Anxious about maths? You are not alone!

Posted in: maths and statistics, resilience

Maths anxiety is real and affects many people. Here's some information on what it is and how to overcome it. 

Have you ever seen ‘maths’ on your timetable and felt your heart sink? Then you're a really normal student! 

About one in three 15-24 year-olds feel anxious about maths (some estimates are higher), and this group includes people studying numerate degrees, so if you're feeling anxious about maths, there are others on your course feeling the same way. 

What is maths anxiety? 

Most people are anxious about something, and maths-anxious people are anxious about doing maths! One of the things that characterises maths anxiety specifically is that it is an emotion that blocks a person’s reasoning ability when confronted with a mathematical situation 

It can have physical symptoms e.g. a racing heart, irregular breathing, sweatiness, shakiness, and a hollow feeling in the stomach. It can prevent you from wanting to try, and make you feel guilty for not wanting to try. It's certainly a horrible condition to have. 

Why is my brain doing this to me?!

Researchers have investigated maths anxiety using brain scans. This research provides evidence that maths anxiety reduces working memory. Since working memory is important for many maths tasks you can see how a downward spiral might start. 

Maths anxiety also affects the ‘fight or flight’ region of the brain. When you are maths-anxious your brain sees maths as a threat and can react in the same way as a brain experiencing physical pain, i.e. it tells you to run away! 

The good news is that researchers have shown that using emotional control techniques before you attempt to do maths can get your brain back on track and allow you to learn maths successfully.

Our colleagues at Sheffield Hallam University have produced a student resource with some techniques for dealing with maths anxiety.

Why maths? 

What is it about maths that creates feelings of anxiety in so many people? That's a question researchers are still trying to answer.

Maths is presented at school with ‘right or wrong’ answers. It's likely that this makes people feel nervous that they will give one of the ‘wrong’ ones. This fear is often rooted in past humiliation.  

Maths is also often thought of as something ‘clever’ people can do, and this can lead to variety of self-esteem problems. Those who think they can’t do maths because they are ‘not clever enough’ are put off from trying in the first place.

There are also students who see themselves as ‘good at maths’ and therefore feel anxious when they meet more difficult problems.  

The first step is... to take one 

One of the cruel things about maths anxiety is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maths learning often builds on previous maths learning and practice is an important part of the learning process.

Anxiety can be paralysing, and can prevent you from being able to make a start. In fact, maths anxiety can even prevent students from seeking help with maths.   

The MASH team understand that many students are anxious. We work with maths-anxious students every day. Our drop-in is a safe place to come and seek support especially if you feel you've fallen behind in lectures.

Have you got a comment or question about this blog? Please leave a comment!

Posted in: maths and statistics, resilience

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  • Interesting article. I have a phobia of maths and I'm not alone in this. We are thousands.
    You never hear of history or geography phobia, so what is it about maths?
    You write "What is it about maths that creates feelings of anxiety in so many people? That's a question researchers are still trying to answer. "
    Quite. All I can think of is that maths is a unique subject, a system of reasoning, and you either "get it" or not.

    • Thank you for your comment. I am pleased you found the post interesting, especially as someone with a phobia of maths. There is some evidence that maths anxiety is a trauma response to adverse learning experiences. Everyone has the ability to learn maths, but that doesn’t mean the fear isn’t real.

      • Thank you for your answer. I’ve just come across your page once more. So what is it with maths that makes it so uniquely incomprehensible to so many? French mathematician Cedric Villani puts it this way:
        “our brain was made to speak languages, it wasn’t made to speak maths. That’s an activity that goes against nature”.

        Elsewhere he says:
        “The subject, as we know, is not an easy one: our capacity to speak was selected biologically, but the same doesn’t apply to our capacity for mathematical reasoning, an activity that isn’t natural for any brain. Without first doing some advanced studies it’s impossible to read the research work of the great mathematicians in the way that we read the works of great novelists”.

        Those who disagree with Villani are free to do so, but he knows something about the subject. After all, he’s a Fields medallist.