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What Is Math Anxiety? How Can We Treat It?

The author is an enthusiastic researcher. She is studying psychology as an optional subject for the civil service exam.

Read on to better understand math anxiety and where it comes from. You'll also discover some math myths and some helpful ways to lessen math-related fears and stress.

Read on to better understand math anxiety and where it comes from. You'll also discover some math myths and some helpful ways to lessen math-related fears and stress.

What Is Math Anxiety?

Math anxiety is characterized by feelings of worry, tension, and melancholy when confronted with manipulating numbers or mathematical difficulties. This anxiety is linked to mathematics performance and anticipation, and it may lead to avoidance of math lessons, which have a significant influence on mathematical skills.

Many psychologists and neuroscientists researched the negative effects of math anxiety. Let's find out the meaning of math anxiety and the role of brain imaging in determining this anxiety.

How to Know If You Have Math Anxiety

If you quit taking your math course out of frustration and/or tremble when you walk into math class, it is apparent that you have arithmetic issues. Many additional factors may indicate that you are suffering from math anxiety. For example, you are more concerned about the math test than about any other topic, or you are concerned about getting called on in math class.

There are some physical and psychological symptoms of math anxiety that show the severity of the anxiety. The physical symptoms include nausea, sweating, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and increased blood pressure. The psychological symptoms include loss of self-confidence, memory loss, paralysis of thoughts, avoidance of mathematics, and negative self-talk.

Consequences of Math Anxiety

Math anxiety can, obviously, be a barrier to studying math. When students become anxious and uneasy while thinking about arithmetic tasks or problems, they are suffering from math anxiety. Schar (2001) contends that arithmetic worry can lead to math avoidance, creating an empirical dilemma.

The math-anxious student does not lack ability in mathematics, rather, they cannot perform to their full potential because of their anxiety. It has a variety of effects on the individual, including physical, psychological, and behavioral symptoms, as well as an influence on working memory.

Some Myths Regarding Mathematics

Mathematics has an important place in education. Many beliefs people hold about math have a grain of truth in them, but as a whole are false. They are largely myths and can harm children. These myths also give rise to anxiety. Let's talk about three of the most common myths that draw attention.

Myth 1: Not Everyone Can Be Good at Math

It is believed that not every student can be good at math, and there is a certain class of students who can perform well in mathematics class. Nicole Joseph, an assistant professor of Mathematics Education, said that many people believe that math is innate and only an elite group of students are capable of learning it.

Joseph further said that, as a mathematics teacher, he believes every student is capable of learning math, and if we provide proper guidance and strategies, every student can excel in math. The difference is the way that various students learn, as not every student learns in the same way.

There is no empirical difference between women and men when it comes to mathematical ability. This myth is harmful and should not be perpetuated.

There is no empirical difference between women and men when it comes to mathematical ability. This myth is harmful and should not be perpetuated.

Myth 2: Math Is Not For Girls

I experienced this personally. Now, you probably want to know how! When I went for my college admission, I wanted to go with mathematics instead of pre-medical subjects. This is what my family member said, "Are you insane? Math is not your job; you are a girl and go for what is suitable for you." Researchers have revealed no distinction between men and women in mathematical ability. I hope this myth will fade away soon.

Myth 3: Math Is Not a Creative Thing to Do

Mathematics is considered a subject with set rules and structure, but it is more than this. However, it is not often recognized in its full capacity. In traditional math classes, problems are displayed on a board or screen, and the teacher solves them while giving thorough descriptions. After modeling the problem-solving process, students will work using the same steps to solve problems.

This method of teaching lacks creativity. In recent years, teachers understand that math can be a creative subject. For this, teachers use different styles of teaching and have changed the tradition of "right or wrong" by giving freedom to students to create their own problems.

  • 5 Simple Ways to Add Creativity in Mathematics | edCircuit
    This article presents 5 easy-yet-important ways to add creativity into mathematics and help students break out of the box when engaging in mathematical thinking. Professor Eric Mann believes that such methods help keep students interested in math.
Math is not a boring subject, but it is often thought to be. This has a lot to do with how the subject is taught. Believe it or not, math can be highly creative!

Math is not a boring subject, but it is often thought to be. This has a lot to do with how the subject is taught. Believe it or not, math can be highly creative!

Brain Imaging and Math Anxiety

Using various techniques to image the structure and function of the nervous system is known as brain imaging. In the last 20 years, cognitive neuroscience has developed rapidly. Many tools for brain imaging are available that include magnetoencephalogram (MEG), electroencephalography (EEG), near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

How Electroencephalography (EEG) Helps in Measuring Math Anxiety

EEG is a recording that detects the abnormalities of the brain and is used to show brain activity in the states of alertness, stress, or drowsiness. It is used to diagnose conditions like brain tumors, brain damage from a head injury, inflammation of the brain, sleep disorders, and stroke.

EEG helps to study the role of cognitive processes in carrying out arithmetic strategies. It is also a powerful tool to determine how strategy use differs between groups of different skills or ages. EEG also helps to understand variations in the arithmetical performance of different students.

EEG discusses band activity (delta, alpha, beta, gamma, theta), where it refers to the frequency range of brain activity. For mental mathematics, the frequency band represents how brain waves are classified. And this band activity is achieved through EEG techniques. The classification of frequencies is defined as

  • A delta ranges from 0.5 to 3.5 Hz.
  • Theta ranges from 3.5 to 7 Hz.
  • Alpha ranges from 7.5 to 13 Hz.
  • Beta ranges from 13 to 22 Hz.

Studies show that as the workload or complexity increases, the frequency of delta increases. But there is less research related to the examination of mathematical anxiety using EEG techniques.

Hens Berger—inventor of electroencephalography (EEG)

Hens Berger—inventor of electroencephalography (EEG)

Use of Cognitive Reappraisal

The reframing of experiences and stimuli is called cognitive reappraisal. In the transactional model of stress, a person's cognitive appraisal is defined as how a person responds to the stressors in their life.

Cognitive reappraisal is an emotional regulation strategy in which somewhere literally rethink and reframes something they are having anxiety over in order to understand it "in a new light."

A new study by Rachel G. Pizzie (2020) describes that math-anxious students can regulate their math anxieties with the help of cognitive reappraisal. This reappraisal results in an increase in the brain activity that handles arithmetic. The study has shown that most of the math-anxious students have decreased brain activity associated with arithmetic.

This strategy is considered the most effective among those who have the greatest math anxiety. These strategies improved the performance of the student suffering from anxiety in mathematics by stimulating the activity of the brain regions associated with arithmetic.

Lazarus' transactional model of stress using cognitive reappraisal

Lazarus' transactional model of stress using cognitive reappraisal

In 2012, a study by Lyons and Beilock revealed that those who showed more activation in the inferior frontoparietal portion of the brain before starting a math problem performed well in math class. They linked this neural region to reappraisal.

Reassessment consists of recognizing negative emotions and turning them into more effective emotions. Reappraisal also regulates physiological arousal and reduces the effect of anxiety in the long term.

Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)

The functional MRI is used to measure brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. A study at the University of Chicago reveals that there is a strong connection between math anxiety and the brain area in the frontal and parietal lobes.

For this study, researchers selected a group of students who were highly math-anxious and scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging. The higher math-anxious students showed less activation in the area of the brain responsible for math performance.

The researchers concluded that only knowing about your anxiety is not enough—it is important to buckle it down. This study also helps illustrate how people who get nervous when dealing with math problems or tasks can deal with their anxiety in everyday tasks. The researchers say that if solving math makes you anxious, then the first thing you need to do is calm yourself down and let your brain do its job.

Additional Facts

  • According to research, nearly 17 percent of American students have some form of math anxiety.
  • According to a report from National Numeracy, the UK is facing a math crisis and four out of five adults have low functional mathematical skills.
  • Researchers have found that children who score high in maths tests can have a high level of math anxiety. Because they perform well in class, their anxiety remains unnoticed.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 EK Jadoon


EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 28, 2021:

Thanks, Rawan. I appreciate your visit.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 28, 2021:

Thanks for your kind words, Manatita. In starting days of my high school, it was difficult for me to understand math. But over time I realized that it was just because of a lazy teacher. Lol.

manatita44 from london on June 28, 2021:

A very broad range of discussion here, including brain waves and science as well. For me, I seemed to have a very logical brain and so mental arithmetic was very easy for me. Lovely article.

Rawan Osama from Egypt on June 28, 2021:

Very informative article thanks for sharing

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 28, 2021:

I am glad you liked the article, Rozlin. Bill and you, both are mathematics teacher and can discern things about math more than others. Thanks for your visit.

Happy Monday to you too, sister.

Stay safe and healthy...

Rozlin from UAE on June 27, 2021:

This is a very informative and helpful article, Moon. I have taught maths in school. Many students don't enjoy studying maths than other subjects. They feel boring. Many of them take time to understand and so feel anxious. Your hub is well written and very helpful for such students. Thank you for sharing. Happy Monday, enjoy the week. Stay safe and happy.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 27, 2021:

I appreciate your visit, Devika g. And I agree with that math is for both genders and the method of coping may be different for everyone.

Stay safe and healthy...

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on June 27, 2021:

I think math is for both genders depending on how they can cope with math can be a bit of a problem. You have a well-written hub and informative as well.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 27, 2021:

I appreciate your visit, Peggy. It is amazing that how neuroscience contribute in determining anxiety. Stay safe and healthy...

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 27, 2021:

It is amazing what can be tested by MRIs and other scanning measurements of the brain with regard to how our brains function under different stressors.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 27, 2021:

I appreciate your kind words, Ravi. Yes, I agree with you that tha myth "girls are not good at maths" is a false one. Thanks for your visit.

Stay safe and healthy...

Ravi Rajan from Mumbai on June 27, 2021:

A very useful and informative article Moondot.I certainly do not subscribe to the myth that girls are not good at maths. It was probably the product of a sick mind. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 26, 2021:

I am glad you liked the article, Jodah. We are on the same page. Algebra was the most difficult thing for me. I am not good at cramming, I think that's why. But teacher play a significant role in learning mathematics.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 26, 2021:

The same was the case with me, Misbah. I literally cried sometimes but It wasn't my fault. The teacher who taught me in high school never knew how to teach math. I secured good marks after that teacher left the school. Lol.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on June 26, 2021:

A very interesting read, Moondot. At school my Maths teacher was puzzled by me. He asked, “How can a student get A’s at Basic Maths and only C’s or D’s at Advanced Maths.” I don’t know, but that was me….I just had trouble understanding complex calculations and algebra etc.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 26, 2021:

Thank you for your visit, Bill. I think you would be a great teacher. I have suffered through anxiety and unfortunately, couldn't overcome it.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 26, 2021:

I appreciate your visit, Eman. Yes, this is only a fixed mindset that girls can't do math.

Misbah Sheikh from — This Existence Is Only an Illusion on June 26, 2021:

Nice and well-researched article, Moon.No, no, maths is for girls but beautiful girls are weak at maths... that's what I have heard. Lol! So, it was the maths anxiety I was suffering throughout my childhood. I loved this article. Thanks for sharing, Moon

Blessings and Love

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 26, 2021:

I actually taught math for several years, so obviously I enjoy it. Having said that, I have seen math anxiety in some of my students so yes, it is a real thing. Great information here, my friend.

Eman Sehar on June 26, 2021:

Very helpful article. I agree with myth number 2 (maths is not for girls). I think this is the thinking of our society. Thanks for sharing.

Many Blessings!