What does math anxiety look like?

Math anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about solving math problems or taking math classes. It is very common, affecting as many as 1 in 5 students. Math anxiety can happen at any age and at any math level. Even basic math operations like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division can cause anxiety for some people.

What are the symptoms of math anxiety?

There are both physical and emotional symptoms of math anxiety. Physical symptoms include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating or clammy hands
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach or nausea

Emotional symptoms include:

  • Feeling hopeless about math
  • Feeling embarrassed about poor math skills
  • Fear or dread of math class
  • Feeling numb and unable to focus during math class
  • Worrying about upcoming math tests days or weeks in advance

What causes math anxiety?

There are several potential causes of math anxiety:

  • Negative experiences – Past struggles with math, getting low grades on math tests, or being embarrassed by a teacher can lead to math anxiety.
  • Myths about math – Beliefs like “math is only for smart people” or “boys are better at math than girls” can create anxiety.
  • Pressure – Performance pressure from parents, teachers, or oneself can increase nerves about math.
  • Learning disabilities – Conditions like dyslexia or dyscalculia that affect math comprehension can exacerbate math fears.
  • Bad teaching methods – Math instruction that is boring, relies heavily on rote memorization, or lacks connections to real-world examples can induce anxiety.

How does math anxiety affect students?

Math anxiety can have many detrimental effects on students, including:

  • Avoiding math or skipping math class
  • Putting off math homework
  • Getting frustrated easily when working on math
  • Having trouble focusing in math class
  • Scoring lower on math tests than actual abilities
  • Taking fewer advanced high school and college math classes
  • Choosing college majors and careers that require less math

In other words, math anxiety can negatively impact learning, achievement, course choices, and career paths. It essentially creates a math avoidance pattern that prevents students from reaching their full potential.

Who gets math anxiety?

While anyone can develop math anxiety, research shows certain groups experience it more often:

  • Girls and women – Gender stereotypes about math being a “male” subject contribute to more math worries in females.
  • Elementary school students – Math anxiety often starts in 3rd grade when multiplication tables are introduced.
  • Black and Hispanic students – Discrimination and cultural biases may raise doubts about math abilities.
  • Community college students – Weaker past math education causes higher anxiety in this group.
  • STEM majors – Women pursuing male-dominated science careers feel extra pressure about math skills.
  • Adult learners – Going back to math classes after being away from school for years induces anxiety.

What is the best way to overcome math anxiety?

Fortunately, math anxiety is a very treatable condition. Some tips to reduce math fears include:

  • Seeking help early before fears get worse
  • Starting a growth mindset about math abilities not being fixed
  • Identifying specific problem areas and getting individual tutoring
  • Practicing math skills regularly even basic ones
  • Learning stress management and relaxation techniques
  • Getting extra time and support for math tests
  • Joining a math study group for motivation and collaboration
  • Meeting with a school counselor for emotional support

How can parents help a child with math anxiety?

If parents notice signs of math anxiety in their child, here are some ways to assist:

  • Provide lots of encouragement and avoid criticism
  • Don’t share your own math anxieties
  • Focus on effort over innate math abilities
  • Connect math to everyday life to make it meaningful
  • Work together on math homework in a patient, calm manner
  • Get tests for learning disabilities if needed
  • Speak to teachers and school counselors about math worries
  • Arrange for math tutoring if class alone isn’t enough
  • Remind them everyone struggles with some subjects

What classroom strategies reduce math anxiety?

Teachers play a huge role in preventing and alleviating math anxiety. Here are best practices for the classroom:

  • Create a welcoming, shame-free environment
  • Build students’ confidence and growth mindset around math
  • Connect math concepts to the real world
  • Foster peer collaboration and small group work
  • Offer individual help and encouragement
  • Provide stress balls or fidget toys for anxious test takers
  • Be understanding about mistakes
  • Give partial credit for work shown on tests
  • Allow students to take short breaks from math work
  • Avoid time pressure on tests and assignments

How common is math anxiety among college students?

Math anxiety affects about 80% of community college students and prevents as many as 50% from pursuing STEM majors. Even among top universities, over 25% of students report moderate to high math anxiety. Groups especially prone to math anxiety in college are women, humanities majors, and students who had negative math experiences in high school.

Should I get treatment for my child’s math anxiety?

Seeking professional treatment for a child’s math anxiety is recommended if fears are severe and persistent over time. A psychologist or counselor can assess if math anxiety stems from a learning disability, test anxiety, or other factors. They can then provide cognitive-behavioral therapy, relaxation techniques, math tutoring, and other interventions. Getting help early prevents math anxiety from significantly impacting achievement and course/career paths.

Can adults develop math anxiety later in life?

Yes, math anxiety can emerge or reemerge in adulthood. Triggers include:

  • Returning to school and facing college math classes after years away from academics
  • Math heavy career changes like nursing, accounting, engineering
  • Job promotions involving new data analysis responsibilities
  • Feeling mental math skills have declined from lack of regular use
  • Having a child with homework assignments beyond one’s current abilities

Adults may hide their math anxieties more than children but should still seek help through tutoring, counseling, practice, and other methods.

What careers are least likely to trigger math anxiety?

Those with math anxiety can thrive in many careers that involve minimal math on a daily basis. Fields involving subjective skills like writing, art, law, social services, counseling, marketing, and entertainment allow avoiding situations that create math stress for anxious individuals.

Is math anxiety a recognized learning disability?

No, math anxiety itself is not a learning disability but rather an emotional reaction some people have to math. However, it is very common for people with diagnosed conditions like dyscalculia, dyslexia, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorder to also have math anxiety as a secondary effect.

Can I major in a STEM field if I have math anxiety?

Pursuing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees is possible with math anxiety but will take self-awareness and committed effort. Useful strategies include starting with remedial math, allowing extra study time, getting tutoring, choosing professors carefully, and adopting positive thinking habits around math. Anxious STEM students should also pursue campus mental health resources.

Is math anxiety a form of ableism?

Math anxiety can certainly be exacerbated by societal ableism – discrimination against those viewed as having inferior math abilities. Negative stereotypes about certain groups being “bad at math” including women, minorities, disabled students, English language learners, and more can become internalized into math anxiety. However, math anxiety also stems from many factors beyond discrimination alone.

Should I avoid careers involving math if I have math anxiety?

Not necessarily – with the right strategies, those with math anxiety can often still succeed in math-heavy fields. However, intentionally pursuing fields with less math may help reduce stress for those with severe anxiety. It is wise to weigh your interests, abilities, and comfort level when choosing a career direction.

How can society help decrease math anxiety?

Ways society can help lessen widespread math anxiety include:

  • Actively refuting myths that math is only for naturally gifted people
  • Providing strong, encouraging math education starting in early grades
  • Having male and female role models in math and science
  • Showcasing minorities and diverse examples succeeding in STEM
  • Promoting growth mindset about math skills in media and culture
  • Funding research on math learning disabilities
  • Destigmatizing needing math help/tutoring


Math anxiety is very common and has a real impact on learning, achievement, and career trajectory. The most important steps in overcoming math anxiety are seeking early treatment, adopting a growth mindset about math abilities, and finding individualized instructional strategies that build competency. With proper support, those who suffer from math anxiety can be successful in both academics and future careers.

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