While students face challenges all sorts of areas, math, particularly, poses somewhat greater difficulties: introducing math anxiety. Among all ages, backgrounds, and skill-levels, students suffer from “math anxiety”, the angst and physiological reactions that math can elicit. 

What is math anxiety?

People who experience math anxiety tend to feel extremely nervous, worried, and/or stressed when managing a math-related task. 

A 2018 study, “Spotlight on Math Anxiety,” mentions that roughly 17% of the American population experiences high math anxiety.  

It may seem unfair that your best friend can breeze through a trigonometry test while you’re shaking in your boots. Furthermore, it’s understandable to have negative feelings about this. However, resentment won’t help your math grade. On the contrary, harboring anger will probably just bite you in the butt and make it harder to focus and succeed. 

In the long run, understanding math anxiety’s causes and potential solutions can shed light on your situation and motivate you to seek necessary help. 

math anxiety symptoms

The good news is that it can impact all types of learners. By good news, I mean that you shouldn’t jump to conclusions if do you have math anxiety. Gifted and hard-working students, along with students who have learning disabilities, can all experience math anxiety. 

Something else to note is that it develops in young students. A 2016 paper on math anxiety describes a study which shows that it can arise when children are as young as six years old. 

What causes math anxiety?

So, now you know that dealing with math anxiety doesn’t mean you’re innately bad at math or that you’re a bad student. In fact, you might be one of the top students in your class! And math anxiety’s development may very well be out of your control. Let’s look at some common causes. 

Perceived emotional & instrumental support

A 2014 study on the relationship between perceived emotional and instrumental support found that instrumental support was negatively related to math anxiety—that is, the less instrumental support students perceived they had, the greater were their chances of developing math anxiety. 

Instrumental support refers to any given type of tangible provisions. For students, this may be notes, worksheets, slideshows, or packets. 

Plus, the study highlighted the positive relationship between both emotional and instrumental support and help-seeking behavior. This means that those who felt more support were more likely to seek help. Meaning: extra help can alleviate math anxiety—while on the flip-side, if you don’t feel support and don’t seek help, you may have trouble mitigating your anxiety. 

Time limit pressures

Let’s be real—time limits can make an already-challenging math test all the more difficult. Knowing that the clock is ticking can make it seem impossible to stay focused. 

If this applies to you, it should be reassuring that it’s not in your head—there is scientific evidence to support the fact that time pressure can impair performance, and this is particularly relevant in math. For students who suffer from anxiety, time pressure can lead to more anxiety, which is distracting—as a result, they may not be able to perform at their highest potential.

Previous experiences 

If you had a distressing or even traumatic experience surrounding math at a young age, this could have led you to develop intense feelings around math, leading to math anxiety. Math anxiety, it seems, can be products of our adolescent experiences—particularly, those which resonate with us to an extreme degree. 

Fear of embarrassment 

As we know, students often develop math anxiety at a young age. This may go hand-in-hand with events involving embarrassment following a wrong answer in class. This type of event also may trigger math anxiety.

How does math anxiety affect academic performance?

Unlike someone who simply doesn’t enjoy math (myself included), math anxiety can induce debilitating effects and even physical symptoms. 

Some common symptoms include:

  • Avoiding math-related situations
  • Physiological reactivity: heart-racing, sweating
  • Excessive worry over math exam scores or performance
  • Passive behavior around math

Solutions & tips for students with math anxiety

Ask questions

If you’ve dealt with math anxiety for years, neglecting to seek help, it can be difficult to find the courage to start asking questions. But the good news is that once you start, it gets a tiny bit easier every time. 

As someone who struggled with math throughout high school and college, it was disappointing to discover that being a psychology major did not take math out of the equation at all (pun intended). I then realized that I couldn’t just use my ‘fake it til you make it’ mindset, and that I needed to be proactive. Understanding all of the different types of statistical tests is no joke!

 It was definitely initially overwhelming to make my way to office hours for days on end—but I got used to it, and then I got used to seeing better grades! 

Utilize resources

Luckily, there are resources you can seek if you need extra help in math—several of which are free! Since reaching out to a teacher may trigger more anxiety, you may be more open to looking to these resources. If you’re not feeling up to going in for a session with your teacher, try out some of the following free online tools. 

Get a tutor

Sometimes it may just be easier to get help from someone who isn’t your teacher. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable spending one-on-one time with them, or maybe their teaching style just doesn’t mesh with your learning style. If you’re ready to get some outside help, it’s time to consider getting a tutor. 

A 2015 study on reversing math anxiety found that children with high math anxiety had significantly reduced anxiety after participating in eight weeks of tutoring.

Of course, not all students can afford to get regular tutoring. 

At My Private Professor, we appreciate that some students might not have the means to receive tutoring sessions, which is why we offer sliding scale rates so we can meet your needs. 

Author: Lydia Schapiro