Victoria is an excellent student; she’s always engaged during lessons and completes her homework. But whenever an exam is coming up, you notice her behavior starts to change. She asks you the same questions over and over again about the details of the test. Her parents tell you that she’s been skipping family dinners to study in her room.


When the day of the exam comes, you notice Victoria taking frequent bathroom breaks. She is the last one to finish, and finally turns in her exam incomplete – even though you know from her class engagement that she knows this information. 


Do you have a student like Victoria? Test anxiety is increasingly common in students –  researchers estimate that around 20% of students experience it. Mindfulness can help these students get out of fight-or-flight mode before a test and focus on doing the best they can.


How do stress and anxiety affect test performance?

Most of us know, either from personal experience or observation, that tests and exams evoke an overwhelming amount of anxiety for some students. According to the science behind how stress affects the brain, short bursts of temporary stress can help students during exams – but too much stress can make it difficult to perform well.


Stress is the nervous system’s physiological reaction to any situation that feels overwhelming. During this stress response, several changes happen in the body:

  • Your 5 senses get sharper
  • Your focus and concentration narrow
  • Your heart starts beating faster and harder
  • Your immune system slows down
  • Your adrenal glands release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol

The human body has developed the stress response – also called the fight, flight, or freeze response – to help us face threats. We need stress to overcome challenges. For example, the spike of stress that comes from hearing the pistol go off at the starting line can help the runner perform better.


Some studies have found no link between how anxious students feel before an exam and how well they perform, which tells us that for some students, the exam-related stress could help sharpen their concentration. But when stress becomes too overwhelming, it can negatively affect test performance. If your student has anxiety symptoms or is chronically worried about their exam performance, then they probably won’t perform as well on the exam as they hope. 


Long-term stress and test anxiety are linked to poor concentration, poor judgment, and difficulty making decisions. Anxiety also impacts working memory, which makes it harder for students to retain and retrieve information. 


In other words, a short spike of stress right as an exam begins could be helpful. But when students face test anxiety, they usually worry about their performance long before the exam date. 


They’re anxious about the test while they’re studying – which can prevent them from absorbing the material, and, in turn, negatively affects their score. Stress can also affect memory retrieval, or the likelihood that students can remember the material that they previously learned during the exam. Their mind goes blank, even after they’ve studied extensively.


In addition, it’s not all about academic performance. Teachers want their students to be happy, mentally well, and socially well-adjusted on top of having high academic achievement. 


Regardless of how stress does or does not affect test performance, we know that chronic stress has significant consequences for health and well-being. Too much stress can lead to mental health conditions – including depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder – and poor physical health.


When teachers help students overcome test anxiety, we’re helping to prevent these negative outcomes.



test anxiety


Signs of test anxiety

When you notice which students are facing test anxiety, you can take extra steps to support them.


Some signs of test anxiety in children and teens include:

  • Restlessness
  • Frequent unexplained headaches or stomachaches
  • Procrastination on test-related tasks
  • Changes in their social habits, like excessive talking or withdrawal from peers
  • Excessive worry, irritability, or tearfulness
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Negative self-talk, difficulty organizing thoughts, or mind blanking despite preparation
  • Physical reactions during tests: rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling, or dizziness
  • Test-avoidance strategies: frequent restroom breaks or unexplained absences on test days
  • Perceived lack of ability: Telling you they “can’t do it” or going into exams already preparing for failure
  • Seeking reassurance through constant questioning about performance or repeatedly checking answers


How mindfulness can help with test anxiety

It might not be a matter of making all stress go away during exams. As we explained, some stress is helpful to sharpen students’ focus and memory. The important thing may be not to help students banish stress before tests altogether, but to help them be mindful of how stress affects their bodies and brains and be able to lower stress levels when they wish to.


Studies have found that mindfulness interventions can help reduce test anxiety. For example, in one 2023 study, mindfulness practice helped 12 to 13-year-olds lower test anxiety and improve test achievement before a high-stakes math exam.


Mindfulness helps students connect with the here and now. Students with test anxiety often become consumed with worries about the past or future. They may have self-judgment about the past – “I should have stayed up later studying!” – or extreme fears about possible outcomes in the future – “What am I going to do if I don’t do well? What if I don’t get into college and my whole life is ruined?”.


Mindfulness brings their attention, gently, back to the present moment. It reminds them that, in this moment, the only thing they need to focus on is the exam in front of them. This can help them get out of fight-or-flight mode, sharpen their focus, and make it less likely that anxiety gets in the way of their brain functioning during the test.


Guided meditation script to help students with test anxiety

There are so many ways to help students practice the skill of mindfulness. It’s most helpful if your students learn the practice long before exam day. That way, they can be mindful while they’re studying and preparing for the exam as well.


But if the big day comes and you have some students in your class who are experiencing test anxiety, this guided meditation script can help. This meditation is best for older students, aged 13 and up.



Find a comfortable position at your desk. You can close your eyes if you wish, but you don’t need to. Just hold a soft gaze a few feet in front of you. 


Take a deep breath in, and then out. Notice the air moving in and out of your body. You don’t need to adjust your breathing in any way. As you pay attention to your breathing, you’ll notice it naturally getting slower and deeper.


Shift your attention to your thoughts. Acknowledge any worries about the upcoming test without judgment, observing them like passing clouds. Bring your focus back to your breath, your anchor in the storm of thoughts.


Now, you’re becoming aware of any signs of stress in your body – maybe a faster heartbeat, a tense muscle, or a jittery feeling. Notice them without judgment; they are messengers, not enemies.


Understand that stress is like a helpful companion during your exam, nudging you to do your best. It's a natural response that shows you care about doing well. Embrace it, knowing it's there to support you. You don’t need to fight it. Let it help you without drowning you.


Express gratitude for this awareness, for your body's ability to communicate with you. Your breath is your ally, reminding you that you are in control.


Imagine stress helping your concentration get sharper. Your brain is open, and you have access to all of the information that you’ve learned and studied.

Check back in with your body. Notice any areas of tension or discomfort. With each exhale, envision letting go, allowing your body to relax. As you continue to breathe, focus on the present, feeling the support of the ground beneath your feet.


You are ready to do your best.



For more classroom mindfulness tips and activities, sign up for Calm Classroom! Our 3-minute mindfulness activities are simple for any student or teacher to practice. Over 90% of teachers say that our program is effective. Try it today!


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