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Stress Management

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Stress Management

by beatthegmat » Thu Jul 26, 2007 7:19 pm
Manhattan GMAT produced a great article on GMAT Stress Management recently. Thought I would share it with you--nice work MGMAT!


Stress Management on the GMAT


Stress and anxiety, for many people, are integral components of their daily lives. In fact, anxiety is a necessary human response. In manageable doses, anxiety protects you from life’s dangers. You naturally feel anxious standing on a cliff and looking over the edge. In essence, your body is heightening your awareness of this potential threat and emphasizing that some action might be necessary to protect your well-being. The same is true with performance or test anxiety. When you are asked to perform, the tension produced from normal anxiety heightens your awareness of the situation and helps you to focus on the “danger” (i.e. task as hand). With this additional focus, you are more easily able to successfully complete your goal, whatever it may be.

For many people, however, this natural, beneficial anxiety response is superseded by an uncontrollable feeling of dread. When asked to prepare for and then take a test, individuals manufacture feelings of such importance about the test that they become overwhelmed by the anxiety associated with it. Symptoms of test anxiety affect both the body and the mind. Hearts race, hands become clammy, breathing grows labored, minds go blank. Worse still, test anxiety is a vicious cycle: worrying about the test causes increased anxiety, which causes increased worry about the test. As GMAT instructors, we have seen or heard of this response all-too-frequently with our students. Recently, a student who was consistently scoring between 35 and 40 on the quantitative section of her practice examinations score a 6 on her actual test. That’s right, she dropped from a score of approximately the 60th percentile to the 1st percentile. When asked what happened, she simply said, “I panicked.” She explained she just couldn’t understand the first problem, and from there her mind just went blank. For the remainder of the section, she was unable to organize her thoughts or regain her focus. Although this case is extreme, many students have allowed test anxiety to undermine their test taking abilities, resulting in scores that are well below their true abilities. This strategy series will focus on methods to control your test anxiety as you ready yourself for the test.

Preparation is Job One

The first step in overcoming test anxiety is to be thoroughly prepared for the test. If you are trying to cram an entire course worth of material into the day preceding your GMAT, of course you will experience a heightened level of anxiety. Preparation is the best antidote to this rational anxiety. The more prepared you are for the test itself, the less you will worry about your ability to solve particular types of problems. Thus, put in the effort necessary to achieve your goal score, and practice frequently in an environment that simulates the test. Without proper preparation, it is extremely difficult to master the GMAT. Since proper preparation is a given for all students and is thoroughly discussed in other strategy series articles, it will not be the focus here. Instead, this strategy series is for individuals who have thoroughly prepared for the test but still suffer from abnormally high levels of test anxiety.

Remember the Basics

As you prepare for the GMAT, make sure that you do not neglect basic biological needs. To do well on the test you must take care of yourself as a person. Leading up to the test, continue your habits of good nutrition and exercise. Foods high in fats or sugars can cause great fluctuations in your mood and your ability to focus, while a lack of exercise can increase sluggishness and also negatively affect your mood. Similarly, adequate sleep is necessary for proper test preparation. Be as consistent as possible with your sleep schedule leading up to your test. The more well-rested you are, the more sharply focused you will be in your preparation and on test day. Finally, keep up with your social and recreational activities. Pleasant time spent with friends is always an effective buffer against test anxiety.

In the following sections, we will focus on specific anxiety reduction tools that can help you remain calm and focused as you prepare for and take your GMAT. Just as developing expertise with the content of the GMAT requires weeks of disciplined, diligent study, learning strategies to reduce your anxiety also requires foresight and practice. Much of the work around controlling your anxiety on test day will actually take place well before the test.


In Part One, we discussed the difference between a healthy level of anxiety and a level that can undermine your performance. We also reiterated that thorough preparation for the GMAT and a healthy lifestyle leading up to the exam can greatly reduce the anxiety surrounding the test-taking experience. This week, we will add two specific anxiety reduction tools to your stress-busting arsenal. Learning some specific techniques prior to taking the GMAT will provide you with the relaxation tools necessary for test day. The first technique is called “framing,” and it concerns changing your overall perspective of the test-taking experience. The second technique is “diaphragmatic breathing,” which teaches you how to release stress and lower anxiety through proper breathing.

Framing (Positive Self-Talk)

Improving your perspective on the test-taking experience is one strategy that can greatly reduce your anxiety and improve your performance. Try not to overplay the importance of the GMAT - remember it’s only a test! The worst that can happen is that you might have to take it again. If your internal dialogue frames the test in all-or-nothing terms, of course you will be overly anxious. Who wouldn’t be anxious over a life or death situation? You must learn to change this negative chatter into positive self-talk. If your self-talk focuses on your thorough preparation and your decision to answer each question to the best of your ability, your anxiety will immediately lessen. As an exercise, it can be valuable to actually write down a few of these positive internal statements and say them aloud each day. Your statement can include any message that reduces your anxiety about the test. For example, one of your statements might be, “I have thoroughly prepared for my upcoming GMAT and will answer each question to the best of my ability.” Or, to simplify, the statement might say, “I will do fine on the GMAT. I know my stuff.” Simply repeating these sentences several times each day will lessen your anxiety and improve your focus.

Diaphragmatic Breathing (Deep Breathing)

Another very effective relaxation technique is diaphragmatic, or deep, breathing. In a matter of a few breaths, you can quickly relax your entire body. To practice deep breathing, follow these steps:

1. Sit quietly, close your eyes, and make sure your spine is straight.
2. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen.
3. Take long, slow, deep breaths through your nose; imagine air filling first your abdomen and then your lungs. The hand on your abdomen should rise with your breathing; the hand on your chest should move slightly at the end of your inhale.
4. Hold your breath for a second or two.
5. Exhale slowly. As you exhale, visualize all of your anxiety and tension leaving exiting your body with your breath.
6. Continue this exercise for 2-5 minutes or until your breathing becomes rhythmic and comfortable.

The purpose of this activity is to develop a process for relaxed breathing that can be used during any stressful situation.


In Part Two, we added two specific tools to your arsenal of techniques for anxiety reduction. To improve your mental state regarding your upcoming GMAT, we discovered the importance of reframing the test in more rational terms. If you convince yourself that you are fully prepared for the test and that you will remain calm during its administration, you are more likely to stay relaxed and focused. To slow your heart rate and calm your body, we discussed the value of diaphragmatic breathing. By taking long, deep breaths that fill your abdomen you can reduce overall anxiety and restore calm.

Before discussing how to apply these techniques to the hours preceding the test and during the test itself, we will learn one additional relaxation technique. When you become stressed or anxious, much of this anxiety is stored in your muscles. Your legs cramp, your shoulders and neck become tense, and your chest tightens. Progressive muscle relaxation helps to minimize the tension found in the muscles throughout your body.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is another technique that can provide an immediate lessening of symptoms related to anxiety. It is s great way to eliminate the tension and anxiety that accumulates in specific muscle groups throughout your body. To practice progressive muscle relaxation, follow the steps listed below.

1. Tense the muscle groups in a particular part of your body. For example, you might stretch out your legs, point your toes, and tighten your calves. This will tense all of the muscle groups in the lower part of your body.
2. Keep the muscles tensed for a few seconds as you slowly and deeply inhale, exhale, and then inhale again.
3. On the second exhale, release the muscles that you had previously tightened. As you release the muscles, visualize all of the tension in these muscles flowing out of your body. These muscles are now very calm. Take your time to notice the calmness now found in your muscles.
4. Breath deeply for at least two long, slow breaths. Continue to focus on the calm and relaxed feelings now found in your muscles.
5. Repeat steps 1-4 with different muscle groups. To ensure that you progressively relax all of your muscles, it might be a good idea to relax your muscles from toe to head. Begin with your leg muscles (as described above), and follow your legs with your chest and abdomen (arch your back and tighten your stomach muscles), your arms (straighten your arms and clench your fists), your neck and shoulders (raise your shoulder toward your ears), and finally your face (first tighten the muscles around your mouth and cheeks, and then tighten the muscles in your forehead). At the end of the exercise, all of your muscles should be relaxed and tension free.

Continue to periodically practice progressive muscle relaxation until you can quickly and easily eliminate the tension in your major muscle groups. This practice will facilitate your ability to instantaneously reduce your muscle tension on test day.

Day Before The Test

The day before the test is often the time when tension and anxiety become overwhelming. Instead of permitting your test anxiety to paralyze you, utilize the skills that you have developed throughout your preparation to minimize your stress. First, be sure to eat healthy, nutritious meals throughout the day. Of course you should avoid junk food, but you should also do your best to avoid caffeine. Caffeine can make you feel jittery, and your brain may mistakenly attribute these jitters to test anxiety, heightening your discomfort. Instead of poisoning your preparation with sugars, fats, and caffeine, choose natural foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Second, do not over-study on the day before the test. It is fine to briefly review some important content, but then distract your mind with other enjoyable activities. Put aside some time to exercise or meet a friend for a smoothie (not a coffee!); this will help to relax your body and your mind as the test approaches. Third, be sure to get plenty of sleep. A refreshed mind will help you approach each problem the next day with calm and confidence. Do not spend the night before the test studying! If you have thoroughly prepared for the test, cramming will only undermine your confidence and increase your anxiety.

If, even after following the above suggestions, your anxiety is difficult to control, simply spend time practicing one or more of the relaxation techniques that you have mastered during your test preparation.


In the last three sections, we discussed both broad and specific techniques to reduce your performance anxiety and help you remain in the “zone” during your GMAT. Today we will look at how to apply these suggestions on test day.

Day of the Test

On the day of the test, wake up and eat a sensible breakfast. Some students use food as a way to reduce anxiety, but indulging in a huge meal can impair your performance by making you feel tired or sick. After breakfast, do something relaxing before you travel to the testing center. If you have developed an exercise routine leading up to the test, engage in a brief workout. If you have mastered diaphragmatic breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, spend a few minutes increasing your sense of calm. Do not try to learn new information on test day. Last minute cramming will only undermine your confidence and increase your anxiety. Whatever time of the day your test happens to be, be sure to arrive at the test-center early. Use the additional time either to focus your thoughts and practice your relaxation techniques or simply to read something enjoyable or interesting. Finally, promise yourself a “reward” following the test. Perhaps a giant frappacino or ice cream sundae would be an appropriate celebration. This will be your prize for maintaining your focus for the duration of the test and for your weeks or months of hard work.

During The Test

If you begin to feel anxious during the test, use your relaxation skills to refocus your attention. Reframe your focus with positive self-talk. Tell yourself, “I can be anxious later. Now is the time to focus on the test,” or reduce your anxiety by reinforcing, “I am thoroughly prepared for this test, and will answer each problem to the best of my ability.” If reframing your focus is not enough to minimize your symptoms of tension and anxiety, incorporate abridged versions of deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. For your breathing, practice a “two-step breath.” Step one is to breathe deeply through your nostrils, first filling your lower abdomen and then your lungs. Step two is to breath out slowly and deeply, envisioning all of your tension and anxiety leaving your body with your breath. For some people, adding a “mantra” to quiet your mind during the two-step breath can enhance its efficacy. During your inhale, slowly think or say to yourself “I am”, and then, during your exhale, slowly think or say “so calm.”

As for your abbreviated version of progressive muscle relaxation, quickly scan your body to notice any specific areas of tension. Tighten each bothersome muscle group for one deep inhale, and then relax your muscles as you exhale slowly and deeply. As always, visualize all of the tension and anxiety leaving your body along with your breath.

After the GMAT, whether you did as well as you had hoped or not, be sure to follow through on the reward you promised yourself — and enjoy it! Try not to dwell on all the mistakes you might have made. Remember, the GMAT is not a matter of life and death – it is only a test!
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Manhattan GMAT covers all of the bases

by GCHall840 » Thu Jul 26, 2007 10:04 pm
I have to say that in addition to presenting a very well developed and very well thought out GMAT preparation program, Manhattan GMAT puts out a whole lot of extra reading/strategy material that I think is very helpful. This particular article written by Manhattan GMAT, is the perfect example of what I think makes it way above the rest when it comes to helping the GMAT aspirant to get the score that they want and need on the test as well. Studying for the GMAT actually could be compared to running in a marathon, so that article focuses in on helping you to become both mentally and physically prepared to take the test, too.


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by amanda898 » Thu Nov 22, 2007 11:26 am
:) thanks
this website is very helpful
thank you, Eric

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by LDRich13 » Sun Jan 08, 2012 10:39 pm
I get anxious about standardized tests and this article is a great help! This will help me a lot this second time around. Thanks for posting! :)