What is Maths Anxiety?

Researchers agree that Maths Anxiety is a distinct and stable form of anxiety that starts as early as pre-school and develops into adulthood.

What is Maths Anxiety?
Mathematics anxiety (MA) is a negative emotional response that can cause feelings of tension, worry, or loss of concentration when dealing with numbers (Ashcraft, 2002). MA can develop during the early school years, and it is an enduring type of anxiety that represents a fairly stable characteristic of an individual.

It affects 1 in 6 students, and this condition affects more primary school girls than boys, even when they have similar levels of performance, thereby worsening the existing problem of gender inequality in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. However, the exact reasons for that gender difference remain unclear.

MA is distinct from other types of anxiety (state anxiety, trait anxiety, test anxiety). Additionally, it is not always associated with low performance. MA is distinct from mathematical learning disorder or dyscalculia; however, there are some comorbidities between the two.
Why is MA a problem?
MA leads to poor maths performance and weaker academic achievement, and it hinders the overall learning experience and decreases the learner’s self-esteem (Szczygieł and Pieronkiewicz, 2022).

Higher levels of MA can also influence career choices in the long term, as people with this condition tend to avoid occupations that include mathematics as a core subject (Ma, 1999). It can also impact people's performance in their chosen occupations; for instance, high levels of Maths Anxiety were found to be related to poor drug dosages by hospital nurses.

MA extends to adolescence and adulthood. Negative outcomes of maths anxiety observed in adulthood include depression, problems with the police, and low socioeconomic status (Gomides, 2022). It is therefore important to tackle MA to guarantee a fairer future for anxious children and to support a well-educated STEM workforce.

Researchers strongly agree that MA should be treated as early as possible starting from primary school. Mathematics skills in primary education are essential to a child’s future career; skills in numeracy at the primary level positively affect oral language and vocabulary, whilst augmenting curiosity, imagination, persistence, and working memory. If MA is not dealt with, it will not only affect mathematics performance but can also have long-term effects on overall learning and poor self-esteem.

Low numeracy can also have negative impacts on the economy, leading to high costs for governments; it can also result in poor technological development. The cost of poor numeracy skills has been estimated to be 230€ billion in the United Kingdom only, about 1% of its GDP.
What causes MA?
Risk factors contributing to MA include:
  • Genetic factors, including predisposition to other forms of anxieties. MA is often associated with generic trait anxiety and social anxiety;
  • School-related factors, such as negative experiences with maths in the classroom, poor teaching, pressure from peers, teachers, or parents. Female students might inherit MA from an anxious female teacher, acting as negative role models;
  • Negative stereotypes, such as “maths is too difficult” or “boys are better than girls in maths”;
  • Poor maths performance;
  • Domestic environment: children with anxious mothers have higher chances of developing MA, especially when anxious parents help their children with their homework.
Can MA be treated?
It is possible to alleviate MA, which can in turn lead to an increase in mathematics performance. Behavioural and cognitive-behavioural therapies have most commonly been successful.
MA in Ireland
The Happy Maths team has published a report on the state of Maths Anxiety in Ireland in 2024. Check it out here!
Ashcraft, M. H. (2002). Math anxiety: Personal, educational, and cognitive consequences. Current directions in psychological science, 11(5), 181-185

Cipora, K., Santos, F.H., Kucian, K. and Dowker, A. (2022), Mathematics anxiety—where are we and where shall we go? Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci., 1513: 10-20. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.14770

Gomides, M. (2022). What is Maths Anxiety about? Arithmos Project. https://arithmosproject.wordpress.com/2022/05/02/what-is-mathsanxiety/

Ma, X. (1999). A meta-analysis of the relationship between anxiety toward mathematics and achievement in mathematics. Journal for research in mathematics education, 30(5), 520-540.

Szczygieł, M. (2019). How to measure math anxiety in young children? Psychometric properties of the modified Abbreviated Math Anxiety Scale for Elementary Children (mAMAS-E). Polish Psychological Bulletin, 50(4).
LAST UPDATE: December 2021

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