I hear you. You are freaking out. You’ve got a big standardized test coming up with your next major academic or professional career transition riding on it.
If you are an undergrad, the MCAT’s, LSAT’s or GRE’s will literally determine the quality of the higher institution you will be eligible for or if you are even eligible at all.
If you are finishing up Medical School or Law School, those board exams are going set the course of your entire professional life.
If you already have your subordinate degrees and dissertation completed and you now have a PhD or PsyD behind your name, that state or Federal licensing exam will dictate whether or not you can practice at all.
These big tests are marathon races, not sprints like midterms or finals. After administrative work and breaks they can range anywhere from five to seven and a half hours as is the case with the MCATs. Another hurdle is that some sections in certain tests are timed. Brutal. And if you are taking the California Bar exam you are looking at twelve plus hours over two consecutive days.
But it doesn’t really matter where you are on the academic or professional scale. Test anxiety is an equal opportunity malady that can affect anyone no matter how smart you are or how academically accomplished you are in your field.
Test anxiety doesn’t originate in your cognitive mind, your conscious rational mind. No. It is triggered deep in the unconscious mind where a very powerful ancient reptilian reflex designed to keep you alive rules.
So, with all of that said and for the purpose of illustration, let’s take a look at the situation assuming you are an undergrad staring down the gauntlet of an MCAT, LSAT or GRE.
Once you register to take this exam you may notice the ground start to gradually shift underneath you. It feels like the SAT’s all over again but soon you realize this one is qualitatively different.
The SAT’s were about general math and literacy aptitudes, but this one is virtually subject specific to your career dream. This one is going to test whether you have mastered the fundamentals that you will need to move up the degree ladder to professional status.
Hey, the SAT’s you took in high school, weren’t so bad. You checked into that SAT prep class your school offered or maybe your parents got you a tutor. Over a period of weeks or months and under supervision you had done so many critical reading and math drills that when you got to the big one you hammered out those scores fairly easy.
But now for the most part you are on your own with this next huge challenge. After four years at a big university with class after class of winners like yourself you know what real academic competition is like. What is at stake with this test is so daunting you’re having trouble even studying for it. You know you’re smart. You know you’ve worked hard and that you’re a good student. You probably have a pretty good or even a great GPA.
But as an undergrad those good grades didn’t come as easily as they did in high school, did they? And the routine course tests like midterms and finals always made you crazy. In the end, you always felt like you could have done better if you just didn’t get so nervous.
With this really big standardized test coming up you know you are now competing with thousands of really smart undergrads across the country and across the world for a choice spot in a choice school. You feel the pressure, yes, much more than with those SAT’s back in high school. This time you actually know how academia works and what is at stake.
Maybe you have taken this big test already and you did not get anywhere near the score you need to attach to those application forms. Worse yet, maybe you took it and you tanked. Whoa. Now what?
But for our purposes let us assume you are getting ready for your first go round. You work through your prep materials and try to stay calm as you study without negatively projecting the outcome. You take a few practice tests but for some reason your mind begins to blank out and freeze up because of your growing fear. When you review the answers to the questions you see that you really do know a lot this stuff but you keep making dumb mistakes, especially in those subject categories that you always hated.
Ah. You find a solution. The problem is confidence. You need confidence you tell yourself. So you start taking the easier practice tests to build up your confidence. You ignore the subjects you are weak in for the most part and focus on the ones you are strong in because these scores are so good you are sure they will carry you through. So you start feeling a little better as the day approaches to chase that big dog for the first time.
The night before the big test you can’t get to sleep. You don’t want to drink or take Xanax because you don’t want your brain to be fogged over in the morning. You toss and turn for a couple of hours. Oh, okay, you take some Xanax. But it doesn’t work. So you toss and turn some more until three or four or five in the morning and maybe drift into a quasi-sleep state of fitful scary dreams only to awaken when the alarm clock goes off, exhausted.
Your stomach is too nervous to eat breakfast so you grab a cup of coffee and maybe on your way out the door you pack a couple of cans are Red Bull in your bag to perk you up when you get to the test center.
Uh oh. There’s a huge traffic jam on the way there that you didn’t account for given the time of day of this test and now you’re stressed out thinking you will be late.
But you get there with a hair of time to spare. You file into the test center with a mob of grim faced strangers some of whom look like they have been up all night like you. The fear factor in some of these students is palpable, almost contagious.
You get your seat and already you are bummed out by the jerk you have to sit next to and you begin to worry about him annoying you during the test. But that’s okay, you tell yourself. You’re going to do this. You’re going to plow through this. The last few scores on your practice tests have been pretty good. Right? And anyway, remember some of those finals in the past that you were so worried about but that you aced by just sheer willpower alone. Right? Well. Same thing here. Right? So let’s go. Let’s do it.
Okay. You start. You are off at the races. But right away for some reason you are having a little bit of trouble focusing on the administrative procedures and instructions. Can’t we just get to the test, guys? Okay. Okay. No biggy. You push through all that stuff and plunge into the test. But your mind is already starting to lock up.
Somewhere in the first hour or so the questions begin to appear kind of, well, hard, no? Towards the end of the morning session the multiple choices appear more confusing. The essay questions are really difficult to analyze and some of the reference data they are using you’ve never seen before. Are these trick questions? Jeez.
Also, you really get it now that this test is long. Like really long. Hours and hours long. Right? You realize now that it’s an endurance test, too. You took a practice test or two maybe, but now you remember they weren’t full ones that prepared you for this haul.
When you took those partial practice tests you were at home in your sweats at your own personal desk with some techno music droning in the background. You could get up and take a break anytime you wanted and then go back to the screen. Here you’re stuck. You’ve got to sit this out in the prescribed time frames on their clock. The breaks are structured. And the jerk next to you is making gasping noises now that are really starting to bug you.
You look around in your vicinity to see if anybody else is having trouble and immediately your attention goes to the ones who are fidgety just like you. Great. See? You’re not the only one. But so what? You still have hours to go.
The fun really begins when you hit the subject matter that you are weak in. You really can’t remember what some of these questions are referring to. A question might come up which brings you back to that class you always hated that you used to cut all the time and so you start beating yourself up for that now.
These kinds of disturbing, distracting feelings start coming up more and more in different shapes and forms and now you become your own worst enemy. You are in a war on two fronts. You have to battle this test and your own mind at the same time. And somewhere round about this point you drop off the cliff into a free fall of full blown panic. You fret over whether you should void this thing, or just walk out, or fake a heart attack or something to explain it all away to your parents and your friends.
The breaks offer you no relief. Some of your fellow students try to engage you in a pity party of commiseration to make themselves feel better but you are at least smart enough to stay away from these characters. There is a girl sitting there frozen with a thousand yard look in her eyes visibly expressing what you are feeling inside.
This whole scenario is beginning to feel like a nightmare prize fight where at every bell you get back into the ring and get the crap beaten out of you.
By the time you get to the late afternoon sections of the test you are exhausted; mentally and psychologically numb; staggering through the rest of the test at times taking wild swings at questions you have no idea the answer to. Why not? What have you got to lose at this point?
When it is all over you stumble out of the test center with your battered herd of fellow students. A couple seem unperturbed, quietly confident. These are the brains. Forget them. A few appear elated, happy even, like this was a piece of cake. But you know these types are chronically delusional. There are a few of these in every crowd.
Most look dazed and perplexed like you. Yeah. No kidding. And a sizable number are devastated, either whining or complaining out loud or else silently carrying a look of solemn resignation in their faces reflecting what they have known all along, i.e., they just can’t cut it. Forget grad school, med school. They’ll just get some job and figure it out from there.
You. You drag yourself home. You call a friend or not. You have a long cry or not. You go out and get drunk or not. You do all of the above or none of the above but it doesn’t matter. Because when you awaken the next morning a new daily companion named dread drags a dark cloud of over your mind. A dread of what that score will be.
And a few tortuous weeks later when you get the actual results of the test it’s like a knife in your heart. A real show stopper.
Now it’s getting real.
You need a great score to get into the school of your choice but now you are fearful of ever achieving even a minimally competitive score to get into any school.
After all these years of hope and hard work, not to mention all the money you or your parents have borrowed to invest in your career dream – you just can’t get to the right number to make it happen.
And this not because you are a poor student. This is not because you don’t know your stuff and don’t have the passion and innate talent. Your professors and fellow students would all agree that you are really smart and at the very least extremely qualified to succeed in that career of your choice.
It’s just that you hate tests! Tests like these freak you out!
Is it a magic wand? No. Can it create knowledge or summon up mental skills or aptitudes that you do not actually have? No. Can it instantly transform a C student into an A student? No.
But what it can do is train you to have Arousal Control which, if your listen to what the Navy Seals say, is the single most important attribute you need in combat where instantaneous decisions can mean the difference between life and death.
No, this standardized test is not really about an actual life or death situation, but the ancient reptilian mechanism deep in your unconscious mind called the amygdala doesn’t know that once it is triggered.
When that sympathetic dominant switch in your autonomic nervous system clicks on you go into fight/flight/freeze mode and your cognitive function is significantly diminished. Rational problem solving, abstract analysis and information recall go out the window. As your blood stream surges with adrenaline, inside your unconscious mind you are now; running for your life away from a saber tooth tiger; or violently thrashing about in all directions; or caught dead in your tracks like a deer in the headlights. And sitting there for the duration of that exam you can continually cycle through all of the above randomly in no discernible order for hours until you are spent.
And you can’t turn this switch off by will power alone. The prefrontal cortex, which is the center of volitional control, only evolved hundreds of millions of years after the amygdala. You see, animals had to develop the means to survive instinctively in a violent threatening world for eons before evolving the higher human cognitive faculties and the luxury of free will.
But… in hypnosis… the unconscious mind can be trained and conditioned to control this switch.
Hypnosis can train and condition the unconscious mind so that before the test you can study effectively and so that during the test you can answer effectively.
Being in control of this switch will allow an A student to perform like an A student. Being in control of this switch can allow a B student to perform at his or her optimum level and maximize the opportunity now for placement in the slots vacated on that curve by all of those A students who are freaking out and under performing.
Remember you don’t bring your academic record or GPA or school crest into that exam. It’s down and dirty winner take all in one sitting. It’s getting the most correct answers right then and there, that’s how you get your score.
Yes, this is a score not a grade. You get a grade by fulfilling a series of course requirements; papers, lab projects, all kinds of assignments in addition to the tests, depending on the subject and the professor.
For this standardized test it is only he or she who can answer the most questions correctly from beginning to end for five to seven hours of steady optimum cognitive functioning who gets the higher scores. This and this only.
A cool headed student from a not particularly noteworthy college who is well prepared and who has a testing strategy for Arousal Control can actually outperform others from more prestigious institutions and rack up a higher number on this open playing field. I’ve seen it happen. Hell, I’ve helped make it happen.
In the final analysis, that standardized exam, in addition to being an objective test of your aptitude and knowledge base, is also a gigantic stress test. Unwittingly, it tests your ability to remain calm, cool and collected under intellectual pressure for a real long time.
In other words, even though you are smart and know your stuff; if you keep running up against this same wall of unshakable anxiety that stupefies you every time you take one of these exams; if you keep mentally fogging up and running out of gas in the last couple of hours; it means that you don’t really know how to take a marathon test. Period.
You don’t know how to protect your cognitive function under long term stress, let alone optimize it. It’s like going into a prize fight without training how to last fifteen rounds. And just because you know how to punch a sandbag in the gym doesn’t mean you know how to fight in the ring. A fifteen round fight doesn’t only mean punching. It means having the endurance to last against an opponent that’s swinging back at you.
Just because you know how to study and you know the material doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to test for it. Studying and test taking are two different skills. Sure you have been able to get through those midterms and finals in the past, but these standardized monsters average six hours of cognitive battle.
Please excuse me if you are a woman and you find these analogies a bit too macho for you. If so, then imagine being pregnant and opting not to take Lamaze classes or some such training in preparation for your child’s birth. Imagine just going into labor with the idea of winging it with no strategy other than having read a book about it. Whoa.
To maximize your performance on that big career determining exam, in addition to studying for it, you have to train your body and your mind to reduce your stress, to maintain Arousal Control so that you can protect and enhance your cognitive function.
Yes. Train yourself how to test effectively with marathon level endurance. Train yourself to move through that exam like a machine knocking down those questions dispassionately one after another no matter what they throw at you. Train yourself to unconsciously stay riveted in the moment with unshakable Focus, Concentration, Understanding and Recall for hours and hours.
This is what hypnosis can do for you.
“I don’t think I can be hypnotized.”
My friend, if you are in the grip of test anxiety to the point where you can’t stop worrying and study properly for it; where you keep scoring well below what you know you need with your practice questions; where you have taken the test already with a poor score result and are paralyzed by the idea that you have to take that test again – then you are already in hypnosis. You are in a waking state hypnoidal trance dominated by debilitating negative ideation which creates a continuous feedback loop of fear that shuts down your rational mind. You need to be un-hypnotized, babe.
And let me say that, based on my experience, virtually everyone, barring any neurotic or psychiatric issues, can be trained to achieve sufficient hypnotic depth to learn how to extinguish that fight/flight/freeze response and optimize your cognitive function.
This is what I do.
Now I know that I have devoted the body of this article to the plight of a typical undergrad suffering from test anxiety in the face of the MCAT’s, LSAT’s or GRE’s.
But these scenarios and symptoms I have portrayed will also apply to you if you are struggling with this malady no matter what form of standardized test is on your plate.
Test anxiety truly is an equal opportunity syndrome that can affect anyone no matter where you are on the academic or professional ladder.
So if you want to stop wasting time freaking out and you want to get down to the business of nailing that exam, please give me a call for a free phone consultation let’s see what I can do for you.
Oh yeah. I am James Borrelli, C. Ht., Certified Hypnotherapist, practicing in West Los Angeles.
But you can call me Jim.
I thought test anxiety was just going to be a part of my life forever. Before exams, sleeping was almost impossible. And during exams, my focus was diminished, my heart rate high, and my stomach in knots.
Knowing that the MCAT and USMLE’s were going to be the most important standardized tests of my life, I turned to hypnosis with James Borrelli. With his expertise, we reshaped my negative behavioral mechanisms and developed a calm, “laser focused” testing strategy catered for each exam. I was able to achieve scores I never thought possible. For the USMLE’s I scored in the 90th percentile for STEP1, 96th percentile for STEP2, 99th percentile for STEP3.
Now, as a resident at a Harvard residency program, I can say with certainty, I would never be here if it wasn’t for Jim. Hypnosis was the best decision I have ever made.
Maria B., D.O.
Quite simply, I owe my license to James Borrelli. Jim’s techniques allowed me to move past my fears and anxieties, access my knowledge base and relax into the critical thinking part of my brain in order to pass my federal exams.
Dr. Robert Lusson, Licensed Clinical Psychologist#27549
I was struggling to pass the licensing exams to become a practicing psychologist and didn’t know what my next move was going to be since this was going to be my fourth time taking the exam. Someone recommended Jim and I decided to give hypnotherapy a shot. I was very skeptical about this intervention but upon meeting Jim he made me feel at ease. He assured me I would pass and he really cared to identify the root cause of my test anxiety. He gathered an extensive history from me. He helped my unconscious mind no longer perceive this test as a trauma and simultaneously strengthened my confidence to tackle it once and for all. I finally passed the test on that fourth attempt and significantly increased my score by a good margin. I am very grateful for the work I did with Jim and I highly recommend his hypnotherapy treatment to anyone struggling with this issue.
Preparing for doctoral qualifying exams is no joke, and it’s easy for stress and anxiety to get in the way of effective studying and test-taking. Jim helped me stay focused while studying, and gave me tools to reduce anxiety and maintain mental acuity as I took these six-hour tests. With these tools, I not only passed my exams with flying colors, but I was able to move through the dissertation drafting process as well.
– S.P.J, PhD