What is maths anxiety?

Overview: what is maths anxiety?

Stressed woman at laptopMany adults and children feel worried or stressed when faced with maths. Some of us also have physical symptoms too, such as a racing heartbeat, feeling hot and flustered, or sweating.

According to research by the University of Cambridge, “Many children and adults experience feelings of anxiety, apprehension, tension or discomfort when confronted by a maths problem.”

Maths anxiety or a fear of maths is common, and although it can limit performance in certain situations and contexts, it’s not linked to intelligence or ability. In one study involving children, most of those with high maths anxiety scored normal to high results on curriculum maths tests.

Anyone can experience maths anxiety. In fact, according to psychologist Dr Thomas Hunt of the University of Derby, most adults will experience it at some point, although girls and women are more commonly affected.

 

What are the signs of maths anxiety?

There isn't a formal test for maths anxiety, but a situation involving maths, or even the thought of doing some maths, can bring on the following recognisable reactions in people with maths anxiety:

  • Feeling panicked or stressed
  • Feeling flustered or struggling to concentrate on a calculation
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating and nausea 
  • Avoiding situations which involve maths
 

How does it affect people?

Although maths anxiety is often not a product or indicator of academic achievement, the stress associated with the condition can affect performance in some situations and tests. This can worsen the anxiety, leaving the individual caught in a cycle. This can create or amplify a belief that maths ability is "fixed" and cannot be improved, therefore blocking any motivation to practise in order to learn and progress.

For some people a phobia of maths can lead to avoiding everyday situations involving maths at work or at home, such as helping children with homework. It has also been found to prevent some adults from applying for courses, jobs and promotions.

What causes maths anxiety?

The causes of maths anxiety are thought to be highly varied and complex, but they may include:

Child doing test at school

  • Pressured situations, such as fearing being judged on how quickly you can produce an answer, or sitting an exam
  • Specific negative past experiences, for example having felt humiliated for getting something wrong while in school
  • Cultural bias, for example implications from opinions in the media and popular culture that because of background or gender someone is likely to have lower ability in maths
 

How to address maths anxiety

The following approaches can help to address maths anxiety. Dr Hunt explains more about the psychology behind these in this blog.

Recognising the emotion: Lots of people experience panic and stress when faced with maths, especially if it’s been a while since doing any. Trying to recognise that it won’t always be this way is important, i.e. that this is the way that you feel now, but not forever.

Making the time: When ready to give some sums a go, it can help to grab a coffee and get away from everything else for a while. Ideally somewhere relaxed, so it doesn’t feel like a test environment. If time is stretched, doing just ten minutes here and there works well.

Easing into it: Getting better at maths doesn’t happen overnight, it can be difficult and require persistence. This can be daunting for anyone who experiences maths anxiety. It is important for people to work at their own pace, without the pressure to master a problem straight away. Setting achievable goals, which feel reachable, can help to keep up the motivation while overcoming anxiety.

Talking it through: In order to overcome maths anxiety, it’s important not to struggle alone. If a first attempt to solve something doesn’t work, it can help to look online or ask a colleague or friend what they would do.

Overcoming maths myths: Changing the way that we think about numbers can make a real difference to our self-confidence. It is helpful to remember that ability to be good at maths isn’t something we are born with; it can change over time and we can all be good with numbers. 

Help is available from the National Numeracy Challenge

The National Numeracy Challenge is a free service, provided by National Numeracy, to enable people to build their confidence and competence with numbers. It starts by asking a couple of questions about how you feel about maths and then showing real life stories from others who feel the same.

Improving your everyday maths skills does not need to involve going to college. The National Numeracy Challenge website is used by thousands of adults every month to help them improve their confidence with numbers. It adapts to whatever your current level is, so only gets more challenging when you are ready for it to.

Get started

Read stories of people who have overcome maths anxiety

Stacey's story

Mel's story

If your organisation would like to help your employees, customers or users improve their numeracy confidence and competence, we can help.

Please get in touch by emailing enquiries@nationalnumeracy.org.uk