What is Math Anxiety?


Math anxiety is exactly what it sounds like: the experience of clinical anxiety with regard to having to do math or, more specifically, anticipating having to do math. In fact, math anxiety is most closely associated with an extreme anxiety experienced by an individual at the very thought of having to take part in any 'math event,' such as going to a math class or taking a math-related exam.

Math Anxiety and Physical Symptoms

Math anxiety can exhibit itself in the form of physical symptoms, including sweating, heart palpitations, trembling, difficulty swallowing, abdominal pain, and even nausea and vomiting.

Math Anxiety and Brain Function

According to a recent paper by researchers from the University of Chicago published in the online journal PLoS ONE, math anxiety goes beyond basic anxiety or worry and can actually trigger response pathways in the brain that are the same as those associated with experiencing physical pain.

By using functional MRI, researchers recently concluded that the worry or concern over upcoming math-related classes or events can actually trigger a brain response that is very much the same response seen in physical pain. To that end, the greater the math anxiety, the more active a region of the brain called the posterior insula becomes. The posterior insula is a part of the brain found above the ear. It deals with acknowledging physical threats as well as dealing with physical pain.

Math Anxiety and Math Performance

Previous research has indicated that math anxiety correlates with poor math performance. In other words, the greater the math anxiety the worse the individual does in math-related tasks.

Furthermore, math anxiety in students can actually have a physiological effect on brain function by decreasing the activity level in the posterior insula.

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