Math anxiety is extremely common but doesn’t have to be a lifelong issue. Resources and treatments can help you change your experience of math problems.
Math anxiety affects millions of children, adolescents, and adults around the world. In the United States alone, research has suggested that roughly
Why does math anxiety affect so many people? What could cause someone to experience increased anxiety around math?
In this article, we discuss the science behind math anxiety, including how it’s diagnosed and what treatment approaches are available.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), math anxiety is a type of anxiety that happens in response to math or math-related situations.
Math anxiety can cause a wide range of negative reactions to math, from general worry to severe anxiety. It often shows up in educational settings, like during math classes or in response to upcoming math tests.
In some people, especially adults, math anxiety can also appear as a response to everyday math-related situations, like budgeting for bills and expenses.
Experts believe that math anxiety results from negative experiences related to math. For example, math anxiety may develop after performing poorly on math assessments or receiving negative feedback from parents or teachers about math performance.
In someone with math anxiety, performing even basic math-related tasks or activities can lead to a variety of emotions and symptoms. Some of these
- Emotional symptoms: You may experience increased worry, stress, nervousness, and dread.
- Physiological symptoms: You may experience the classic symptoms of anxiety, such as an increased heart rate, sweating, and dizziness. In severe cases, math-related situations might trigger a panic attack.
- Cognitive symptoms: You may have difficulty with your working memory and the ability to focus on tasks — not only for math but also for other skills, such as reading.
In the long term, math anxiety can lead to poor performance at school and at work, which can lead to things like poor grades and negative performance reviews.
Without the right treatment or management, this can lead to increased feelings of low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, generalized anxiety, and more.
Researchers in a
- While there are many types of “subject” anxiety, math anxiety seems to be one of the more severe forms of subject anxiety.
- Math anxiety often directly relates to a person’s confidence in their math skills. This lack of confidence can impair math performance. In turn, poor math performance can further decrease confidence and increase anxiety.
- Research suggests that math anxiety may be more common in women than in men, and in children and adolescents than in adults.
In a review from 2018, researchers explored an additional theory for why people might develop math anxiety: Math anxiety is more likely to develop not because of how people perform during math-related tasks, but because of how they interpret their performance and experiences with math.
Getting support for math anxiety
Keep reading for tips and resources on working through math anxiety for a variety of age groups — but also know that math anxiety is a great thing to bring up with a mental health therapist.
A therapist will be able to help you create a plan to change your perspective on math-related tasks and develop healthy coping strategies for dealing with anxiety as it occurs.
Despite how common math anxiety is in the general population, many students may feel brushed off as simply “not trying hard enough.” But math anxiety is a real condition. There are even assessments that can help measure and potentially diagnose math anxiety.
Abbreviated Math Anxiety Scale (AMAS)
As a follow-up to the early 1970s Math Anxiety Rating Scale (MARS), the
For example, a 2015 study examined the validity of various adaptations of the AMAS, including a Polish adaptation. Researchers found the Polish AMAS was a highly valid test for evaluating math anxiety in the Polish population. This suggests the test can be adapted across many cultures to help assess math anxiety.
And newer research supports the continued usefulness of the AMAS in assessing math anxiety in general. In a
Another adaptation of the AMAS called the Early Elementary School Abbreviated Math Anxiety Scale (EES-AMAS) was also developed to specifically measure math anxiety in younger elementary school students. In another
Math Anxiety Scale for Teachers (MAST)
Interestingly, in a school setting, it’s not just the students who can have math anxiety. In fact, teachers can have both math anxiety and anxiety about teaching math, too.
A 2019 study explored the usefulness of a Math Anxiety Scale for Teachers (MAST) in almost 400 elementary school teachers. In this study, the 15-question MAST measured everything from general math anxiety to anxiety about teaching math and more.
According to the study results, the MAST can be a helpful tool for diagnosing different types of math anxiety in teachers.
Dyscalculia is a learning disability that causes difficulty with arithmetic, which includes things like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Dyscalculia can also cause trouble with other math-related tasks and activities.
While dyscalculia and math anxiety are both conditions that relate to math and math-related situations, they are two different conditions. However, that doesn’t mean there’s not some overlap between them.
Researchers in a
While the study results were more focused on how dyscalculia might affect certain types of math tasks, researchers also found a potential link between math anxiety and dyscalculia.
According to the results, children with dyscalculia experienced significant math anxiety surrounding things like math performance and arithmetic fluency.
Getting tested for dyscalculia
Some learning disorders can be harder for doctors to diagnose, especially when the symptoms of the disorder — like poor performance in school — can have many different causes. However, here’s what doctors generally look for when making a diagnosis of dyscalculia:
- Math ability: People with dyscalculia often have reduced math performance that places them at or below the 25th percentile for their age range.
- Math assessments: Assessments play an important role in the diagnosis of dyscalculia. There are multiple types of tests depending on age and grade.
- Diagnostic criteria: Even if some symptoms are nonspecific, a doctor can make a diagnosis based on the criteria outlined in diagnostic handbooks, like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5).
If you feel that you or your child may be showing signs of dyscalculia, talk with a doctor about the best way to pursue a diagnosis.
ADHD, dyscalculia, and math anxiety
Research suggests there may also be some overlap between ADHD, dyscalculia, and math anxiety.
According to the
For example, a
In some people with these conditions, the increased difficulty of performing math-related tasks can potentially cause math anxiety. Not to mention, it can also be a self-sustaining cycle in which having ADHD or dyscalculia can make math harder, which causes anxiety, which in turn can make math even harder.
Here are some recommended strategies for supporting yourself or a loved one with math anxiety:
Any type of anxiety can be hard to overcome, but there are ways to help you learn how to better manage your anxiety in the face of math-related situations:
- Celebrate your successes: Just because you find math difficult doesn’t mean that you’ve failed at it. In fact, if you think back to all the times you have done a math activity, there are likely times when you have succeeded — even when you’ve struggled. Whenever you can, try to celebrate those wins.
- Create positive behaviors: Creating positive behaviors can help you meet yourself where you are and reduce some of the anxiety you might feel around math. For example, putting aside enough time to study — and avoiding studying at the last minute — can help reduce stress when it comes to math assignments and tests.
- Use relaxation techniques: When you’re feeling anxious, relaxation techniques can be particularly helpful for reducing some physiological effects of anxiety. Consider trying things like relaxing your muscles, practicing positive self-talk, and deep breathing exercises.
If you have a child with math anxiety, seek to be supportive of their efforts instead of their performance. Offering frequent positive feedback, finding other ways to teach math-related skills, and being realistic in your own expectations are all important ways to help your child manage their math anxiety.
Guide your child through the techniques mentioned above to help them create healthier ways of coping with their anxiety when it pops up. If you experience math anxiety yourself, it can also be helpful to be honest with them about how you feel about math, and how you have learned to cope with it as you’ve gotten older.
Teachers play one of the largest roles in helping students manage math anxiety, especially because a lot of that anxiety happens at school. When creating math-related activities, here are a few tips teachers can keep in mind:
- For exams, consider ways to reduce anxiety within the test itself, such as inserting jokes into questions or breaking up large sections into smaller sections.
- For assignments, avoid instructions that overly focus on stereotypes (like gendered questions) or other negative associations.
- Give students enough time to complete assignments and exams within the time constraints.
- Use hands-on devices to help students more easily engage in the learning process.
- Offer positive feedback and achievements to promote self-confidence and a positive self-concept.
- When possible, allow the test to be retaken as students improve their understanding.
- Make sure students understand that tests are there to help you assess how to best help them learn, not as a way to establish their intelligence or worth.
Schools, especially higher learning facilities like universities, can help reduce math anxiety by offering a variety of accommodations. You may first want to ensure that all courses are adhering to federal disability standards and making students with learning disabilities feel welcome.
Offering a basic math course at the freshman level can give students the chance to improve their math knowledge if they came from a high school with fewer resources. You may also want to reexamine the prerequisites for your math courses to ensure no gatekeeping is being done.
Offering test retakes for math-related courses can help ease the pressure of getting a test “perfect” the first time around. It can also be helpful to provide math courses tailored to different academic paths. For example, theater and art majors may find a geometry course that’s rooted in artistic design to be more applicable to their other studies than an algebra course.
Living with math anxiety
Math anxiety can cause a significant amount of stress at work, school, and even at home. But if you’re someone who experiences math anxiety, you’re not alone, and there are resources that can help:
- For parents: It can be difficult as a parent to watch your child experience anxiety, especially when it’s a type of anxiety you may not understand yourself. If you’re struggling to help your child with their math anxiety, check out this resource from the Child Mind Institute on tools and strategies you can use at home.
- For teachers: As a teacher, you play an integral role in helping provide a positive, reinforcing environment for students with math anxiety. If you’d like to know how you can best support your students, the Literacy Information and Communication System (LINCS) has a great resource page on how to help your students better manage math anxiety.
- For individuals: Math anxiety doesn’t just affect children. Many adults experience this type of anxiety, too. If you’re living with math anxiety as an adult, check out Florida Atlantic University’s College of Education’s huge resource page of math anxiety resources.
If you’re interested in getting professional help for yourself or a loved one dealing with math anxiety, consider checking out the
Math anxiety can have a huge impact on someone’s ability to perform even the most basic math-related tasks. Even mild math anxiety can lead to poor academic or work performance, which can have a negative impact on someone’s overall mental health and well-being.
If you or someone you love experiences math anxiety, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for an assessment. With the right diagnosis and treatment, you can learn the skills needed to manage your math anxiety long term.