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Maths Anxiety and Mental Health

10 Oct 2022

By Dr Thomas Hunt, Associate Professor in Psychology and lead of the Mathematics Anxiety Research Group at the University of Derby 

In a world full of numbers, feeling maths anxious can take its toll. It is important to recognise the effect that maths anxiety might have on a person’s mental health. For those who are confident with maths, maths anxiety can often seem like an alien concept, yet, for those who are maths anxious, it can be a very real and sometimes prolonged experience. 

There isn't a formal test for maths anxiety, but you can learn more about the symptoms and how to deal with the root cause here:

What is maths anxiety? 

Dr Tom Hunt

A little concern or nervousness around maths can often be normal, but repeated and heightened anxiety can be harmful. There are clear consequences to feeling highly maths anxious, from under-performing in maths tests to general avoidance of anything involving (or thought to involve) maths. Yet, there are some hidden, and sometimes little understood, effects of maths anxiety – effects that may niggle away at a person’s mental health more generally. For instance, impacting mood and self-esteem. Likewise, negative mood and maths attitudes are likely to contribute to feeling maths anxious, creating a vicious cycle that can be difficult to escape. 

If we consider younger children for a moment, they do not always have the ability or understanding to articulate how they are feeling, or the reasons for why they feel as they do. Children who experience particularly high levels of maths anxiety may not even understand it as maths anxiety, but they may display signs that their mental health is being affected by it, e.g. becoming distressed during maths homework. Indeed, supporting children with maths homework can be a stressful event for many adults. 

For adults, avoidance of maths is tricky; in recent times we have been faced with numbers that have extreme real-world relevance, including interest rates (economic changes), infection rates (the Covid-19 pandemic), and temperature (climate change). Maths anxiety may impact understanding of such numbers or even our willingness to engage in important topics. It could be argued that our ability to rationalise (consider different statistics presented to us in a balanced way) and plan (to budget and make sensible decisions) is likely to impact our mental health due to the various consequences of the decisions we make. In that sense, maths anxiety becomes highly important in the context of daily living. 

General anxiety and a range of more specific anxieties affect many people and are often characterised by (amongst other things) worry. Maths anxiety shares this characteristic, whether it is a case of worrying about an upcoming maths situation or during it. People with high maths anxiety are more likely to experience intrusive, often unhelpful thoughts (e.g. “I’m going to get this wrong” or “I’m taking too long”) and prolonged rumination is likely to be one of the ways in which maths anxiety can affect mental health. 
Thankfully, certain interventions, such as regulating emotions and addressing unhelpful beliefs, can help reduce maths anxiety. That said, we must show awareness of how maths anxiety might affect our mental health more broadly and this includes putting strategies in place to reduce maths anxiety from developing in the first place. It is also important to recognise the sort of support that might be needed in the short term versus the long term. 

Tackling poor mental health more generally may be an immediate priority, which might place people in a stronger position for targeting personal development around specific skills, such as improved numeracy. 

On the other hand, some may wish to focus on making changes that could lead to increased confidence and further opportunities, which developing numeracy skills could bring, ultimately supporting better mental health. 

Recognising the symptoms of maths anxiety

There is no formal test for maths anxiety, but we can learn to recognise the symptoms that might arise. Find out what causes so many of us to feel fear around maths, and how we can begin to overcome it. 

What is maths anxiety?

However you feel about maths, you’re not alone

The National Numeracy Challenge is a free and easy-to-use website you can use to improve your confidence with numbers, in your own time and at your own pace.

It’s ideal for brushing up, checking your level, or for catching up on learning you missed, and it’s all about the maths you need in daily life and at work – no algebra or trigonometry.

Image showing the Challenge on a computer monitor