1 Simple Technique to Decrease MCAT Stress/Anxiety

Most students would agree that taking the MCAT can be very stressful. And stess is the last thing you want to be experiencing while taking the test on exam day. That’s why we want to share with you another meditation exercised called “The Relaxation Response.”

What is the Relaxation Response? It’s a technique created by Dr. Herbet Benson, founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute. He defines the Relaxation Response as “the personal ability to encourage the body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organ slow down and increase blood flow to the brain.”

Dr. Benson’s studies show that eliciting the Relaxation Response can:

  • promote better health, especially in individuals with hypertension

  • lower stress levels, increase well-being, and reduce blood pressure levels and resting heart rate in those that practice it regularly

  • help any health problem that is caused or exacerbated by chronic stress such as fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal ailments, insomnia, hypertension, anxiety disorders, and others

  • act as the physiological antithesis to the stress response

So what happens when stress response is elicited compared to the Relaxation Response? Take a look at the following:

Stress Response:

  • -triggers sympathetic nervous system

  • -increase blood pressure

  • -vasoconstriction

  • -increase heart rate

Relaxation Response:

  • -triggers parasympathetic nervous system.

  • -decrease blood pressure

  • -vasodilation

  • -steady decrease in heart rate

  • -turns off flight or flight (bring the body back to pre-stress levels)


Which would you prefer to have elicited during the MCAT exam? Relaxation Response? Me too. So what can you do to trigger it? Dr. Benson outlines 7 steps, all of which can be done during one of your breaks in the MCAT exam, or you can even do an abbreviated version in the middle of a section if you need it.

7 Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response (The Relaxation Response by Dr. Benson)

1. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.

2. Close your eyes.

3. Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed. [Relax your tongue—and thoughts will cease.]

4. Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word "one"* silently to yourself. For example, breathe in, and then out, and say "one"*, in and out, and repeat "one."* Breathe easily and naturally.

5. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes (or as much time as your circumstances allow, but the longer the better). You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.

6. Do not worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace. When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating "one."*

7. With practice, the response should come with little effort. Practice the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal, since the digestive processes seem to interfere with the elicitation of the Relaxation Response.

As mentioned in the 7 steps above, eliciting the Relaxation Response is not meant to be done just during stressful times. You should practice eliciting this response everyday so that it is easier for you to do so when you really need it (ie. in the middle of the MCAT exam). In fact, “The best time to practice the Relaxation Response [techniques] is first thing in the morning for ten to twenty minutes. Practicing just once or twice daily can be enough to counteract the stress response and bring about deep relaxation and inner peace” (Mitchel).

Note that you are not practicing the Relaxation Response but rather are practicing the techniques that elicit the Relaxation Response

In addition to the 7 steps outlined by Dr. Benson above, the table below lists some addition techniques you can use to elicit the Relaxation Response:

Techniques Used to Elicit the Relaxation Response:

Imagery/visualization - Massage - Qigong - Progressive muscle relaxation/Body Scan - Diaphragmatic, focused breathing techniques - Mindfulness/mindful Meditation - Energy healing - Transcendental Meditation - Yoga -Acupuncture - Prayer - Tai Chi

We will be discussing some of these techniques in other posts. Remember, these types of techniques coupled with other neuroscience exercises can increase your cognitive functioning by up to 35% (Improve Your MCAT Score By Increasing Brain Functionality - http://goo.gl/DlcnM2). That in itself, separate from any improvement in your knowledge of the MCAT sections, will help to improve your MCAT score dramatically.


Mitchell, M. (2013, March 29).  Dr. Benson’s relaxation response.  Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/heart-and-soul-healing/201303/dr-herbert-benson-s-relaxation-response