While students face challenges in a variety of areas, it seems that math, in particular, poses somewhat greater difficulties: introducing math anxiety. Among all ages, backgrounds, and skill-levels, students suffer from “math anxiety”, which is the angst and physiological reactions that math may produce. 

What is math anxiety?

Math anxiety is a form of anxiety, but the feelings arise from math instead of general life. 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 scores. 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 solutions may shed light on your situation and aid you in getting necessary help. 

math anxiety symptoms

What causes math anxiety?

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

Something else that might come as a surprise is that math anxiety develops in young students. A 2016 paper on math anxiety describes a study showing that the relationship between math anxiety and math competency arises when children are as young as six years old. 

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

Perceived emotional & instrumental support

Instrumental support refers to any given type of tangible provisions. For students, this may be helpful notes, worksheets, or packets. When you don’t have enough instrumental support, it’s difficult to stay on track. 

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 their chances of developing math anxiety. 

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. This can alleviate math anxiety—while on the flipside, if you don’t feel support and don’t seek help, it may be difficult to alleviate your anxiety. 

Time limit pressures

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

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 about math. 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?

Unsurprisingly, someone with math anxiety has increased trouble completing math tests, homework, and getting through math class. But unlike someone who simply doesn’t enjoy math (myself included), math anxiety can induce debilitating effects and physical symptoms. 

Some common symptoms that come with math anxiety 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 a bit disappointing to find that as a psychology major, math was not out of the equation at all. I realized that I couldn’t just use my “fake it til you make it” perspective, and that I needed to be proactive. Understanding all the different types of statistical errors and tests is no joke!

 It was definitely overwhelming at first to make my way to office hours for days on end—but I got used to it, and then I got used to receiving better scores! 

Utilize resources

Luckily, there are resources you can seek if you need extra math help—several of which are free! Since reaching out to a teacher may trigger more anxiety, some students 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 you just don’t find yourself absorbing their material well. 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’re offering tutoring grants to students based on financial need. We’re always looking for ways we can maximize our impact on students, and we are excited to develop this online program which assists students who might not have access to academic resources otherwise. 


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