Math Anxiety Explained: The What, Who, and Why Of This Type Of Anxiety

If you have math anxiety, your issues with solving number problems may have nothing to do with your math capability or disdain of numbers.

A study done in England reveals it might have a little to do with your gender, however.

What is math anxiety?

Researchers from Oxford and Cambridge Universities define math anxiety as: “a state of discomfort caused by performing mathematical tasks [that] can be manifested as feelings of apprehension, dislike, tension, worry, frustration, and fear.”

Though the British research uncovered no gender difference in math achievement, girls in the study experienced more math anxiety than boys. (The study had a control to account for general test anxiety.) The girls’ math anxiety resulted in diminished performance on math exams.

So, Do Girls Dislike Numbers More Than Boys?

Another study reported in the journal Psychological Science found that math anxiety is a measurable biological response. Via MRI brain scanning while working with numbers, kids with high math anxiety showed increased activity in their brain’s amygdala and hippocampus. The amygdala plays a part in emotional regulation and our fear response. Our hippocampus is involved with memory and learning.

While the hippocampus and amygdala were hot with activity, the same children had less brain activity in some processing, number reasoning, and working memory areas of their gray matter. The MRIs explain why someone with math anxiety might say, “I look at math problems and I just can’t think.”

This research indicates that math anxiety is not a dislike for numbers or mathematics, but is a physical stress response triggered by having to solve math problems; but, why the anxiety?

5 Possible Causes of Math Anxiety

Some children may have math anxiety before doing their first math problem. If a child lives in a home where numbers are a constant source of fear or frustration, it is possible that the child could associate numbers with those feelings.

For example, a child can pick up on worries about debt, unpaid bills, concern about paying bills, and tax issues. While these problems are real for many families, children also need to see that numbers are a positive tool for problem-solving home repairs, cooking, baking, woodworking, etc.

While some children enjoy beating the clock, having timed tests in math can push other students into near panic. Being good at solving problems is very different than being good at solving them fast. If time panic is coupled with classroom revelation of students’ performance, it can also puncture confidence or self-esteem.

Math is traditionally taught in a straightforward, “this is how it’s done,” manner. The authoritative method does not take into account that students learn in different ways and must be taught in a variety of ways. Sarah, a woman who suffers from math anxiety said:

“I realized in college when I was trying my best to get an A in a chemistry lab, that no one had taught me the concepts behind algebra. When I discovered them on my own I knew, at least in part, why math never clicked in my mind. The concepts behind algebra make perfect sense to me and turned algebra into a game. I did get an A in that class but I still get anxious looking at numbers.”

Math can be boring if it is taught in a rote manner and this can turn some students off before they give math a chance. Math needs to be spiced with humor and fun if children are going to take to it, and some learners need to see the everyday practical applications of math before they will bother with it.

A study published in 1990 indicated that the students who believed math was of high importance had the least math anxiety. It’s a 20-year-old study, but it makes you think about the significance of parental attitudes concerning math.

TIP: Creative computer apps and games that teach math are a wonderful tool, and not only for kids. If you are an adult with math anxiety, this is a great way to make some peace with numbers.

The Truth About Learning Math

Maybe the reason girls showed more math anxiety in the British study has to do with lingering stigma and mythology about women and math. It takes a while for generations of gender bias to disappear. One teacher reported that his female college math students understand they have math ability, but feel math is still seen as being unfeminine.

Whatever girls or women may feel, the truth is that both genders have an aptitude for math. Math is not only a left-brain logical process either. Math requires insight, synthesis, and creativity as well. It is a science of ideas; being an ace at mental calculation is not required. Becoming math literate is accessible to everyone.

Sources: Eccles, Jacquelynne; Meece, Judith; Wigfield, Allan. (1990) Predictors of Math Anxiety and Its Influence on Young Adolescents’ Course Enrollment Intentions and Performance in Mathematics. Journal of Educational Psychology. 82/1, 60-70.
Photo: Pixabay

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