How maths anxiety makes your brain shut down — and what you can do about it (2024)

Michelle Tregoning remembers the first time she felt nervous about maths like it was yesterday.

InYear 6, shewas asked to answer a simple maths question in front of the class: what's 5 x 6?

Ms Tregoning knew the answer deep down, but her mind went blank.

"I could not for the life of me remember it …. my mouth couldn't move," said Ms Tregoning, whothese daysworks as a leader in mathematics professional learningfor the NSW Department of Education.

"It's something that I knew, but I just couldn't bring it in that moment."

Ms Tregoning's experience is a classic case of "maths anxiety" —the fear, dread and worry manypeople experience when they have to tackle a numerical task.

If left unaddressed, maths anxiety can end up shapingdecisions you make further down the track,according toSarah Buckley, who has conducted research on maths anxiety at the Australian Council for Educational Research.

"You might choose not to study maths when it becomes a choice, or you might choose not to pursue a particular career," she said.

The decision to drop maths altogether is on the rise, with Year 12 enrolments in the subject falling to an all-time low of 66 per cent, according to a 2022 report from the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute.

But even if it feels like numberswill always be your worst enemy, the good news is maths anxiety doesn't have to rule your life, Dr Buckley said.

"Maths anxiety isn’t a life sentence — it can be addressed."

Is it maths anxiety or something else?

While estimates of how many people experience maths anxiety vary, studies have suggested that it's somewhere between 6 to 17 per cent of the population.

The 2017 Westpac Numeracy Study found maths anxiety affects as many as athird of adults and children in Australia.

It can show up as panic when you're asked to solve a maths problem on the spot, a knot in your stomach at the thought of doing your taxes, or a barrage of intrusive thoughts while sittinga maths test.

"People get sweaty palms …their brain locks up and they can't remember anything," said Eddie Woo, a secondary maths teacher at Cherrybrook Technology High School in Sydney.

How maths anxiety makes your brain shut down — and what you can do about it (1)

It often feels just like regular anxiety, but the trigger is mathematics, said Mr Woo, who is also a leader in the NSW Department of Education'sMathematics Growth Team.

Unlike dyscalculia— a learning disability that makes it difficult for people to comprehend numbers— maths anxiety is a psychological hurdle, rather than a neurological one.

While those with dyscalculia often struggle to count their change or tell the time, maths anxiety is closer to an irrational fear of spiders, Dr Buckley said.

"I think of it as an emotion we need to regulate."

Even though maths anxiety can convince you that you are "bad" at anything that involves numbers, research suggests that it has little to do with your actual abilities.

One large study conducted in the UK in 2019 found that 77 per cent of children with high levels of maths anxiety achieved average to high grades in the subject.

"It really is to do with people's experience of mathematics," Mr Woo said.

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How does maths anxietyaffectyour performance?

Brain imaging studies have shown that getting jittery over maths can affect your ability to process information and perform at your best.

One 2012 study explored what was happening in the brainof children aged 7-9while they solved a series of maths problems.

In kids with maths anxiety, scans showed that brain regions associated with processing negative emotions were hyperactive, while those that play a role in mathematical reasoning and working memory were underactive.

The effects were unique to the children with maths anxiety and had nothing to do with general anxiety, intelligence, or reading ability, the study found.

How maths anxiety makes your brain shut down — and what you can do about it (2)

Results like these reveal howanxiety can disrupt our working memory, an essential companion when we're solving mathematical problems.

For instance, most people can hold between six toeightdifferent numbers in their mind at any given time.

But when your brain is flooded with anxiety, you might only be able to recall three numbers,Mr Woo said.

"Working memory is famously limited.

"When you're anxious about something, that takes up space in your working memory."

This can lead to a vicious cycle: the tenser you are, the more your brain freezes up and the worse you perform, which only leads to more anxiety.

What causes maths anxiety?

Often, the seeds of maths anxiety are sown during primary school, with some studies finding that it can start in kids as young as six years old, Dr Buckley said.

By the time students are in high school and tackling more complex topics like algebra, their maths anxiety is in full bloom.

How maths anxiety makes your brain shut down — and what you can do about it (3)

There are also a lot of myths floating around about maths and what it means to be good at it.

A big one is that you are either a "maths person" or you aren't, and that you can't improve your skills with effort, Dr Buckley said.

"That's a fixed mindset when it comes to how you feel about maths."

Gender stereotypes are also a major source of negative beliefs about maths in girls, who tend to experience maths anxiety more often than boys, even though they perform just as well in the subject, she added.

"If a student identifies as a female and believes that 'girls are not good at maths', then that may lead them to think that they do not have control of their ability to learn in maths, as it is determined by their gender."

It also doesn't help that the way maths is taught in many schools is the stuff of nightmares, Mr Woo said.

"You're often made to feel bad because you don't know the answer to things."

How maths anxiety makes your brain shut down — and what you can do about it (4)

Many of the mathematics teaching methods that have been used for decades— such as sitting timed maths tests— are also a recipe for anxiety, he said.

The pressure to memorise and recall numerical facts at lightning speedis something Ms Tregoning remembers well from her days at school.

While she wanted to take the time to understand how things worked, such as why a formula was written a certain way or applied to one problem instead of another, her class was more interested in getting the right answer — fast.

"It was rules without reason," she said.

How do you overcome maths anxiety?

The first step to slaying your maths demons is to challenge your beliefs about your abilities.

One way to pinpoint unhelpful beliefsis to compare your thinking around maths to the beliefs you have about other subjects, Dr Buckley said.

For instance, your reaction to making a mistake while playing a sport might be to simply pick the ball up and try again without any dramas.

But when it comes to maths, every slip-up might triggera downward spiral of thoughts telling you that you just aren't good with numbers.

How maths anxiety makes your brain shut down — and what you can do about it (5)

Once you've pinned down the beliefs holding you back, the next step is to smash them to pieces through practising your maths skills, asking for help, and celebrating your wins— no matter how small.

"That's going to challenge that belief that your maths abilities are fixed," Dr Buckley said.

Another way to get more comfortable with maths is finding it in the things you love, Mr Woo said.

"One of the wonderful things about mathematics is that there's a connection between mathematics and everything you can possibly imagine."

For instance, many of the fundamental principles of music— such as timing and rhythm— are deeply rooted in maths.

"Someone said once that music is the joy people feel when they're counting, but they don't know it."

Ms Tregoningremembers her turning point came while she was studying psychology at university, andrealised that psychologists usemaths to make decisions about how to help people.

"I'd never thought of mathematics in that way before."

While maths anxiety still sneaks up on herfrom time to time, she believesher experiences have helped her become a better mathseducator.

"It's important that kids have efficient access to number facts, but how they acquire those number facts is just as important," she said.

"Having gone through mathematics and not understanding it, you almost have this real desperation to ensure that the kids and teachers you work with understand."

How maths anxiety makes your brain shut down — and what you can do about it (2024)

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