Math Anxiety: The cause and cure

Growing up I knew a boy who was terrified of math. Every day I would gather my books, close my locker, and look down the hall to see him pacing back and forth in front of the door to the room he feared so much. I would heft my math books, walk over to him, look him in the eyes and say calmly, “It’s OK. We got this. I’m not going to let you fail.”

That was the first time I had encountered math anxiety as well as the first time I started tutoring math. I didn’t understand his pain, but I tried to soothe it by helping him understand the topic and build his confidence in himself. I worked hard, but not half as hard as he did through that math class.

Incrementally his attitude towards math changed. 

In the beginning, his heart race uncontrollably and sweating profusely in a state of panic. By a month in he paced frantically in front of the door waiting for me to arrive. Several deep breaths later, we entered with calm confidence and sat relaxed… at least that was until the instructor started to put math equations on the board. It took time and dedication, but by the end of three years he was able to enter into a math classroom with a mere ghost of the former boy who was scared witless by math.

What causes math anxieties?

Math should never be this stressful.

Well, to be honest with you, it’s not really clear. Over on Ink I posted an article describing what math anxiety is, what the potential causes are, and the most highly recommended cure for this uncomfortable anxiety. Research shows that there is a tiny link to genetics, but more so to social and conditional factors. The strange thing is, it’s not just mind over matter. Functional MRI tests show that the brain reacts to math nearly as the same as if being chased by a predator for extreme cases. This is actually really good news because it means that we can condition our brains to become more and more comfortable and confident with manipulating numbers, and thus curing our math anxieties.

Eugene Geist, associate professor at Ohio University, has the best common sense suggestions that can benefit a wide range of people. It’s a 3-fold approach that involves the teacher, parents, and students all taking on a different role and set of responsibilities.


  • Explain the problem and walk the students before calling on them before answering a question.
  • If the students get it wrong, have a good attitude about it and help them out.
  • Be able to teach multiple approaches to solving the same problem, including presenting math as a puzzle, not as a hard topic.


  • Think of math differently, like using math party tricks, something to be explored, and something to have fun with. After all, you can do a lot with math, even if it is a tool.
  • Sit with your kids and work on math with them. Take the approach of exploration on some, while streamlining the process on others.
  • Have a good attitude about it when they come home with poor marks on one assignment. Be their cheerleader while also being their mentor and making sure they work harder.


  • Rewrite your notes after class, making note of anything you don’t understand so you can ask your parents and teachers for clarification.
  • Find processes and patterns as well as the steps on how to get it done.
  • Work in groups — the power of more minds together can help you succeed.

It’s important to remember that overcoming any anxiety, including a math one, takes time, persistence, and a good attitude. There will be ups and downs, there will be resistance, and there will be jubilation when each obstacle is crossed. Live for those good moments and try to find the small joys in others.

Resources for parents, students, and teachers alike: