Math Anxiety – Dealing with Fear of Failure

Not everybody loves math. In fact, some people report tension, apprehension, and fear when faced with the need to perform mathematical tasks as a part of everyday life. Not surprisingly, these highly math anxious individuals (HMAs) perform more poorly on math related tasks than individuals with low math anxiety, tending to avoid math classes and math-related career paths. But, understanding more about the neural underpinnings of high math anxiety may help educators develop better strategies for counteracting these tendencies, ultimately opening the door to more diverse career opportunities for HMAs.

Recently, scientists have begun to understand the differences in neural activity that may partially underlie math anxiety. A 2012 study found that when individuals with math anxiety anticipate a math task, they display increased activity bilaterally in the dorso-posterior insula — a region of the brain associated with threat detection and often with the experience of pain itself.

Interestingly, this area did not remain activated during the math task itself: it appears as if the anticipation of math is the painful part, not the actual doing of it. The higher the degree of anxiety, the more this area of the brain appeared to be active. This mechanism helps explain why individuals with high math anxiety avoid math — just thinking about doing it is painful to them!

It’s worth noting that not all individuals with high math anxiety perform poorly on math tasks relative to those with low math anxiety. A 2011 study showed that some individuals with high math anxiety showed increased activity in the inferior frontoparietal regions of the brain relative to individuals with low math anxiety; these same individuals were the ones most likely to perform relatively well on math tasks, even though they were anxious.

This area of the brain includes regions thought to be involved in cognitive control and in dealing with negative emotions in a logical way. In those with high math anxiety, both high performers and low performers showed similar activity in areas of the brain associated with a fear response. Both groups also showed similar activity in regions associated with mathematical calculations. Thus the researchers concluded that the individuals’ cognitive response to their own anxiety may be the most important factor in determining their ultimate performance.

These findings may be used to shape educational strategies for high math anxiety students. The most successful strategies may not be ones that seek to eliminate the anxiety outright. Instead, it may be more effective for educators to teach these students how to utilize their own inner cognitive controls to mitigate the math-anxiety response when it happens — before it has a chance to decrease actual math performance. These individuals might not like doing math any more than before, but they might find themselves able to do it more successfully.


Lyons, I., & Beilock, S. (2012). When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math PLoS ONE, 7 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0048076

Lyons, I., & Beilock, S. (2011). Mathematics Anxiety: Separating the Math from the Anxiety Cerebral Cortex, 22 (9), 2102-2110 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhr289

Image via Malota / Shutterstock.

Ruth J Hickman, MD

Ruth J. Hickman, MD, is a freelance medical, science, and heath writer. Her writing spans the biomedical sciences, but she is particularly interested in immunology, neurology, and genetics. She holds a BA from Kenyon College, where she studied philosophy and neuroscience. She earned a medical degree from The Indiana University School of Medicine, where she received honors in both her neurology and psychiatry rotations. Prior to medical school, she worked in biomedical science and neuroscience labs at University of Illinois at Chicago and at The Ohio State University. She has also previously worked as a patient care technician for individuals with mental illness.
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