Symptoms and Causes of Math Anxiety

Most students experience a certain degree of math anxiety at some point during their school careers. Read on to learn more about what causes math anxiety, and the way that math anxiety can manifest itself.

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Math anxiety is a feeling of frustration about the inability to perform mathematical functions. Students experience such anxiety in varying levels of intensity but for some, simply going to a math class can be a challenges. Even home schooled students can experience this anxiety.


There are four symptoms that are most common: panic, paranoia, passive behavior, and lack of confidence.

  • Panic: The student or adult has a feeling of helplessness that will not go away. It feels like a wave of terror has washed over their body.
  • Paranoia: The student or adult thinks they are the only person not capable of completing the math, even if it is a very complicated math such as calculus.
  • Passive Behavior: The student or adult decides they will never understand or be comfortable with math, so they actively decide they will do nothing about their problem.
  • Lack of Confidence: The student or adult anticipate the feeling of helplessness and expect to never know the answer to the problem. They also second guess their math work. They rely on other people in their life to help them complete math functions such as balancing their checkbook.

Since math anxiety does produce real symptoms and emotions within people, it is important for parents to distinguish these characteristics within their children when they happen and to recognize their child is experiencing math anxiety.

Many students and adults do not understand why they experience math anxiety. They automatically assume that it is because they are unintelligent or were born without a talent for mathematics. This simply is not true. Even the most accomplished mathematicians and college level professors sometimes experience symptoms related to math anxiety.


Math anxiety is usually linked to a negative math experience from a person's past. This could be being punished by a parent or teacher for failing to master a mathematical concept or being embarrassed in front of a sibling or group of peers when failing to correctly complete a math problem. To a parent, this could have been the smallest or silliest mistake, but it very well could have left an impression on the student if made to feel ashamed or embarrassed.

Timed tests and the risk of public embarrassment are two contributing factors of math anxiety. Even if a student has no problems completing their work at home, they could temporarily forget the needed math concepts in the middle of a major test. Since the outcome of tests usually affects a student's overall math grade, the negative results of math anxiety reinforce their feeling of inadequacy, thus creating a cycle of anxiety and failure.

Overcoming Math Anxiety

One of the best ways to help someone overcome math anxiety is through positive reinforcement of the child's intelligence and skills. Instead of giving a student negative criticism for doing poorly on a test or assignment, review with them the problems and skills they were able to master. It is also beneficial to surround your child with accomplished and optimistic students and adults.

Tutors are a great resource parents should investigate when trying to help their students overcome math anxiety. Tutors can offer one-on-one individualized math instruction. Statistics show that students who complete online tutoring can have measurable results in their level of self-confidence.

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