Vermont Higher Education Collaborative Logo

Collaborating with experts to support schools and deliver professional development, ensuring the success of all students.

Math Anxiety and the Brain: When School Hurts

Struggling Learner Series
Learning, Anxiety and the Brain:  New Findings Shed Light on Dealing with Math & Performance Anxiety

Math has been identified as being increasingly important for academic and career success in today’s high tech world. Math anxiety has been shown to have serious and life-long consequences: lowering performance, reducing the likelihood of studying math in high school and college and avoiding careers that involve math. A number of recent studies have shed new light on where and how math anxiety forms in the brain and how it interferes with performance.

In a study completed by Lyons and Bellock it was shown that the anxiety felt at the anticipation of having to do math triggers the part of the brain associated with pain. “High levels of math anxiety predict increased pain-related activity during anticipation of doing math, but not during math performance itself.” This certainly could explain why those with math anxiety avoid any situation where they might have to do math.

This finding raises the question of whether other anxieties that are related to learning produce similar effects in the brain. Math is a relatively recent and culturally created activity as opposed to something found in nature that we might have evolved to avoid. If other anxieties related to culturally created activities, such as anxiety regarding science, PE, high stakes testing or school in general, may produce a similar pain-like response in the brain, we get a sense of how important it is to address the identification, formation and treatment of these conditions.

Another recent finding regarding math anxiety by Ashcraft and Krause explains why anxiety has such a serious impact on the actual performance of math. In this study, it was shown that math anxiety in children as young as seven years old shrunk working memory capacity, attention and cognitive control processes used for math problem-solving; all of which greatly increased the likelihood of lower performance.

For this study the researchers extended the Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale (MARS) down to younger children aged 7-9 years old to create the Scale for Early Mathematics Anxiety (SEMA).  They confirmed that math anxiety has traits similar to other phobias and anxieties but also has  its own characteristics regarding the functions of the brain that are involved.  In other words, other anxieties have been shown to have an impact on working memory and attention, but math anxiety also has an impact on cognitive functions specifically dealing with math.

We know from past research on the brain and learning that such anxieties can be formed rather easily in some students when there is an association created between an activity or place and a negative event such as early failure in learning or a negative teacher or parent response.   The result can be anxiety that produces an emotional, and apparently pain-like, response when anticipating that activity. We also know that fear and anxiety can shut down decision-making and interfere with learning and performance.

Understanding the emerging data can give us some perspective on how we might deal with these problems. It also provides additional motivation to identify students dealing with these issues and to try to prevent such associations from forming in the first place.  Some strategies suggested include:

  • Having students share their feelings. In one study high school-aged students performed better after writing down their feelings of anxiety. Younger students might talk or draw about their feelings.
  • Developing alternative strategies for doing math that don’t use working memory. Instead of trying to do the math operations in their heads, for instance, there are many of ways to use short-cuts, mnemonics, manipulatives, etc. that rely less on working memory.
  • Working to increase specific cognitive skills like attention and memory. (See the article we posted on our Facebook page about training your brain.)
  • Utilizing cognitive-behavior therapy techniques for dealing with negative thoughts to reduce anxiety.
  • For serious phobias, employing systemic-desensitization therapy can be very effective.


Working to prevent these conditions from forming in the first place is the best long-term strategy. Psychologist Gwen Devar has made these recommendations aimed at lowering the stress involved in early learning:

We can also work on doing a better job of identifying students’ interests and dealing with different learning styles so we can increasingly personalize learning. Temple Grandin does a great job talking about the different ways people think and how we can support their learning in a highly recommended video we posted on our Facebook page. Bill Daggett also talks a lot about the need to personalize learning and make it relevant to every student. (see past blog posts on Bill Daggett and Rigor, Relevance and Relationships)

Finally, we can all be more mindful about how we talk about subjects like math and science and work to promote student interest in the subjects.  It seems to be a point of pride for many adults these days that they are not good at math and they don’t hesitate to say so.  Students respond to adult attitudes, expectations and behavior.  They are good at reading even subtle signs.  If we all made it a point to highlight and show enthusiasm for math and science, perhaps more students would too.






Dennis has been the Director of the the VT-HEC since it was founded in 2000. He spent 16 years at the VT-DOE as Director of teams with various names that included: special education, Title I, health and wellness and other family and education support services. Prior to that Dennis worked at the Barre Town School (VT) starting as a special educator and serving many years as the Director of Student Support Services. He also spent 6 years as a classroom teacher grades 5-8 in NJ.

Leave a Reply