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Overcoming Math Anxiety: How to Conquer Fear & Build Confidence

Overcoming Math Anxiety: How to Conquer Fear & Build Confidence
Photo by Google DeepMind on Unsplash

Understanding math takes time, dedication, and focus — but that’s not so easy when you have math anxiety. While fear can sometimes motivate us to challenge ourselves, it can also block our brains from functioning properly. Unfortunately, that block is what dominates the experiences of those with math anxiety.

Maybe you’ve heard of “math phobia” (a deep fear of math) or “test anxiety” (extreme distress related to exam-taking); math anxiety is a sort of overlap in those experiences, although it’s not limited to tests. It’s a real and often chronic weight that many students carry — in fact, according to the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 20% of the population experiences math anxiety. Take it from us: that’s no small number.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be permanent. We’re here to destigmatize math anxiety by naming it, exploring its causes, and providing tools to help you cope.

Let’s break it down!

What exactly is math anxiety?

Math anxiety is a feeling of fear, panic, and/or apprehension when faced with mathematical tasks. Like general anxiety, it spans a spectrum of experience and can present itself in lots of different ways, but there are a few common threads.

People with math anxiety often feel nervous before a math exam (beyond the typical pre-test jitters) and stressed while doing math homework; some even avoid math altogether, which might manifest as incomplete homework, skipped classes, or missed exams.

Math anxiety may also trigger physical symptoms like sweating, shaking, tension, and increased heart rate and emotion when working on math problems. There are also psychological side effects like negative self-talk, low self-esteem, and frustration beyond the scope of math.

It’s completely natural to have some degree of stress response when learning new, challenging material (growth isn’t always comfy!), but it becomes a larger problem when you can no longer control that stress. No matter the intensity of your math anxiety, your experience is valid.

What causes math anxiety?

Math anxiety can stem from many different factors or experiences. For some people, it may develop from one or more negative experiences with math in the past, like a particularly difficult exam that resulted in a low grade, or even a teacher who wasn’t very supportive.

Others may feel generally intimidated by the complexity of math, or lean too far into a negative self-image of “not being a math person” (we’d like to remind everyone: there’s no such thing as a “math person”!!). Neurodivergent students can also be more likely to experience math anxiety, especially those with ADHD or dyscalculia.

No matter the cause, these feelings can snowball over time and create strong psychological associations between math and stress.

The first step to eroding that connotation is to remember that you’re not alone.

No one is immune

This one might surprise you.

Mathematician Laurent Schwartz — and many other successful mathematicians — have reportedly suffered from math anxiety. Schwartz wrote in his autobiography, A Mathematician Grappling with His Century, that he felt “stupid” at school because they valued fast thinking. He famously said, “What is important is to deeply understand things and their relations to each other. This is where intelligence lies. The fact of being quick or slow isn’t really relevant.

We couldn’t agree more.

If you only remember one thing from this blog, let it be this:

Experiencing math anxiety does NOT mean you’re bad at or incapable of learning math (!!!!).

It’s an extra hurdle, but it’s not a concrete barrier. You can do this — especially as you learn to manage your feelings.

Photo by Google DeepMind on Unsplash

How to manage your math fears

Overcoming math anxiety is a process that’s possible with the right tools and mindset. As always, we recommend taking it step by step:

1. Identify the source of your anxiety

It’s hard to move forward without understanding where your anxiety is coming from. Is it a specific math topic, a past experience, or something else? If your panic is becoming debilitating, you might consider working through this with a therapist.

2. Practice regularly

The more you practice math, the more comfortable you’ll become. Start with simple problems and work your way towards more challenging ones. Consistency and patience are key!

3. Seek support

The worst thing you can do is struggle in silence. Talk to a teacher, tutor, or mentor about your stress. They can offer guidance and support and help you develop strategies for success (chances are they’ve felt like this, too!).

4. Shift your mindset

Instead of focusing on the fear of failure, focus on the process of learning. Learning is not linear, and mistakes are a natural part of the process! Try seeing challenges as opportunities for growth instead of setbacks.

5. Use visual aids

Sometimes, math anxiety comes from seeing a jumble of numbers on a page, which can be intimidating for more visual learners. That’s why many people find it helpful to use diagrams, graphs, or charts to understand math concepts. Experiment with different methods and find what works for you!

Teachers and parents can help students cope

One of the most heartbreaking effects of math anxiety is that students can feel completely alone. That’s why it’s important for them to have a strong support system, both in the classroom and at home.

Tips for teachers:

1. Break the ice

Start class with something lighthearted — a joke, a fun fact, a story. This can help anxious students relax.

2. Focus on the process, not the answer

Too often in math, we’re focused on whether the answer is right or wrong. Try opening the floor and asking questions that prompt multiple correct responses. It might be connections from a previous class, or having students share something they notice or wonder about a problem. This takes the pressure off getting the correct answer and encourages participation from different perspectives.

3. Strengthen classroom culture

Create a classroom environment that values effort, practice, and support. Celebrate growth by emphasizing that mistakes are a natural part of the learning process.

4. Go beyond the worksheet

Use visual aids, hands-on activities, and real-world examples to make math more engaging and less intimidating.

Tips for parents:

1. Create a safe space

You don’t need to understand how to solve every math problem — you just need to provide support. While teens may not initially accept it, it’s important to take an interest, be available, and let them know you’re not judging them.

2. Embrace the learning process

Encourage your child to see math as a learning process, rather than a test they have to pass. Remind them that making mistakes is normal, and that you’re on their team cheering them on as they continue practicing and growing.

3. Make math fun

Play math games together, offer real-life examples to explain concepts, and make math more relatable than numbers in a textbook (it is possible!).

Every learner is unique, so setting overly high expectations can be unfair and counterproductive, especially for those experiencing math anxiety. Remember that everyone has the potential to learn math and succeed.

With the right mindset, a supportive learning environment, and intentional practice, you can overcome your fears and break down your barriers to understanding. The more you conquer your fears, the more confident you’ll become — and that’s not just true for math!