set of recommendations, I am aware. If you can implement even half of them, you will be making excellent progress. Even that would be a challenge. The recipe for mediocrity is, quite simply: do what everyone else does. If you want an extraordinary outcome, you need to take extraordinary steps. These are extraordinary steps, steps that have been proven, in both traditional and scientific contexts, to support greater attention and focus and successful performance under pressure.

If you can implement these between now and the GMAT, you will find lower anxiety and greater clarity available for the test itself. If you can continue with these practices after the GMAT, you will find the focus and centeredness will give you an edge in business school and in the business world. And, much more importantly, you’ll be happier.
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Resources:
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Collection of Questions:
PS: 1. Tough and Tricky questions; 2. Hard questions; 3. Hard questions part 2; 4. Standard deviation; 5. Tough Problem Solving Questions With Solutions; 6. Probability and Combinations Questions With Solutions; 7 Tough and tricky exponents and roots questions; 8 12 Easy Pieces (or not?); 9 Bakers' Dozen; 10 Algebra set. ,11 Mixed Questions, 12 Fresh Meat

DS: 1. DS tough questions; 2. DS tough questions part 2; 3. DS tough questions part 3; 4. DS Standard deviation; 5. Inequalities; 6. 700+ GMAT Data Sufficiency Questions With Explanations; 7 Tough and tricky exponents and roots questions; 8 The Discreet Charm of the DS; 9 Devil's Dozen!!!; 10 Number Properties set., 11 New DS set.


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Re: Overcome GMAT Exam Anxiety [#permalink]

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Interesting. Excellent read. Many thanks for the article(s). This totally spurred my interest. I have my test scheduled in about 6 weeks time (on Aug 4th). If I wish to bring about whatever little 'mindfulness' changes I can before the exam, what should I follow and which of Kabat-Zinn's book should I start with?

I noticed on the web that there are lots of his books. Is it 'Mindfulness for Beginners'? Please suggest. Also, please suggest if there are other alternatives for bringing about any change in this short duration. Of course, I do realize that this is a really long term life-hack(if I can use that term). But given our love for shortcuts, any short-term help tips would help a lot as well. Thanks

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