How To Overcome Math Anxiety

Math classes are a daily source of anxiety for students who dislike or believe that they are “not good” at math, and a new brain-imaging study shows that this initial rush of anxiety can negatively affect performance on math tests. The good news is that students suffering from math anxiety can take steps to recognize and overcome their fears.

Sian L. Beilock, Associate Psychology Professor at the University of Chicago, and doctoral candidate Ian M. Lyons have conducted in-depth research on what causes math anxiety and how to treat it. Beilock has found that “just the thought of doing math problems can trigger stress responses in people with math anxiety, and adult teachers can pass their trepidation about math onto their students” (Education Week). Beilock and Lyons’s most recent study, published  in the journal Cerebral Cortex, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to answer this simple question: “Which comes first: the struggle to do math, or the fear of it?”

Beilock and Lyons propose that fear of math may have a more negative effect on performance than previously thought. As expected, students observed to have high levels of math anxiety during the study (determined by brain activity observed on the fMRI) performed worse than students who did not exhibit signs of anxiety.

Even more important than fear of math, however, was how the students dealt with the fear. Students who exhibited math anxiety but managed to perform well on the test anyway showed more brain activity in the frontal and parietal regions. These regions of the brain are responsible for cognitive control, focus and regulating negative emotions. Their ability to perform almost as well as the students who exhibited few signs of math anxiety suggests that, while fear of math is debilitating, it can be overcome through cognitive effort.

This is good news for every student who has ever struggled on a math test. Understanding the mental processes behind fear and working to overcome them is a critical step to take to improve performance.

Beilock said of the encouraging results: “This study really suggests we can devise interventions that can help students reappraise the situation and control emotions before they even get into a task. It shows how some math anxious people are able to engage brain power to succeed.”

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Photo credit: jimmiehomeschoolmom

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Anne Brabson
Anne B.4 years ago

Positive reinforcement and encouragement from a caring teacher certainly can be helpful to students with math anxiety, but students need to believe they CAN succeed (often through a great deal of effort and perseverence)! What is easy for some is difficult for others-so teaching AND learning need to go hand in hand...I discovered this the hard way as a math student in the late 50s and through the 60s. I worked hard at math and didn't give up when classmates and/or teachers said "This is an easy problem-you are just stupid!" In my book, learning new things can often be daunting, but once you work diligently at it with hands-on practice, you can get better at it!

Jo Asprec
Jo Asprec4 years ago

Math teachers should also know how to make math fun for the students to reduce their fear of math. Teachers who build the students' confidence to do math helps them overcome their fear.

Kimberly B.
Kimberly B.4 years ago

I used to love math in school, up until mom moved us to California from Louisiana in 1989. I was mainstreamed (taken out of GATE classes and moved into normal ones) and developed a phobia of math while taking trigonometry in 11th grade. Dad was in Georgia, mom didn't know math, and I found it hard to get help. Ended up dropping the class at the semester's end and happy that I got a D. Happy that I got a grade that would normally depress me simply because it wasn't an F.

That summer I moved to Georgia, took the GED, and started college. Business calculus sounded scary to me by then, but it was easy! Everything just clicked into place, even old trig problems. I just knew it.

It took roughly 6 months away from math to reduce my anxiety of it and then it was easy again. To this day I know that fear can be crippling, but I can overcome it. It just takes time and will. I am glad I learned this at 17, and have benefited from it over the last 20 years.

Helen K.

I didn't have much confidence in math when I was in high school, but now I'm a mature adult and back in college-- preparing for a career as a math teacher. I think that my problems with it as a young person makes it easier to relate to struggling students while tutoring now. A lot of them brighten up when they hear that it's always hard when you're first learning, and experience makes a world of difference.

Duane B.
.4 years ago

Interesting, but I know student anxiety is not limited to math. Each student has his/her triggers, that subject that he/she feels uncomfortable or unprepared for. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses ... the trick is to identify our strengths and enjoy them!

melanie blow
melanie blow4 years ago

When I was in high school I had a friend who was super-severly math phobic. She was so afraid of it that she couldn't perform more than grade-school level math. And that really limited her further education options. Right now, she's working on either her second masters or her Ph.D, one or the other, but that goes to show you just how hard she's worked at it.

Jane Barton
Jane Barton4 years ago

Lav, if you're not a therapist, what are you? ;)

LAV M.4 years ago

Dear Math,

I am not a therapist,
solve your own problems!

Jane Barton
Jane Barton4 years ago

It's all about positive reinforcement. That's the teacher's job. Don't they do that any more?
They did it when I was in school.

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H.4 years ago

My fifth grade math teacher (who needed to retire) told me to my face that I was an idiot and would never be any good at math. Well, that freaked me out enough to make it come true. Just the thought of doing math still makes me freeze up.