Math anxiety and what to do about it

Conversation with Dr. Venera Gashaj

12 minute read 02 May 2024 conversations

Did you ever feel strong negative emotions in front of a math problem? Do your guts reject everything mathematical? Do you love math but feel like you are struggling in certain contexts? This article is for you! We have the privilege of discussing with Dr. Venera Gashaj, a brilliant developmental psychologist who studies math anxiety as part of her research.

Tell us a bit more about yourself!

I'm a researcher at the Center for Early Math Learning at Loughborough University. I conduct research in math learning, but also developmental psychology - the field of psychology that addresses changes related to the growth of a person - and math anxiety. I look into everything related to how children learn math, either at the beginning of their path as babies and toddlers or a little bit later, for instance in primary school.

What are you working on right now?

Right now I'm working on how to teach math to children through storybooks. The focus is not only on reading the book, but also acting it out. What we want to know is whether children could act out the story, usually related to math, and learn math through specific movements related to the story and the underlying concepts.

A storybook with the line Nell climbs the mountain next to a picture of a mountain. The reader is mimicking a mountain with their arms.

I am the mountain! I am math!

What is math anxiety?

Math anxiety, as the name already says, is an emotional response [Ashcraft 2002, Richardson 1972]. It's a response to mathematical stimuli or situations where mathematics is used, and it's a feeling of tension, apprehension and maybe fear when people have to deal with math. This can be everything from basic math to much more advanced mathematics.

A class of students happily doing math, except one in the centre who is overwhelmed with anxious thoughts.

How to focus on the math when the anxiety is overwhelming?

Where does math anxiety come from?

This is a little bit complex. Just as every other anxiety, math anxiety can result from different factors. The combination of these factors can lead to math anxiety, which is felt in a very strong way and leads to worse academic performance or avoidance. But it's also possible that math anxiety is felt in a lighter way without affecting math performance.

Math anxiety can come from several things such as a negative experience with math. But it also can be due to attitudes: children, for example, can adopt attitudes from their parents or teachers. If a child develops negative attitudes towards math, towards themselves, or their performance in math, it may create a barrier for them to go into that world of mathematics. Negative self-perception is another contributing factor, and this can lead to different kinds of anxieties. It’s also possible that the pressure put on the child to perform well in math, for example from their parents, although coming from a good intention, results in the child feeling like a failure and causes a feeling of avoidance or tension towards the subject.

A teacher telling a student who is anxious about math that Pythagoras will eat them in their sleep if they don't manage to solve the problem.

Possibly not the best way to support a child who is learning math.

How can I know whether I have math anxiety?

There is a very short test, with nine items, called AMAS (Abbreviated Math Anxiety Scale) [Hopko 2003]. If you have a score close to 9, you have very low math anxiety, if you have a score close to 45, you have high math anxiety. Math anxiety should be considered as a spectrum: it’s not about whether or not you have it, but how much.

You can also think about how you feel in situations where you have to use math. But you have to think of different situations. For example, if you feel anxious when having to do math in front of people, you may have social anxiety rather than math anxiety. If you feel anxiety when having to solve a math exam, you may have test anxiety…

a student axious because of a timed test, or because of having to do math in front of the class, is enjoying solving riddles while laying on the couch.

I hate math but I love solving riddles at home!

Are some people more likely to experience math anxiety?

Research tells us yes. For example, for a long time it was said that females have a greater disposition to have math anxiety, also related to the fact that not so many females go into STEM subjects. But more and more research has shown that it's much more complex than that.

As we mentioned before, there's a lot of different anxieties. In order to understand math anxiety, we have to understand that there are different patterns or profiles of anxieties [Carey 2017]. Math anxiety is a complex interplay between different anxiety types. There's test anxiety, there's state anxiety, trait anxiety, social anxiety, etc, and certain combinations of those anxieties can cause you to be math anxious. One combination of those factors can cause you to have math anxiety that influences your performance, while another combination might lead to math anxiety, but doesn't influence your performance. Math anxiety can even lead to a better performance sometimes. During a study with students who decided to study pure mathematics in a highly ranked university, we found that 14% of them reported higher math anxiety.

a student with math anxiety successfully defended her phd in math on tropical geometry and is receiving a medal for her outstanding performance.

Even with math anxiety, you can be very good at math.

How does math anxiety impact my results at school and my ability to do math?

As we discussed: It doesn’t always do so, but it certainly can. It’s a complex interplay of different factors. For example, if you are a very anxious person generally, math anxiety won’t affect you as much, because anxiety already affects you in general. But if it’s specific to mathematics and does not have a motivational effect on you, there are other factors, like personality, coming into play. For example, if you are resilient and have intrinsic motivations, if you really like STEM subjects and math, and your environment is supportive, it's possible that math anxiety is not going to affect you as much or that you can overcome it. And it may even motivate you because you will view it as a challenge!

On the other hand, if you feel like you are not very good in math, it may lead to a vicious cycle of feeling math anxious even more because you didn't perform well, and taking that as a confirmation that you are not good at math. You build a stereotype about yourself and then reinforce that. If your environment is not supportive, for example, if your teacher is very strict about the answers they expect in math class and doesn’t pay attention to your efforts, it can lead to worse performance and avoidance towards math.

a student is erasing their bad math anxiety thoughts.

Love for what you do and support from your environment can help you overcome math anxiety.

I think I may have math anxiety, what can I do?

In general, math anxiety is still a form of anxiety, so you can try different kinds of relaxation techniques. For example, if you know that you're specifically math anxious, you can try to bring your general anxiety down before going into math class. Another way is to try and make it more interesting for yourself. So instead of thinking, "Oh, I'm not good at math," maybe you can think more, "Oh, I haven't figured this problem out yet." Focus on a challenge that you can still overcome or that you can solve rather than this dichotomy of I can or I can't. Positive affirmation is usually helpful too.

a student is looking at a mirror and praising their own math ability.

Find your own technique and be kind and patient with yourself.

I’m a teacher, how can I support my students who may have math anxiety?

Usually, it helps to focus on playful ways of teaching math. There are also a lot of learning designs that can alleviate or relieve math anxiety, usually those that are more focused on the trying rather than the result. If you are too focused on the right answer, this might be too much pressure for the student and diminish the importance of their effort.

It also depends at what level you teach. If you are a primary school teacher and you already see that your students have math anxiety, it’s very important to tackle it right away because the more we wait, the stronger the vicious cycle of negative attitudes and stereotypes towards themselves. And then it is harder to break this cycle. So, as a teacher, it might be useful to discuss with those students and ask them about how they feel in such situations to identify the kind of anxiety they are struggling with: is it math anxiety, test anxiety, social anxiety? And if it is math anxiety, it can be useful to discuss with the parents too so that both sides, home and school, can be supportive and help make math a more positive experience. Research shows that home and school environments with a positive attitude towards math can help alleviate math anxiety, but we don’t have many longitudinal studies yet so we don’t know exactly what helps children create a better self-image.

a teacher is telling a student that math is about exploring and asking them what they would like to try next.

As a teacher, put the focus on trying rather than finding the right answer right away.

What got you interested in math anxiety?

My mother was a math teacher back in the day, and I always thought “Why am I not as good at math as she is?” She was helping me, and showing me different ways of learning it, but I never felt that math is something I can be good at. In school, I followed a literary path, focused on languages, and surprisingly realized I was actually very good at math, I had very good grades. My teacher had this approach where we could go at our own pace and I really enjoyed it. He would give us introductions into the topic, focusing on some real life problem, and asking what we could do about it. And then you realize you can actually solve these problems!

Another important experience were three of my friends who were seated next to me in math class. They disliked attending math class. They were avoidant, sad, or even helpless, because they expected low grades and were convinced they were bad in math. I was so surprised, they were so smart and capable, and yet dreaded math class. I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what they were going through, but I knew they were feeling something very specific and negative. It wasn’t until I started working on my PhD in psychology, investigating the relationship between math and motor skills, that I heard about math anxiety. I randomly stumbled into a symposium on the topic at a conference. This helped me understand what was going on! That’s when I knew I wanted this to be part of my research too.

a doodle of venera walking in front a the hall of a conference where they are discussing math anxiety and her mind is blown away.

That moment when the thing you've been thinking about for years has a name…

If people could remember one thing from this conversation, what should it be?

If you are studying mathematics, or if you are a teacher, it is very important to foster positive experiences towards math, and to seek help if you feel like you are math anxious, or anxious in general. Having effective strategies to cope with math anxiety can lead to a more enjoyable learning experience.

Also, everyone can have math anxiety, and it may impact your performance in different ways.

a doodle of a character juggling squares to learn about pythagoras.

You can have an enjoyable math learning experience!

This interview has been edited for clarity.

To go further:
  • Read some of Venera's articles on BOLD (link)
  • Embodiment and learning through movement (link)


[Ashcraft 2002] Ashcraft, M. H. (2002). Math anxiety: Personal, educational, and cognitive consequences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(5), 181–185.

[Carey 2017] Carey, E., Devine, A., Hill, F., & Szucs, D. (2017). Differentiating anxiety forms and their role in academic performance from primary to secondary school. PLoS ONE, 12(3), 1–20.

[Hopko 2003] Hopko, D. R., Mahadevan, R., Bare, R. L., & Hunt, M. K. (2003). The abbreviated math anxiety scale (AMAS) construction, validity, and reliability. Assessment, 10(2), 178-182.

[Richardson 1972] Richardson, F. C., & Suinn, R. M. (1972). The Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale: psychometric data. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 19, 551–554.