Maths anxiety: what does it tell us about the brain?

Isn’t it striking how many people say they are ‘rubbish at maths’, dismissing the whole subject in a way that they do not seem to do about other subjects such as English or Geography? I have my own painful memories of school assemblies where we had to recite the times tables.  The school prefects would walk down each row and if anyone was heard stumbling, they had to recite the times table in front of the whole school the following week.

Recent research suggests that 1 in 10 people suffer from maths anxiety but this may be an underestimate.  Research conducted with 10000 school students indicated that this form of anxiety is experienced by pupils with low and high attainment profiles 1 which suggests the scale of the issue may not be fully visible to teachers. This study also showed a higher rate of reporting of maths anxiety among girls.

Maths is a compulsory subject up to GCSE level which means many people must cope with this anxiety for a long time.  Good numeracy is a requirement for many jobs and is a hot topic in the press where we see a regular focus on the UK’s numeracy performance in the international PISA rankings.

Tobias and Weissbrod 2 provide a broadly accepted definition of maths anxiety as “the panic, helplessness, paralysis, and mental disorganisation that arises among some people when they are required to solve a mathematical problem”.  Recent empirical studies support this definition and indicate that there are two components: a cognitive dimension (worry about performance and consequences of failure) and an emotional dimension (nervousness, tension and apprehension).  This finding has been replicated in both primary and secondary school contexts 3.

Much of the research is based on data gathered at one point in time which means that the findings can only be described as correlational.  This leaves the question of whether a general level of anxiety leads to lack of confidence in maths or whether a lack of ability in maths causes anxiety.  However, a longitudinal study with seventh grade pupils explored the link between self-concept and anxiety levels on three occasions over a school year 4.  The results showed the effect of self-concept over anxiety was stronger than the effect of anxiety over self-concept 5.

Research shows, therefore, that maths anxiety is a persistent and widespread problem and is significantly shaped by negatives beliefs and fear of failure which can have a knock-on impact on cognitive function.  Neuroscientific techniques provide insight on the short and long-term impact of maths anxiety.  fMRI scanning techniques show that high emotional arousal due to maths anxiety engages parts of the brain which suppress the capabilities of frontal cortex to process instructions and problem solve 6.  Negative experiences associated with this emotional state can be compounded as this heightened attention may influence how memories associated with such learning situations are encoded. In fact, researchers have shown that people who experience maths anxiety begin to activate areas of the brain associated with pain processing 7.  As such, maths anxiety can have a detrimental impact both on working memory and long-term memory.

As former university lecturer and teacher educator I have a perspective on how this form of anxiety can be alleviated through educational strategies which help to reduce the level of stress and apprehension towards the subject and improve self-efficacy.  In my current role as a hypnotherapist, I support clients in reappraising negative emotions and to break out of the vicious circle that is created by self-limiting beliefs.



1 Carey, E., Devine, A., Hill, F., Dowker, A., McLellan, R., & Szucs, D. (2019). Understanding Mathematics Anxiety: Investigating the experiences of UK primary and secondary school students

2 Tobias, S & Weissbrod, C (1980) Anxiety and Mathematics: An Update. Harvard Educational Review 50 (1) 63-70.

3 Wigfield, A., and Meece, J. L. (1988). Math anxiety in elementary and secondary school students. Journal of  Educational Psychology. 80, 210–216. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.80.2.210

4 Ahmed, W., Minnaert, A., Kuyper, H., and Van Den Werf, G. (2012). Reciprocal relationships between math self-concept and math anxiety. Learn. Individ. Dif. 22, 385–389. doi: 10.1016/j.lindif.2011.12.004

5Dowker, A. Sarker, A, Looi CY (2016) Mathematics Anxiety: What Have We Learned in 60 Years? Frontiers in Psychology,

6 Marshall, E., Mann. V., & Wilson, D. (2016). Maths anxiety: A collaboration. HEA STEM conference, Nottingham:

7 Lyons, I.M., Beilock, S.L., (2012) Mathematics Anxiety: Separating the Math from the Anxiety, Cerebral Cortex, 22 (9)2102–2110,