How to Deal with Math Anxiety

Emotions and Learning

Emotions, or what we feel about something, play a big part in how we learn. If we are calm, we learn well. If we are afraid or stressed, we do not learn as well.

Many people are afraid of math. They fear making a mistake. “Math anxiety” is the fear of math. People who suffer from math anxiety may get headaches, sick stomachs, cold hands, or they may just sweat a lot or just feel scared. Math anxiety can happen for a few different reasons:

  • Feeling anxious when writing tests
  • Negative experiences in a past math class
  • Embarrassment in a past math class
  • Social pressures and expectations to not like math or not do well in math
  • The want to get everything right
  • Negative self-message (“I don’t know how to do it,” or “I hate math”)

Math anxiety is a learned habit. If it is learned, it can be unlearned. Most math anxiety comes from bad memories while learning math. It may be from doing badly on a test or asking a question then being made fun of. These bad memories can make learning math hard.

Everyone can learn math. There is no special talent for math. There are some people who are better at math than others, but even these people had to learn to be good at math.

Do You Suffer from Math Anxiety?

Read the list below and put a check mark beside the ones you feel when thinking about or doing math.

  • Are your palms moist?
  • Is your stomach fluttering?
  • Do you feel like you can’t think clearly?
  • Do you feel like you would rather do anything else than learn math?
  • Are you breathing faster than normal?
  • Is your heart pounding?
  • Do you feel cold?
  • Do you feel sweaty?

If you answered yes to two or more of these items, you may have math anxiety.

If you have math anxiety, a first step to understanding it is to look at where it all started.

Make a list of your experiences with learning math. Think back to the first math experiences you had and write about them. Think about learning math in school from the younger grades to the higher grades and write about your experiences and feelings. Include this class and how you are feeling right now about learning math.

Beside each experience, write if it was a positive or negative experience.

Look at the examples below to give you an idea:

Positive or negative? Math experience
Negative My teacher in elementary school lined the whole class up in a row and made us play a multiplication game. I could see which question was mine, and I didn’t know the answer so I had to figure it out on my fingers before my turn came up. I got the answer right, but I was so nervous that I would be teased because I didn’t know the answer off the top of my head. I still don’t know my times tables.
Positive In high school, I could use a calculator to figure out the simple multiplication problems, and then I could figure out the tougher problems without worrying about knowing my times tables.
Negative Now that I am upgrading my math, I feel nervous every time I even think about opening the book. I want to get all the answers right, and I know that I won’t be able to. I really need everything to be right so that I know that I am getting it.

Once you have made a list of experiences, go over the stories with your instructor, or by yourself and try to find some common themes.

  • Can you see when you felt anxiety?
  • Can you see why you are now anxious about math?
  • Is there any experience you could use now to help you feel calmer about math?

Hopefully by examining the beginnings of the anxiety, you can feel more in control of it.

How to Deal with Math Anxiety

Anyone can feel anxiety that will slow down learning. The key to learning is to be the “boss” of your anxiety. Here are an overview of some strategies that may help deal with your anxiety:

  • Use breathing exercises
  • Think positive math messages
  • Know your textbook
  • Understand test-taking anxiety

Remember, learning to deal with your math anxiety may take some time. It took you a long time to learn math anxiety, so it will take some time to overcome it.

Use Breathing Exercises

One way to be the “boss” is to relax. Try this breathing exercise.

Breathing Exercise

Start by breathing slowly to the count of four. It may help to close your eyes and count.

Now hold your breath for four counts and then let your breath out slowly to the count of four.

The counting is silent and should follow this pattern: “Breath in, two, three, four. Hold, two, three, four. Breath out, two, three, four. Wait, two, three, four.”

With practice, the number of counts can be increased. This is an easy and good way to relax.

Now, try this exercise quietly and repeat it five times slowly.

Each time you feel anxious about learning, use the breathing exercise to help calm yourself. Ask yourself if what you tried worked. Do you feel calmer?

Think Positive Math Messages

Another way to be the “boss” is to give yourself positive math messages.

Read and think about the positive math messages listed below. Do you say any of those things to yourself?

  • If the answer is yes, then great, keep doing that.
  • If your answer is no, try to add this little mental trick to your day. The result will probably be that you start to see math as something you can do and that you may even like!

I like math.

I am good at math.

I understand math.

I can relax when I am studying math.

I am capable of learning math.

Math is my friend.

My math improves every day.

I am relaxed, calm and confident when I study math.

I understand math when I give myself a chance.

Math is creative.

Pick three statements that you like and say them to yourself as much as you can in each day. You can also write the statements out on paper and post them around your house so that you read them throughout the day.

Know Your Textbook

Look at the Table of Contents in the front of your textbook. It tells you what you will be learning. You may see some things that you already know, some things that you may have forgotten, and some things that are new to you.

Flip the pages. You can see that the textbook is split into units. Each unit is something to learn.

Each unit has exercises to do. Notice the answers are at the end of the exercise. You can check your answers as soon as you are done. You can also check your answer before moving on if are not sure if you are doing the question right.

At the end of each unit is a self-test. It is a chance for you to see how well you have learned the skills in the unit. If you do well, you can move on. If you don’t do well, you can go back and practice those skills.

Knowing your textbook gives you a good skill. If you get frustrated, you can use the Table of Contents to go back and find some help.

Understand Test-Taking Anxiety

There are four reasons people are anxious when writing tests. Any of the four reasons listed below might be the reason a person might feel anxious in a test-taking situation.

  1. Not feeling prepared for the test
  2. Not sure how to write the test in the best way
  3. Feeling too much mental pressure
  4. Poor health habits before writing a test

Here is an explanation of each reason and how to work your way out of the anxiety you may feel during tests.

1. Not feeling prepared for the test

Many students feel anxiety about taking math tests because they do not feel prepared for the test. To feel prepared, a student needs to have studied the work and know that they can do the problems they will be given. Get help from your classmates, friends, or your instructor to find out how you can improve your study habits.

Getting ready for a test starts on the first day of class. Everything you do in class and at home is part of that getting ready.

  • Always do as many exercises as you need to help you understand. Once you understand, do ten more questions, then you will know for sure that you really understand.
  • Always correct your exercises. It is good to know that you are understanding and getting the questions right. It is also good to know if you are not understanding and need some help.
  • Always do the self-tests. The self-tests can show things that you are not sure of.
  • Always do the review. Review is part of this book. It is a chance to go over all the things you have learned in a unit before moving on. It prepares you for what will be on the test.
  • Always do a practice test. A practice test gives you a chance to see how many questions and what kind of questions are on the test.

2. Not sure how to write the test in the best way

Here are some strategies students should know about how to write a test to do the best as possible on it:

  • Before the Test
    1. Arrive early. Get out all the supplies you need to do the test (pencils, ruler, calculator, watch, etc.).
    2. Be comfortable, but alert. Choose a good spot in the room, and make sure you have enough space to work. Maintain a comfortable posture in your seat, but don’t “slouch.”
    3. Stay relaxed and confident. Keep a good attitude. If you find yourself anxious, take several slow, deep breaths to relax. Don’t talk about the test to other students just before entering the room: their anxiety can be contagious.
  • During the test.
    1. Look over the test. Take a look at the whole test before starting. This takes very little time. Use a highlighter to highlight the questions that you know you can do easily, note key terms, mark the test with comments that come to mind. As you work, put a star beside any questions that you would like to go over again when you finish the test.
    2. Relax. Before starting the test, imagine yourself somewhere where you are calm and confident. Go there in your mind. Focus on how good you feel and how in control you are. If you become anxious during the test, in your mind go to the calming place. Focus on how calm you feel. Then go back to your test.
    3. Read the directions carefully. This may be obvious, but it will help you avoid careless errors.
    4. Answer questions in a strategic order.
      • Answer the easy questions first. This will help to build confidence and score points. It may also help you make connections with more difficult questions.
      • Then answer the difficult questions. Work on these harder questions with all the energy of the easier ones.
    5. Review your answers. Resist the urge to leave as soon as you are done writing. Spend as much time as you can going over your test to see if you:
      • Answered all the questions.
      • Wrote the answers in right.
      • Did not make simple mistakes.

3. Feeling too much mental pressure

There are many reasons why a student may feel mental pressure when writing a test. Listed below are a few main reasons:

  • Negative beliefs about one’s math abilities
  • Low self-esteem when it comes to math
  • Too high expectations of success
  • Fear that failure or low grades will affect the future
  • Feelings of pressure of not wanting to let down family members

When students feel this kind of pressure, it is very hard to feel calm and relaxed about a test. The key to success in a math test is to keep the anxiety at a manageable level. You can do this in two ways:

  1. Change negative self-talk. Any time a negative thought creeps into your head, it will make it harder to stay positive and relaxed about your test. If you have a negative thought like “I can’t do it”, try to replace it with a positive thought like “I can do this”.
  2. Use relaxing and calming techniques. Use the calming breathing mentioned earlier in this section. This will help you keep calm. Also, do not study in the last half hour before the test. You will be calmer by spending time relaxing and breathing deeply in that last half hour.

4. Poor health habits before writing a test

When your body and mind are healthy, you will have a better chance of doing well on a test. Eat well, drink plenty of water and get daily exercise. The better you feel, the better you can perform (and a test is a performance!).


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Adult Literacy Fundamental Mathematics: Book 2 – 2nd Edition Copyright © 2022 by Wendy Tagami and Liz Girard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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