Nothing but anxiety: Maths anxiety explained

Yes, ‘maths anxiety’ is real. Not only is it real, it is more common than you may think.
Many people I know go by saying, ‘I hate maths’ or when doing maths work, will say, ‘I don’t get it’ or ‘I’m confused’. I would say, I hear this more during maths than I do in any other subject. So I’m here to get to the root of the problem.

What is maths anxiety?

Cognitive Psychologist Mark H. Ashcraft provides a definition,
“Math anxiety is a phenomenon that is often considered, when examining students’ problems in mathematics. Mark H. Ashcraft defines math anxiety as “a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance.”

I would best describe ‘maths anxiety’ as feeling fear, pressure, worry and lack of confidence when thinking about or doing mathematics.

Why do we experience anxiety about maths?

I think this is built up worry and anxiety due to past failure and mistake-making, or simply lack of confidence in ability – which again, could be caused by past failure or mistake-making. Making comparisons of yourself to others can also influence your attitude towards maths, just like it would in any curricular area. I think the only way to get to the bottom of maths anxiety is to change your outlook on it and realise that mistake-making, if that is the root of your maths anxiety, is permitted and it is expected. In fact, mistake-making can be the only indication of your learning and areas of progression. No learner should feel anxious because of this!

As the teacher, the educator, the supported and the motivating role, we must first battle our fear of maths. If we are confident in learning and teaching mathematics, I strongly believe our learners will too! Would you be comfortable with an anxious driver teaching you to drive?

I believe there are a number of factors behind this, but they go under two headings – the learner and the adult:

LEARNER – ethos, motivation, confidence and perceptions of maths comes from the educator’s
approach to maths
– negative attitude
– disengaged, unmotivated, uninterested in the learning
– insecure understanding
– fear or worry about mistake-making
– lack of confidence and little self-esteem regarding ability

ADULT – passing on of negative views and beliefs onto children (parents, teachers etc.)
– parents or others believing maths is ‘irrelevant’ or a ‘waste of time’; often the
questions are asked, ‘why are we doing this?’ or ‘when am I ever going to need
to know this?’ – passed onto the children
– lack of confidence regarding dealing with finance etc.

How do we overcome maths anxiety?

Maths anxiety, I believe, may always occur in some people – children and adults. I say this because, in maths, you can be confident in one area and not in another. It is the responsibility of us – the teachers, the educators, the supporters – to provide encouragement, motivation, support and guidance to our learners. Most importantly, it is crucial that we educate our learners about the positive of making mistakes or errors – this gives the teacher and the learner a good indication of where to take the next steps. Then it is up to the adult to give quality guidance to ensure progression in every learner.


Ashcraft, M. H. and Kirk, E. P. (1999) The Relationships Among Working Memory, Math Anxiety, and Performance. Available at: Last Accessed: Dec 6 2015.

2 thoughts on “Nothing but anxiety: Maths anxiety explained

  1. Derek Roberston

    The culture in a classroom might be a significant factor in causing anxiety in learning. You might find The Motivated School by Alan Maclean of interest in respect of this post. Some really great thinking about effective learning cultures in classrooms.

  2. Tara Harper

    I think you are absolutely right that it is vital for educators to make sure they do not pass on their own anxieties about any area of the curriculum. It is a really worrying societal situation in which we find ourselves with increasing levels of innumeracy and I am very keen, as were Sheila Henderson and Colette Fortuna before me, to make a difference in our new teachers’ attitude towards teaching maths. However, I also think that parental attitude towards all aspects of learning has a huge impact on children’s thinking and that is going to be a tougher nut to crack! The Guardian newspaper has recently run an article about maths anxiety that may be of interest to you at


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