Gmat anxiety, the lizard brain and common sense

Gmat anxiety is a main cause of test day under performance. It is common to tell oneself to ‘be less stressed’ or to ‘get over your anxiety’. But, there is little value in forcing yourself to calm down.

Over the course of millions of years the human brain evolved into a complex structure capable of high order thinking. But there is still a building block of the brain, deep at its core, that is primitive and reactionary that is called the ‘lizard brain’. Naturally reactionary because it was necessary for our survival: to dodge a saber tooth tiger or duck as a rival tribe member takes a swing at you with their club. We had just enough time to react but not to think.

This lizard brain still ‘exists’, and kicks in whenever we feel threatened. So, you can think of ‘gmat anxiety’ as a defense mechanism. Hardwired into our brain, it is almost impossible to consciously dominate. That is why we are unable to reason our way out of anxiousness. It is a survival mechanism. This is important to remember because on the test, there is no use telling yourself ‘not to be anxious’. The lizard brain is still at work. Sensing the threat that you’re running out of time, it will sabotage your common sense and coerce you into looking for answers. Of course, it is trying to help you, but, the lizard brain cannot see the big picture and does not have any common sense. It wants to save you and will therefore try to push you into choosing the right answer fast. That can be a good thing, but more often it is not. Especially when you still have not understood a wordy quant problem or a complex critical reasoning passage. Your first objective should be to understand problems. This is hard when you’re running out of time and the natural reflex is to look for answers instead of to understand problems.

You should not fight gmat anxiety because you can’t. Instead, learn to accept your anxiousness and work with it. Visualize your test many times during the days and weeks leading up to the test. Brainwash your brain into a procedure that will kick in once your anxiousness kicks in. Learn to accept your anxiousness and when you do, you will be more likely to remember the most important thing you have to do on the test: Understand the problem.

The lizard brain will try and force you to rush, look for answers and think about formulas before taking your time to think. Back in the day, there was no need to ponder because the problem was clear: survival. Now the problems aren’t always very clear and you must spend time to understand what they are first.

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