The Causes and Prevention of Math Anxiety

Understanding the Psychological Factors at Play

Free HugsMath anxiety, a pervasive phenomenon, goes beyond mere dislike or discomfort with numbers. It’s a complex interplay of neurobiological and psychological factors that can significantly impact an individual’s ability to tackle mathematical tasks effectively. In this blog post, we’ll explore the intricate mechanisms underlying math anxiety and shed light on the psychological factors that contribute to its development.

At the heart of math anxiety lies the amygdala, a key brain region responsible for processing emotions. Neuroimaging studies have revealed heightened activity in the amygdala among individuals experiencing math anxiety. This heightened activation triggers an exaggerated fear response to math-related stimuli, leading to feelings of stress and unease when confronted with mathematical tasks.

The prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive control center, plays a pivotal role in regulating emotions and cognitive functions. Individuals with math anxiety may exhibit differences in prefrontal cortex functioning, impacting their ability to regulate emotions, maintain focus, and engage in problem-solving tasks. These neural differences can hinder cognitive flexibility and exacerbate feelings of anxiety during math-related activities.

Working memory, the cognitive system responsible for temporarily storing and manipulating information, also comes into play in the realm of math anxiety. Research suggests that individuals with math anxiety may experience deficits in working memory capacity, making it challenging to hold and manipulate numerical information under stress. This impairment can impede problem-solving abilities and fuel feelings of frustration and self-doubt.

Psychological factors such as negative self-beliefs and cognitive distortions contribute significantly to the experience of math anxiety. Individuals may harbor self-limiting beliefs about their mathematical abilities, fearing failure, embarrassment, or judgment from others. These negative beliefs undermine confidence, increase self-doubt, and heighten anxiety levels during math-related tasks.

Stereotype threat further exacerbates math anxiety, particularly among individuals from marginalized or stigmatized groups. The fear of confirming negative stereotypes about one’s social group can create additional cognitive and emotional burdens, hindering academic performance and perpetuating feelings of anxiety and self-doubt.

Past negative experiences with math, including failure, criticism, or trauma, can leave lasting impressions and contribute to the development of math anxiety. These experiences may trigger conditioned responses, leading to heightened anxiety and avoidance behaviors when faced with math-related tasks.

Addressing math anxiety requires a multifaceted approach that considers both neurobiological and psychological factors. By understanding the intricate mechanisms underlying math anxiety, individuals can develop targeted interventions and support strategies to manage their anxiety and build confidence in their mathematical abilities. Through cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness techniques, and educational interventions, individuals can overcome math anxiety and unlock their full potential in mathematics.

Long-term Implications and Prevention Strategies

Math anxiety, a pervasive issue affecting individuals of all ages, can have lasting effects on various aspects of life, extending far beyond the classroom. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the long-term implications of math anxiety and explore effective prevention strategies to mitigate its impact.

Academic achievement is one of the primary areas affected by math anxiety. Persistent feelings of unease and fear surrounding mathematical tasks can hinder individuals’ performance in school and limit their educational opportunities. Avoidance of math-related courses or careers due to anxiety can result in missed academic and professional pathways, impacting long-term career prospects and advancement opportunities.

The economic consequences of math anxiety can be significant. Limited mathematical proficiency can lead to challenges in budgeting, financial planning, and decision-making, impacting individuals’ earning potential and financial stability. Over time, the financial stress caused by math anxiety can exacerbate feelings of insecurity and contribute to overall economic hardship.

Psychological well-being is another area profoundly influenced by math anxiety. Chronic feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and anxiety can take a toll on mental health, affecting individuals’ overall quality of life. Without appropriate support and intervention, untreated math anxiety may escalate into more severe stress-related symptoms and anxiety disorders, further impacting psychological well-being.

Interpersonal relationships can also be affected by math anxiety, particularly in educational or work settings. Individuals experiencing math anxiety may avoid collaboration or leadership roles that involve mathematical tasks, limiting opportunities for social and professional growth. Over time, avoidance behaviors driven by math anxiety can hinder interpersonal connections and undermine career advancement.

Preventing the long-term consequences of math anxiety requires a multifaceted approach that addresses both individual and systemic factors. Early intervention is crucial, as identifying and addressing math anxiety in childhood can prevent its long-term impact. Educators, parents, and mental health professionals can implement early intervention strategies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness exercises, to help children manage math anxiety effectively.

Creating a positive and supportive learning environment is essential for reducing math anxiety. Educators can implement inclusive teaching practices, differentiated instruction, and individualized learning plans to accommodate diverse learning styles and needs. By fostering a growth mindset and celebrating effort and progress, educators can help individuals feel more confident and motivated to engage with mathematical tasks.

Moreover, promoting skill-building activities, hands-on learning experiences, and real-world applications of mathematical concepts can enhance individuals’ confidence and competence in mathematics. Teaching stress management techniques and promoting mindfulness practices can help individuals regulate emotions and cope with math anxiety effectively. By providing opportunities for practice, exploration, and positive reinforcement, educators and parents can empower individuals to overcome math anxiety and unlock their full potential in mathematics and beyond.

Mathematics anxiety has been defined as feelings of tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations Math anxiety can cause one to forget and lose one’s self-confidence (Tobias, S., 1993).

Research confirms that pressure of timed tests and risk of public embarrassment have long been recognized as sources of unproductive tension among many students. Three practices that are a regular part of the traditional mathematics classroom and cause great anxiety in many students are imposed authority, public exposure and time deadlines. Although these are a regular part of the traditional mathematics classroom cause great deal of anxiety. Therefore, teaching methods must be re-examined. Consequently, there should be more emphasis on teaching methods which include less lecture, more student directed classes and more discussion.

Given the fact that many students experience math anxiety in the traditional classroom, teachers should design classrooms that will make children feel more successful . Students must have a high level of success or a level of failure that they can tolerate. Therefore, incorrect responses must be handled in a positive way to encourage student participation and enhance student confidence.

Studies have shown students learn best when they are active rather than passive learners (Spikell, 1993). The theory of multiple intelligences addresses the different learning styles. Lessons are presented for visual/spatial, logical/mathematics, musical, body/kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal and verbal/linguistic. Everyone is capable of learning, but may learn in different ways. Therefore, lessons must be presented in a variety of ways. For example, different ways to teach a new concept can be through play acting, cooperative groups, visual aids, hands on activities and technology. Learners are different than they were forty years ago. These learners today ask questions why something is done this way or that way and why not this way? Whereas years ago learners did not question the why of math concepts; they simply memorized and mechanically performed the operations needed.

Students today have a need for practical math. Therefore, math needs to be relevant to their everyday lives. Students enjoy experimenting. To learn mathematics, students must be engaged in exploring, conjecturing, and thinking rather than, engaged only in rote learning of rules and procedures.

Students’ prior negative experiences in math class and at home when learning math are often transferred and cause a lack of understanding of mathematics. According to Sheila Tobias, millions of adults are blocked from professional and personal opportunities because they fear or perform poorly in mathematics for many, these negative experiences remain throughout their adult lives.

Math is often associated with pain and frustration. For instance, unpaid bills, unforeseen debts, unbalanced checkbooks, IRS forms are a few of the negative experiences associated with numbers. Parents should show their children how numbers are successfully used by them in positive pleasant ways, such as in cooking, sewing, sports, problem solving in hobbies and home repairs.

Math must be looked upon in a positive light to reduce anxiety. A person’s state of mind has a great influence on his/her success. Many games are based on math concepts. Some games that are beneficial to learners and are enjoyed are cards playing, Life, Yahtzee, Battleship and Tangrams.

With all the tension and anxiety, math humor is greatly needed. Young children enjoy cartoons and jokes. Cartoons may be used to introduce a concept or for class discussion. Most children will master mathematical concepts and skills more readily if they are presented first in concrete, pictorial and symbols. For example manipulatives are concrete objects used to teach a concept. By using manipulatives, pictures and symbols to model or represent abstract ideas, the stage is set for young learners to understand the abstractions they represent. Students enjoy the change from lecture and books and they are more inclined to explore with manipulatives and show greater interest in classwork.

Cooperative groups provide students a chance to exchange ideas, to ask questions freely, to explain to one another, to clarify ideas in meaningful ways and to express feelings about their learning. These skills acquired at an early age will be greatly beneficial throughout their adult working life.

In conclusion, math anxiety is very real and occurs among thousands of people. Much of this anxiety happens in the classroom due to the lack of consideration of different learning styles of students. Today, the needs of society require a greater need for mathematics. Math must be looked upon in a positive light to reduce math anxiety. Therefore, teachers must re-examine traditional teaching methods which often do not match students’ learning styles and skills needed in society. Lessons must be presented in a variety of ways. For instance, a new concept can be taught through play acting, cooperative groups, visual aids, hands on activities and technology. As a result once young children see math as fun, they will enjoy it, and, the joy of mathematics could remain with them throughout the rest of their lives.


Spikell, M. (1993). Teaching mathematics with manipulatives: A resource of activities for the K-12 teacher. New York: Allyn and Bacon.

Tobias, S. (1993). Overcoming math anxiety. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Marilyn Curtain-Phillips teaches high school mathematics and is the author of several books on math education.