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What Is Math Anxiety and How Brain Imaging Works for It


The author is a research enthusiast. She is studying psychology as an optional subject.


What Is Math Anxiety

Math anxiety is characterized by feelings of worry, tension, and melancholy when confronted with manipulating numbers or mathematical difficulties. This anxiety is linked to mathematics performance and anticipation, and it may lead to avoidance of math lessons, which has a significant influence on mathematical skills. Many psychologists and neuroscientists researched the negative effects of math anxiety. Let's find out the meaning of math anxiety and the role of brain imaging in determining this anxiety.

How to Know About Your Anxiety

When you quit taking your math course and tremble when you walk into math class, it is apparent that you have arithmetic issues. Many additional factors indicate that you are suffering from math anxiety. For example, you are more concerned about the math test than about any other topic, or you are concerned about getting called to the math class. There are some physical and psychological symptoms of math anxiety and show the severity of the anxiety. The physical symptoms include nausea, sweating, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and increased blood pressure. The psychological symptoms include loss of self-confidence, memory loss, paralysis of thoughts, avoidance of math class, and negative self-talk.

Consequences of Math Anxiety

Math anxiety can be a barrier to studying maths. When students become anxious and uneasy when thinking about arithmetic tasks or problems, they are suffering from math anxiety. Schar contends that arithmetic worry can lead to math avoidance, creating an empirical dilemma. The math-anxious student does not lack ability in mathematics, rather, they cannot perform to their full potential because of their anxiety. It has a variety of effects on the individual, including physical, psychological, and behavioral symptoms, as well as an influence on working memory.

Some Myths Regarding Mathematics

Mathematics has an important place in education. Many beliefs hold people about early math have a grain of truth in them, but as a whole are false. They are largely myths and can harm children. These myths also give rise to anxiety. Let's talk about some of the most common myths that draw attention.

Myth 1: Not everyone can be good at math.

It is believed that not every student can be good at math, and there is a certain class of students who can perform well in mathematics class. Nicole Joseph—an assistant professor of Mathematics education said that many people believe that math is innate and only an elite group of students are capable of learning it. Joseph further said that as a mathematics teacher, I believe every student is capable of learning math, and if we provide proper guidance and strategies, every student can excel in math. The difference is the way of learning of the students because not every student learns in the same way.


Myth 2: Math is not for girls.

I experienced it. Now, you probably want to know that how! When I went for my admission to the college, I wanted to go with mathematics instead of pre-medical subjects. This is what my family member said, "Are you out of your mind? Math is not your job; you are a girl and go for what is suitable for you". Researchers have revealed no distinction between men and women in mathematical ability. I hope this myth will fade away soon.

Myth 3: Math is not a creative thing to do.

Mathematics is considered a subject with set rules and structure, and it's not always recognized in its full capacity. In traditional math classes, problems are displayed on a board or screen and the teacher solves them while giving thorough descriptions. After designing the problem-solving process, students will work using the same steps to solve problems. This method of teaching lacks creativity. In recent years, teachers understand that math can be a creative subject and students' creative abilities can apply to math. For this, teachers use different styles of teaching and have changed the tradition of "right or wrong" by giving freedom to students to create their own problems.

Brain Imaging and Math Anxiety

Using various techniques to image the structure and function of the nervous system is known as brain imaging. In the last twenty years, cognitive neuroscience has developed rapidly. Many tools for brain imaging are available that include magnetoencephalogram (MEG), electroencephalography (EEG), near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

How Electroencephalography (EEG) Helps in Measuring Math Anxiety

The EEG helps to study the role of cognitive processes in carrying out arithmetic strategies. It is also a powerful tool to determine how strategy use differs between groups of different skills or ages. Overall, the EEG also helps to understand variations in the arithmetical performance of participants. The EEG is a recording that detects the abnormalities of the brain and is used to show the brain activity in the states of alertness, stress, or drowsiness. It is used to diagnose conditions like brain tumors, brain damage from a head injury, inflammation of the brain, sleep disorder, and stroke.

The EEG discusses band activity (delta, alpha, beta, gamma, theta) where it refers to the frequency range of brain activity. For mental mathematics, the frequency band represents how brain waves are classified. And this band activity is achieved through EEG techniques. The classification of frequencies defined as:

  • A delta ranges from 0.5 to 3.5 Hz
  • Theta ranges from 3.5 to 7 Hz
  • Alpha ranges from 7.5 to 13 Hz
  • Beta ranges from 13 to 22 Hz

Studies show that as the workload or complexity increases, the frequency of delta increases. But there is less research related to the examination of mathematical anxiety using EEG techniques.

Hens Berger—inventor of electroencephalography (EEG)

Hens Berger—inventor of electroencephalography (EEG)

Use of Cognitive Reappraisal

The reframing of experiences and stimuli is called cognitive reappraisal. In the transactional model of stress, it is defined as how to respond to the stressors in life. A new study, which is done by Rachel G. Pizzie, describes that math-anxious students can regulate the math-anxious emotions regarding math with the help of cognitive reappraisal strategy. This reappraisal results in an increase in the brain activity that handles arithmetic. The study has shown that most of the math-anxious students have decreased activity in the brain which is associated with arithmetic. This strategy is considered the most effective among those who have the greatest math anxiety. These strategies improved the performance of the student suffering from anxiety in mathematics by stimulating the activity of the brain regions associated with arithmetic.

Lazarus' transactional model of stress using cognitive reappraisal

Lazarus' transactional model of stress using cognitive reappraisal

In 2012, a study by Lyons and Beilock revealed that those who showed more activation in the inferior frontoparietal portion of the brain before starting a math problem performed well in math class. They linked this neural region to reappraisal. Reassessment consists of recognizing negative emotions and turning them into more effective emotions.

Reappraisal also regulates physiological arousal and reduces the effect of anxiety in the long term.

Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)

The functional MRI is used to measure brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. A study at the University of Chicago reveals that there is a strong connection between math anxiety and the brain area in the frontal and parietal lobes. For this study, researchers selected a group of students who were highly math-anxious and scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging. The higher math-anxious students showed less activation in the area of the brain responsible for math performance.

The researchers concluded that only knowing about your anxiety is not enough, but it is important to buckle it down. This study also helps how people who get nervous when dealing with math problems or tasks can deal with their anxiety in everyday tasks. The researcher, Lyons says, if solving math makes you anxious, then the first thing you need to do is calm yourself down and let your brain do its job.

Scoping Review Methodology for Determining Math Anxiety

The scoping review methodology may investigate the greater breadth of literature. This methodology identifies and maps literature on a specific subject. The scoping review uses the Arksey and O’Malley framework that include six steps:

  1. identifying the research question
  2. identifying the relevant studies
  3. selecting studies
  4. charting the data
  5. collecting, summarizing, and reporting the result
  6. consulting experts

The previously done study using scoping review shows that math anxiety affects many disciplines. It is also revealed that gender plays a role in maths anxiety and it is supposed that females are more math anxious than males. It is also accepted in the study that self-awareness is important to cope with anxiety because it allows us to understand our strengths and areas that can be improved.

Additional Facts

  • According to research, nearly 17 percent of American students have some form of math anxiety.
  • According to a report from National Numeracy, the UK is facing a math crisis and four out of five adults have low functional mathematical skills.
  • Researchers have found that children who score high in maths tests can have a high level of math anxiety. Because they perform well in class, their anxiety remains unnoticed.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 EK Jadoon


EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 28, 2021:

Thanks, Rawan. I appreciate your visit.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 28, 2021:

Thanks for your kind words, Manatita. In starting days of my high school, it was difficult for me to understand math. But over time I realized that it was just because of a lazy teacher. Lol.

manatita44 from london on June 28, 2021:

A very broad range of discussion here, including brain waves and science as well. For me, I seemed to have a very logical brain and so mental arithmetic was very easy for me. Lovely article.

Rawan Osama from Egypt on June 28, 2021:

Very informative article thanks for sharing

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 28, 2021:

I am glad you liked the article, Rozlin. Bill and you, both are mathematics teacher and can discern things about math more than others. Thanks for your visit.

Happy Monday to you too, sister.

Stay safe and healthy...

Rozlin from UAE on June 27, 2021:

This is a very informative and helpful article, Moon. I have taught maths in school. Many students don't enjoy studying maths than other subjects. They feel boring. Many of them take time to understand and so feel anxious. Your hub is well written and very helpful for such students. Thank you for sharing. Happy Monday, enjoy the week. Stay safe and happy.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 27, 2021:

I appreciate your visit, Devika g. And I agree with that math is for both genders and the method of coping may be different for everyone.

Stay safe and healthy...

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on June 27, 2021:

I think math is for both genders depending on how they can cope with math can be a bit of a problem. You have a well-written hub and informative as well.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 27, 2021:

I appreciate your visit, Peggy. It is amazing that how neuroscience contribute in determining anxiety. Stay safe and healthy...

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 27, 2021:

It is amazing what can be tested by MRIs and other scanning measurements of the brain with regard to how our brains function under different stressors.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 27, 2021:

I appreciate your kind words, Ravi. Yes, I agree with you that tha myth "girls are not good at maths" is a false one. Thanks for your visit.

Stay safe and healthy...

Ravi Rajan from Mumbai on June 27, 2021:

A very useful and informative article Moondot.I certainly do not subscribe to the myth that girls are not good at maths. It was probably the product of a sick mind. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 26, 2021:

I am glad you liked the article, Jodah. We are on the same page. Algebra was the most difficult thing for me. I am not good at cramming, I think that's why. But teacher play a significant role in learning mathematics.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 26, 2021:

The same was the case with me, Misbah. I literally cried sometimes but It wasn't my fault. The teacher who taught me in high school never knew how to teach math. I secured good marks after that teacher left the school. Lol.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on June 26, 2021:

A very interesting read, Moondot. At school my Maths teacher was puzzled by me. He asked, “How can a student get A’s at Basic Maths and only C’s or D’s at Advanced Maths.” I don’t know, but that was me….I just had trouble understanding complex calculations and algebra etc.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 26, 2021:

Thank you for your visit, Bill. I think you would be a great teacher. I have suffered through anxiety and unfortunately, couldn't overcome it.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 26, 2021:

I appreciate your visit, Eman. Yes, this is only a fixed mindset that girls can't do math.

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Poets on June 26, 2021:

Nice and well-researched article, Moon.No, no, maths is for girls but beautiful girls are weak at maths... that's what I have heard. Lol! So, it was the maths anxiety I was suffering throughout my childhood. I loved this article. Thanks for sharing, Moon

Blessings and Love

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 26, 2021:

I actually taught math for several years, so obviously I enjoy it. Having said that, I have seen math anxiety in some of my students so yes, it is a real thing. Great information here, my friend.

Nian from Pakistan on June 26, 2021:

Very helpful article. I agree with myth number 2 (maths is not for girls). I think this is the thinking of our society. Thanks for sharing.

Many Blessings!

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