Math Anxiety (A Complete Guide)

In this guide, we will discuss what Math Anxiety is, symptoms, common causes, what happens to our brain when we are anxious and some useful tips to cope with math anxiety.

Math Anxiety: fear of maths?

Math anxiety can be defined as those feelings of apprehension and the physiological activation that manifests when someone is exposed to math-related situations, such as having to manipulate numbers, solve mathematical problems or when exposed to an evaluative math-related scenario.

We all have probably had those situations where the teacher calls our name and asks us to go the board to solve a mathematical problem.

At that moment we noticed how our palms started sweating and while we were approaching the board we felt our heart was going to explode or get out of our chests because we realized, we didn’t know the answer.

So, we took the marker and stared at those numbers.

They felt like Chinese and that made us feel more nervous, we just wanted to run and get out of that situation but we stayed, turned around and said: “I don’t know the answer”.

At that precise moment, everyone started laughing which made us feel very uncomfortable and embarrassed. 

This is an example of an emotional response that was perceived as negative, which created an association between our physiological response and the math problem (stimulus).

This response can easily happen again and we will have the same reaction, making math-associated situations very unpleasant for us.  

In this example, it was the reason why we started to fear maths class.

But, don’t worry, we have a few tips and tricks to cope with this fear. 

Am I the only one?

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health issues in the world.

This can affect people of all ages, not only children as it is believed by most people.

If this math-related anxiety developed during childhood, most likely, it will follow through adulthood if not treated. 

It is believed that anxiety decreases our cognitive resource called “working memory” which is the short-term memory system that helps to organize the information you need to complete a task.

Worrying about not being able to solve math problems or not doing well on a test will interfere with your working memory, leaving less of it available to tackle the task at hand. 

So for example, if you have to solve a problem in front of everyone your anxiety will prevent you from holding the numbers in your mind, considering the steps you need to solve the task and subsequently writing the answer at the same time.

This is why it is very common for people to freeze or run away from stressful situations, our brain will only allow us to think of those two options.

What happens to our brain when we are experiencing math anxiety?

When you are able to remember and think about multiple things at once that is because of your working memory.

Researchers have suggested that when someone is feeling anxious, those feelings occupy our working memory interfering with our ability to solve a problem.

A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) study from 2012 published in “Psychological Science” investigated what happened in the brain of 46, 7 to 9-year-old children with low and high math anxiety. 

The task they had while on the MRI scan was to answer complex arithmetic problems, simple arithmetic problems, number identification, and passive fixation. 

Researches found that compared to children with low math anxiety, those in the high math anxiety group had a hyperactive amygdala.

This is the part of the brain that is involved with processing emotions.

Additionally, the parts of the brain that are said to be involved in mathematical processing and working memory (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and intraparietal) had a decreased activity. 

What causes math anxiety?

We have identified 5 of them but there are many reasons why you could have math anxiety.

The causes can be related to:

  • The pressure caused by time limits on tests
  • The fear of public embarrassment or being wrong
  • Influence of teachers
  • Parent’s negative predisposition towards math (“girls can’t do math”, “I can’t do math, so I am not surprised you can’t either”, “math is hard”).
  • Inability, or unwillingness, to complete assignments

Symptoms of math anxiety

If you are experiencing math anxiety or someone you know, here are some symptoms you/they can relate to:

  • Unusual nervousness when doing or thinking about maths
  • Passive behavior
  • Feeling you are the only one who doesn’t seem to understand
  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Panicking while taking a test or when called to answer a question
  • Feeling how your heart rate increases, upset stomach, and lightheadedness 

Math anxiety vs dyscalculia 

Daniel Ansari, Ph.D. and Professor/Canada Research Chair Western University explains that they are related to one another and can often co-occur.

“Anxiety can lead to difficulties with math or difficulties with math can lead to the anxiety itself. When a child says that they struggle with math, it can sometimes be difficult to understand whether they have a fundamental math disability such as developmental dyscalculia or whether they are just afraid of math and therefore don’t like doing it anymore”.

“…A child that has dyscalculia, will have real difficulties and persistent difficulties in learning basic math skills, and a child with math anxiety, on the other hand, has a negative experience with math, maybe a teacher who embarrassed that child in front of the rest of the class and this leads to a trajectory of avoiding math and that in turn might lead to math difficulties”.

If it is developmental dyscalculia due to genetic factors, the experience of doing math is just terrible so they also develop math anxiety.

It is possible to have one or both at the same time.

Why is it necessary to differentiate them?

It is important then to distinguish between the two, to be able to treat them differently.

For instance, in a child with math anxiety, then it is possible to teach them strategies to cope with anxiety, be aware of the anxiety and therefore to lessen the negative effect of the anxiety on their performance in the math classroom. 

With developmental dyscalculia, it becomes necessary to work on both fundamental mathematical concepts as well as their feelings towards math. 

How to do I get rid of math anxiety?

Here are some tips and tricks to overcome math anxiety. We have compiled a top 10:

  1. Relaxation techniques like short breathing exercises can improve test performance 
  2. Writing down your worries can also helo. This strategy may give you a chance to re-evaluate a stressful experience freeing your working memory. 
  3. Physical activity like 
  4. You can also use your knowledge about the brain. The brain is flexible, and the areas involved in math skills can always grow and develop. This is called the “growth mindset”. If you think you “can” learn math you most certainly will. 
  5. Replacing “blocking” thoughts. Instead of you thinking “I’m just not good at this”, try thinking “What am I missing?” or instead of thinking “This is too hard”, try thinking “This may take some time and effort”. 
  6. Get a tutor, if you have problems understanding you may want to get some help from someone who does. 
  7. Anxiety reappraisal. Reappraise your anxiety as excitement with the phrase “I am excited”. This will flip the switch and take you out of the “threat mindset” to an “opportunity mindset”. 
  8. Try to understand not memorize. If you understand the problem this will activate your “think outside the box” ability which will make learning more significant as opposed to memorizing. 
  9. Take time to answer the questions. Either if it is an exam or someone is asking you to solve a problem. Just take your time to think and answer. 
  10. Practice mindfulness. 

Why is this blog about math anxiety important?

Math anxiety is a real problem but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to have to live with it your entire life.

It is very likely you can overcome your fear with some help and the appropriate motivation. 

Math anxiety can start developing in childhood and carry on through our adult life making us avoid math at all costs, for example, choosing a career that does not involve math or very little.

And if it does then we tend to avoid it as much as possible.

Numbers and math problems are everywhere so it is virtually impossible to run from them. 

Additionally, it is necessary to be aware that if you have math anxiety there could be another underlying problem such as dyscalculia so it is important to get help determining which is the case.

Try the tips we mention in our top 10 list and let us know what you think in our comments section down below!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about math anxiety

What are the symptoms of math anxiety?

The most common symptoms of math anxiety are lack of confidence, panic during test, loneliness, passive behavior, feeling of permanency and severe nervousness while thinking about math. 

How do I overcome math anxiety?

There are a couple of tips that can be used to overcome math anxiety, for example, taking abundant notes and practice as much as you can, challenge yourself, ask as many questions as necessary, remember there are no such things as a stupid question, take an optimistic approach to the subject and ask as much help as you need from friends, tutors or teachers.

Is math anxiety a disorder?

Math anxiety is not considered an anxiety disorder, however, it needs to be evaluated to rule out dyscalculia.

This is a neurodevelopmental disorder that will cause many problems when understanding the basic skills such as counting, recalling math facts and comprehending math concepts.

Both cases can carry difficulties related to numbers even adopting avoidant behaviors. 

What is the fear of maths called?

The fear of numbers is called arithmophobia, this fear is considered under the classification of a specific phobia.

It is an unusual fear that involves a wide variety of specific phobias, including a generalized fear of all numbers and fear of specific numbers.

It is also sometimes called numerophobia.

Why are kids afraid of maths?

There are many reasons why kids are afraid of maths.

Researchers believe it is an association between a negative experience (emotional response) with a situation related to maths.

Teachers and parents can also contribute to developing math anxiety.

  1.  Overcoming Math Anxiety 
  2. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)
  3. Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching
  4. Beyond Math Anxiety: 99 Insights (and a Calculation’s Not One!)
  5. Conquering Math Anxiety (with CD-ROM)


University of Cambridge

Prodigy Game 

Oxford Learning

Nuffield Foundation

Luttenberger, S., Wimmer, S. and Paechter, M. (2018). Spotlight on Math Anxiety

Frontiers for young minds

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