How Does Mathematics Anxiety Impair Mathematical Abilities?

Society requires us to have adequate ability to perform mathematical calculations. Life events, such as buying a home or even comparing prices of items within a store, require working knowledge of mathematics. In childhood, many children have difficulty learning mathematical skills due to learning disabilities, poor instruction, or from having adverse learning experiences. These difficulties performing and utilizing mathematics can carry into adulthood, and may be the cause behind why many adults experience mathematics anxiety. Studies have also shown that mathematics anxiety may also impair attention and working memory, which negatively impacts one’s ability to perform and use mathematics. In this blog post, we discuss how mathematics anxiety impairs mathematical abilities.

Understanding Mathematics Anxiety & Its Impacts On Mathematical Abilities

Approximately 17% of the population experiences mathematics anxiety. Mathematics anxiety is defined as “the feelings of tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations”. Mathematics anxiety may arise from having experienced learning difficulties in school, negative learning experiences from teachers and peers, and from receiving poor instruction. These causes of mathematics anxiety may pour into adulthood, which can cause disruption or difficulty in using math for necessary life events, such as purchasing a car or a home.

Researchers were interested in understanding how mathematics anxiety impacts mathematical abilities. In particular, researchers were interested in understanding how mathematics anxiety impacts working memory, basic number processing skills, whether it impacts math abilities regardless of the type of mathematical task, and if it may cause someone to avoid engaging with mathematics. To study this, researchers recruited 170 adults to perform assessments that measured working memory, number processing, mathematical abilities, and mathematical anxiety. What researchers found was that mathematics anxiety negatively impacts mathematical abilities through three pathways: it negatively impacts arithmetic abilities via disruption of working memory, indirectly impacts number processing, and causes people to avoid engaging in activities that involve mathematics. These three pathways all connect to a person’s access to, learning, understanding, and utilization of mathematics.

What Can Be Done?

What can be done to resolve mathematics anxiety? One technique which is showing promising results is having someone write out negative feelings or worries prior to a mathematics exam or a situation where mathematics is required. Another technique therapists may use includes using biofeedback while performing mathematical or cognitive tasks. Lastly, ensuring that students learning mathematics are in a positive learning environment that includes proper instruction of mathematics with educators who have a positive attitude towards mathematics and learning are key for people to grasp and use mathematical concepts


Mathematics anxiety negatively impacts a person’s ability to engage with and perform mathematics. Mathematics anxiety impacts the necessary cognitive components needed for mathematics, causes people to avoid engaging in activities that require mathematical thinking, and indirectly impacts number processing. Causes of mathematics anxiety often stem from childhood, which can carry into adulthood and disrupt a person’s ability to utilize mathematics for important life events such as purchasing a home. Mathematics anxiety may be resolved by approaches such as writing down thoughts prior to a mathematics exam, biofeedback while performing mathematics exercises, and being in a positive and supportive learning environment while learning mathematics. When working with a client that has mathematics anxiety, it may be helpful to understand the cause of their mathematics anxiety, work on mathematics exercises while employing strategies to combat anxious or negative feelings that arise, and work with your client on translating this to other situations that require the use of mathematics.

Skagerlund K, Östergren R, Västfjäll D, Träff U (2019) How does mathematics anxiety impair mathematical abilities? Investigating the link between math anxiety, working memory, and number processing. PLoS ONE 14(1): e0211283.
Margaret Davis

Margaret Davis is a junior studying advertising at Temple University. She is thrilled to be joining the HappyNeuron Pro team as the Content Marketing Intern. With her previous experience working on PR and Social Media campaigns, Margaret hopes to bring a variety of skills to the team.

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