Beating GMAT Stress

In the last post, we learned about the breathing and its ability to stimulate the relaxing effects of the PNS, as well as a little about mindfulness, and its ability to reduce stress and enhance your performance on the GMAT.  In this post, we are going to take on directly the juggernaut of your stress: 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.

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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!

See also Mindful Test Taking.


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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Don’t forget to check out my last post on dealing with GMAT exam anxiety.

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14 Responses to Beating GMAT Stress

  1. shabari shankar.s July 10, 2018 at 9:19 am #

    Hi Mike,

    I’m grateful for your incredible insights and sound advice. Would you kindly share further information on developing a full-blown meditation schedule or better still, your guide on how to become a Jedi?

  2. roja eswaran October 16, 2017 at 1:40 am #

    I really admire the article which holds the greatest usefulness with it

  3. Sebastian Nankervis June 24, 2017 at 4:23 pm #

    Great article! Just a bit confused, in the first paragraph, shouldn’t it be “the relaxing effect of PNS” rather than SNS?

    Just trying to practice my mindfulness here!

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 27, 2017 at 8:55 am #

      You’re absolutely right, Sebastian. Thanks for bringing that to our attention. I just corrected the error. 🙂

  4. Avi February 13, 2017 at 9:21 am #


    I like the part about creating a space between one’s self and the whole emotional ride. Its so beautifully said, although figuratively, it could work wonders if it is implemented in every tricky phase. Thank you for the powerful words


    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 14, 2017 at 12:57 am #

      Hi Avi! On behalf of Mike, you’re very welcome! We hope your studying is going well 😀

  5. Siri Avalur January 2, 2017 at 6:09 am #

    Hi Mike,

    Thank you for writing this article. I just started preparing for GMAT and I somehow ddi not except to read an article regarding Meditation and Mindfulness on a GMAT forum. I always knew that it was important and I used to mediate, but lately I have not been putting any effort in it. I feel really positive about my GMAT journey and thanks for giving designing a holistic approach to GMAT Prep..:)

  6. David H. May 30, 2016 at 3:32 am #

    Hi Mike,

    Great series of Articles. I found the mindfulness you described here is very similiar with Eckhart Tolle’s spiritual teaching. I believe you must read many books of mindfulness and wonder if you have read Tolle’s The Power of Now.

    Thank you.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 2, 2016 at 7:42 am #

      On Mike’s behalf, you’re very welcome 🙂

  7. Melanese February 15, 2016 at 6:07 am #

    I was forwarded here from the 90 day GRE study plan for beginners. I searched high and low for a structured plan and Magoosh’s ‘seemed’ like the right choice. The majority of my delay in sitting for the test stemmed from my pre conceived thoughts, things I made up in my head, which then in turn pummel me before I’ve even read one sentence specific to the test. Imagine my surprise when I finally convince myself to sit down and review the packet I see four blog posts – including this one- as part of the plan. I knew then I made the right choice. My take away from this article is, “Not every thought that passes through our head is true”.Thank you for writing the article. Melanese

  8. Magician January 3, 2015 at 4:04 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    I cannot believe how it´s been almost a year and there were still no comments on this post. Let me say it: This article is definitely great and probably one of your best!

    The portion that explains how the mind sometimes secretes “thoughts” as a saliva gland and how not being conscious of this fact can affect our performance is just wonderful.

    I´ve read many books regarding the power of visualization and consciousness of thought. Your article addresses just this and in a very straightforward manner.

    Thanks for writing this.


    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike January 3, 2015 at 4:28 pm #

      Dear Magician,
      You are quite welcome, my friend. 🙂 I am very glad you found this helpful. I wish you much good fortune in your future!
      Mike 🙂

      • DokShah October 30, 2015 at 9:03 pm #

        Agree with Magician. Very nice, crisp blog on the subject. That really is mindfulness in a nutshell. Thanks for writing this.

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