Nervous About Numbers

This is an illustration of mathematics drawings and equations

Having trouble with math, whether because of anxious avoidance or cognitive deficits, is considered at least as limiting as having difficulty reading — yet is far less understood.

Math anxiety is a negative emotional reaction to math and can foster tension and dread into adulthood, perpetuating a vicious cycle of avoidance and ignorance.

And it’s fairly prevalent, with moderate to high math anxiety reported by an estimated 25% of 4-year US college students and up to 80% of community college students. Nearly half of first and second graders surveyed reported math anxiety as well; their anxiety was linked to lower achievement.

New insights into the neurological activity that occurs when people experience math anxiety may help students, parents, educators, and psychologists find ways to get the numerically nervous to approach equations with equanimity and enjoy broader, better paying career opportunities and greater competence in everyday life.

Causes of Math Anxiety

The causes of math anxiety can be environmental (bad experiences, bad teachers), personal (lack of confidence, low self-esteem), or cognitive (innate qualities, e.g., low intelligence or maybe just the obvious — not being naturally adept at math, which fuels a sense of inadequacy).

Stanford University’s Vinod Menon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, speculates that math, because it requires precise answers, may provoke more anxiety over making mistakes than reading does. What’s more, math anxiety might decrease the performance of otherwise capable students.

For children with an actual math learning disability, called developmental dyscalculia, things can snowball.

To understand what’s going on with these youngsters, psychological scientists turned to an affective priming test that can reveal latent feelings. In such tests, people who view priming words that match how they feel about a stimulus have been found to respond to those target stimuli faster. The feeling-matching words are thought to “prime the pump,” activating feelings and enabling faster responses. Thus, faster responses to math problems after negative primes could reveal math anxiety, providing insight into when people are either unaware of their anxiety or too embarrassed to admit it.

Indeed, Rosemary Tannock of the University of Toronto, Canada, and Orly Rubinsten of the University of Haifa, Israel, in 2010 reported that children age 7 to 13 with developmental dyscalculia showed implicit signs of math anxiety. First, on a computer screen, the children were shown an emotional priming word and then a simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division equation, such as 2 + 4 = 6 or 3 × 4 = 12. The children with dyscalculia responded “true” or “false” significantly faster after they saw negative or math-related words than after they saw positive or neutral words. Such responses were taken as a sign of math anxiety, especially because the control group of students without dyscalculia did the opposite, responding more quickly to math problems after they saw positive or neutral words.

These results revealed how, in childhood, arithmetic, emotions, and low achievement can get all tangled up. The challenge is then to disentangle them before anxiety makes it even harder to move forward.

Addressing math anxiety may be particularly important for girls, who take fewer advanced math courses and tend to pursue professions that don’t require as much quantitative skill. Girls don’t avoid math because of aptitude; instead, cultural factors and educators’ own biases may be involved.

APS Fellow Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago and her fellow researchers recently found that as early as first and second grade, higher math anxiety on the part of the teacher was associated with lower math achievement, but for girls more than for boys.

By adulthood, more women than men report math anxiety. Is that because women report more anxiety generally? To get past this potential confound, Rubinsten, Noam Bialik, and Yael Solar of the University of Haifa, Israel, used the same emotional-priming test used by Tannock and Rubinsten with children and reported in 2012 that women and men responded differently when solving math problems.

The 23 young men studied were faster to say simple math equations presented on a computer screen were true or false after viewing positive emotional primes such as “achievement” and “appreciation.” However, the 30 young women studied were faster to judge the same equations after viewing negative primes such as “failure” and “rejection.”

The researchers believed that the reason women made these judgments more quickly after being primed with negative emotional words was that they were experiencing math anxiety. They speculated that women receive negative environmental messages early in their education, and as a result carry forward basic deficits that make it harder for them to learn higher math.

Pain in the Brain

Whatever the cause, psychological scientists are eager to reduce the damaging impact of math anxiety on people and professions. Their work has moved rapidly from blackboard to brain.

In a seminal 2007 paper, APS Charter Member Mark Ashcraft and Jeremy Krause, both of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, reported that working memory is the “missing link” between anxious feelings and impaired cognition. They showed that math anxiety can curtail working memory, reducing the critical ability to mentally juggle more than one item at a time.

Imaging research has confirmed the biological reality of math anxiety, in part by explaining how working memory gets choked off. It also explains why Beilock likens math anxiety to a phobia: It is specific, ranges in severity, and has precise neural roots.

First to identify the neural correlates of math anxiety were Menon, Christina Young, and Sarah Wu, who reported in the May 2012 issue of Psychological Science that math anxiety in children as young as age 7 to 9 years was associated with specific patterns of brain hyperactivity and connectivity.

Of the 46 second and third graders (28 boys and 18 girls) studied, children whose high math anxiety was validated using the Scale for Early Mathematics Anxiety showed different brain-activation patterns than children with low or no anxiety about math.

When in the scanners, students were presented with simple and complex math equations (e.g., 5 + 2 = 7) and asked to press a button to say whether the answer shown was right or wrong.

During the imaging procedures, compared with the brains of nonanxious students, the brains of the students who fretted about figures revealed some significant differences, including:

  • heightened activity in the right amygdala, the same area that responds with fear to trigger stimuli, such as seeing spiders or snakes;
  • heightened activity in the hippocampus, which helps form new memories;
  • reduced activity in parts of the prefrontal cortex involved with working memory, attention, and number reasoning; and
  • greater connective strength between the amygdala and the part of the prefrontal cortex that regulates negative emotions.

These patterns help reveal how aberrant emotional activation hijacks mental resources required for math.

The right amygdala in particular plays a key role in learned fear and has multiple connections to other areas involved with cognition and emotion. Plus, Menon says its high plasticity means that it takes less and less exposure to math (the feared stimulus) to trigger the anxiety.

The fact that high-math-anxiety students were only marginally less accurate in their choices confirmed that anxiety and ability are separate issues. In addition, students with math anxiety were not found to be generally anxious. Nor did any students in the study group have a history of learning disabilities.

Both math anxiety and concomitant brain changes are found in children who have yet to learn their multiplication tables. These patterns threaten the acquisition of additional foundation skills such as long division, fractions, and percentages.

Equally dismaying, another study found that the mere expectation of doing math triggered the brain’s pain network. Dividing 28 young adults evenly into high and low scorers on the Short Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale, Ian Lyons and Beilock examined the brain activity of participants who expected to solve either a math or a word problem.

While in an MRI scanner, participants with high math anxiety showed significantly greater activation of brain areas that detect visceral threats when cued to expect math problems instead of word problems.

Some participants with high math anxiety showed significantly increased activity in the region linked to the experience of pain.

The findings, wrote Lyons and Beilock, suggest that the mere expectation of doing math is enough to activate brain regions associated with threat detection and pain. Even when it does not stem from a physiological insult, a sense of hurt or pain is still deeply unpleasant. What’s more, the authors noted that the regions that went into overdrive when cued for math are very close to those activated during experiences of severe social rejection. No wonder some people avoid doing math: It makes them feel awful.

“There is a growing recognition that our neural hardware does not always distinguish clearly between the mental and the physical,” says Beilock. “The fact that math-anxious folks activate some of the same areas of the brain that are activated when people feel physical pain tells us something important.”

Sum Total

Given what brain research is teaching us about math anxiety, what can be done?

“We can tell parents and educators that math anxiety is real and it cannot be wished away. Early identification and treatment are essential,” says Menon.

“Now that we know that math anxiety has a neurobiological profile like that of other anxieties,” he says, “we can use techniques such as progressive exposure and cognitive-behavioral therapy, which have worked with other anxiety-provoking stimuli and phobias, to reduce math anxiety and its negative consequences on problem-solving skills.”

Even something as simple as taking a few minutes to write out one’s worries before taking a math test can help, perhaps by getting the feelings safely on paper and freeing up working memory, according to a recent psychological study.

In this study, Beilock and graduate student Annie Daeun Park, along with psychological scientist Gerardo Ramirez of the University of California, Los Angeles, assigned college students to either high-math-anxiety (44 students) or low-math-anxiety (36 students) groups, using a common self-report measure. Within those groups, students were asked to either sit quietly (control group) or to write before taking tests with math and word problems about their thoughts and feelings related to the coming exam. For students high in math anxiety, expressive writing was associated with significantly better work on the math problems — especially when their writing used words related to anxiety and showed insight into how it could affect their work.

Given findings such as these, Beilock says that educating teachers about the roots of math anxiety may help them adjust their methods to avoid embarrassing students who need more time. They also need to work through their own anxieties, if they harbor any, to avoid influencing their students — especially the girls.

School psychologists can tap these findings to understand the behavior and performance of math-phobic students and offer appropriate interventions, says Beilock, whose book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To reveals more about strategies for optimal performance in the classroom and beyond.

Menon adds that “parents can ensure that learning math is as pleasant an experience as possible, and encourage their children to be emotionally resilient in the face of normal setbacks.

“Above all,” he concludes, “students can be reassured that qualms about math have no bearing on their innate ability. Treatment that attends to the emotional aspects of learning can bolster confidence and improve performance.”

“Being successful is not just about content knowledge,” says Beilock. “If we don’t consider attitudes, we are missing a big part of what it takes to create optimal learning conditions.”

References and Further Reading

Ashcraft, M. H., & Krause, J. A. (2007). Working memory, math performance, and math anxiety. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 12(2), 243–248.

Ashcraft, M. H., & Kirk, P. E. (2001). The relationships among working memory, math anxiety, and performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 224–237. doi: 10.1037/0096-3445.130.2.224

Beilock, S. L., & Willingham, D. T. (Summer, 2014). Math anxiety: Can teachers help students reduce it? American Educator, 38(2), 28–32.

Grégoire, J. & Desoete, A. (2009). Mathematical disabilities: An underestimated topic? Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 27(3), 171–174.

Lyons, I. M. & Beilock, S. L. (2011). Mathematics anxiety: Separating the math from the anxiety. Cerebral Cortex, 20, 2102–2110. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhr289

Lyons, I. M., & Beilock, S. L. (2012, October). When math hurts: Math anxiety predicts pain network activation in anticipation of doing math. PLoS ONE 7(10), e48076. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048076

Maloney, E. A., & Beilock, S. L. (2012, August). Math anxiety: Who has it, why it develops, and how to guard against it. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(8), 404–406

Park, D., Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. L. (2014). The role of expressive writing in math anxiety.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20, 103–111.doi: 10/1037/xap0000013

Rubinsten, O., & Tannock, R. (2010). Mathematics anxiety in children with developmental dyscalculia. Behavioral and Brain Functions, 6, Article 46. Retrieved from

Rubinsten, O., Bialik, N., & Solar, Y. (2012). Exploring the relationship between math anxiety and gender through implicit measurement.  Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, Article 279. Retrieved from

Young, C. B., Wu, S. S., & Menon, V. (2012). The neurodevelopmental basis of math anxiety. Psychological Science, 23(5), 492–501.



Having spent a great deal of time over the years reviewing research related to the women and math issue, I concluded that the main existing women and math issue is that people keep telling women and girls there is a problem, thus undermining their confidence. While there are sex differences in math/anxiety confidence, interestingly there are none in liking for mathematics. And the evidence for differences in math achievement is dubious. But the myth is very persistent. Few realize that math has been the least sex-typed of major field choices.
My most recent review of the issue is this:
S.F. Chipman (2005) Research on the Women and Mathematics Issue: A personal case history. In: A.M. Gallagher & J.C. Kaufman (Eds) Gender Differences in Mathematics: An Integrative Approach. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 1-24.
The “personal case history” of the title refers to my extensive experience with research on the issue. I majored in mathematics at Harvard, and was definitely NOT a case of math anxiety.

Thank you, just thank you. I thought it would be fun to take a navigation course and learn (formally) how to use a GPS. You know, some resume material…. The anxiety of not getting it, knowing one piece of information builds on another, staying quiet because everyone else seemed to “get it”, hoping it would get clearer, starting to see the numbers moving on the page, feeling my face get hot, trying to swallow and breathe. Oh what a horrible day. All this happening in a room of friends in a class taught by someone I respect, all trying to help. I am reading their body language, and smelling their discomfort. Being a descendant of a genius is absolutely unhelpful..I am supposed to be smart, right? By the time I got to the car I was gasping for breath. Math has been a problem my whole life. I so appreciate that there is some real work going on. Fight or flight all the way…I choose to fight, but no more in a room full of people.

My son 5th grade has always acted out in a negative nonviolent manner toward his math homework. I asked in a caring tone what it is about math that he finds so difficult or bothersome that he will act out to avoid the work. I get it we all hated homework I could be dysfunctional in order to try and avoid doing it, however this is very different. He stated that the numbers all over the page made him nervous.

I took to the web and found this article helpful in understanding that there may be a real problem. I sat down and showed him how to use scratch paper to cover the majority of the page and help focus on one specific question. He began to calm down and was able to focus more, however it didn’t solve the issue. He very impulsively felt the need to look at the other problems. I sat with him while HE did his work and reassured him that he was doing the work correctly. I really feel there is more behind his anxiety on this one topic and will continue to seek answers in a n effort to help him.

I don’t get anxiety from all numbers, just when I’m solving the equation and the answer is either a decimal, fraction or negative number. Not because I think it’s wrong, just seeing those numbers show up makes me nervous.

Ever since I am young I am so scared in Math subjects. I will always get a panic attacked when solving math problems. I get easily confused when the one I reviewed is different from the test, My brain cannot process it. The fact that my math skills were not fully developed in my elementary and high school. It is more advanced here in the United Staes than in the Philippines.

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