The term “math anxiety” describes worry or fear about performing math calculations. A person with math anxiety may feel panicked at the thought of working with numbers, making it harder to think.
Researchers think that, in people with math anxiety, the fear of doing math overwhelms working memory. This is the part of the brain that holds small amounts of information a person needs while completing a task.
When a person cannot use their working memory as they typically can, it can make it difficult to perform calculations in their head. This may lead to a misconception that they are bad at math, reinforcing their anxiety. However, there are ways to treat it.
Keep reading to learn more about math anxiety, including the symptoms, causes, and treatment.
Math anxiety is worry or fear about solving math problems. It is not a distinct medical condition, but a way of describing anxiety that occurs in a specific situation.
A person with math anxiety may feel anxious any time they have to use math skills, from classes at school to calculating a restaurant bill. For some, it may only manifest when they cannot use a calculator or write things down. For others, it may present even when they have access to these tools.
Math anxiety is very common. According to a 2018 review, approximately
Many symptoms of math anxiety are the same as other types of anxiety. They include:
- worry or panic
- tense muscles
- increased heart rate
- sweaty palms
Anxiety can also make it difficult to think, meaning that if a person with math anxiety has to solve an equation, they may find it more difficult. Researchers think this may be due to anxiety’s effects on working memory.
Working memory is a system in the brain that allows people to hold multiple pieces of information in their minds at once. For example, while doing math, a person may need to remember several numbers and the steps for solving the problem at the same time.
It may be that anxiety uses up someone’s working memory, leading to a feeling of the mind “going blank” as they have issues remembering all the information they need.
Other signs of math anxiety may include:
- Low confidence: People with math anxiety usually believe they are bad at math, so they do not enjoy it.
- Avoidance: Individuals with this type of anxiety may avoid situations that require math skills. This means they have fewer chances to practice their skills, reinforcing their lack of confidence.
- Low grades: Children and adolescents with math anxiety may have difficulties in classes at school requiring math. This could include math itself, as well as science or technology-related subjects.
Additionally, adults with math anxiety are less likely to have an interest or success in careers relating to math. These include science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.
There are many potential causes of math anxiety. The following factors can all play a role.
Negative classroom experiences
For example, if a student has an intimidating math teacher, they may start to fear math class. Teachers who portray math as hard or give students the impression that they are naturally bad at it may instill worry.
Similarly, making mistakes in front of peers can lead to embarrassment or feelings of inferiority. Children may also learn math anxiety from parents or caregivers.
A 2019 review looked at 49 studies to assess the relationship between math performance and math anxiety. It found a robust link between lower math performance and anxiety.
It may be that people who feel they are not doing well at math begin to internalize the idea that they are naturally bad at it, which then causes worry.
If a child has parents or caregivers with math anxiety, they may not get as much support with homework or studying as other children.
Prejudice and biases
Math anxiety is
Some people believe boys are naturally better at the subject than girls. This can be a conscious belief that guides their parenting or teaching or an unconscious belief that a person is unaware they have.
Either type of bias can affect behavior. It may mean girls get less support or encouragement in math or that they form a negative impression of it.
Dyscalculia is a learning disability that causes significant and persistent difficulty understanding numbers. It is a condition that affects how a person thinks and learns throughout their lives.
Some signs a person may have dyscalculia include difficulty:
- counting backward
- remembering the answers to simple equations, such as 2 x 5 = 10
- understanding mathematical symbols, such as “x” and “+”
- identifying the steps for solving math problems
- understanding information on charts or graphs
Although dyscalculia can cause math anxiety, the two are distinct. Not everyone with math anxiety has dyscalculia, even if a person with math anxiety has difficulties doing it.
Because math anxiety can negatively affect learning and influence a person’s career, it is beneficial to identify it as early as possible.
However, it does
Instead, a doctor may look into whether a person meets the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder. Alternatively, people may wish to look for support without going down this route.
A person does not have to have an official mental health diagnosis to get help for math anxiety. A doctor may be able to recommend therapists or child psychologists that can offer treatment. They can also suggest low cost options if this is not affordable.
If a person could have dyscalculia, a doctor may refer them for an assessment.
Treatment for math anxiety may involve a combination of therapy and support from teachers and family members.
Strategies that a doctor or mental health professional may suggest include:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which teaches a person how to replace anxiety-inducing thoughts with more balanced ones
- exposure therapy, which involves gradually exposing a person to the source of the fear in manageable steps
- caregivers and teachers modeling positive attitudes toward math
While a person receives treatment for anxiety, using management strategies to cope with the ongoing symptoms can help. These techniques can include:
- Deep breathing exercises: These exercises help calm a person’s nervous system when they feel anxious or stressed. They can learn to use them during math classes or exams.
- Writing or journaling: A 2017 paper states that expressive writing before a test can improve math performance. In some research, writing down thoughts and feelings seems to reduce nervousness. This could be because this makes worries external, freeing up a person’s working memory so that they can focus on the task.
- Extra support:
Many schoolsuse tutoring programs to manage math anxiety. The main focus of this tutoring is usually to help with a student’s math ability. Although they do not directly address how a person thinks or feels about math, some may find it helpful to have this additional support.
- Patient practice: Avoiding math may ease symptoms, but it can also reinforce math anxiety. Instead of avoiding the subject entirely, people may find it helpful to practice it in a quiet, low-pressure setting. Alternatively, they can try math games or apps.
Math anxiety is a
However, many anxiety treatments may also generally help with math anxiety. People can also ask a doctor about CBT or exposure therapy. For children, changes in the classroom or at home may also be beneficial.
Breathing exercises, writing worries down, and practicing math in an encouraging, low-pressure environment may help a person manage their anxiety.