## Need to know

In 1975, an anxiety clinic opened at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. This wasn’t your typical clinic: people didn’t go because they were fretful about their health or personal lives, they showed up to confront an overwhelming anxiety of doing maths.

Sheila Tobias, a US educator who wrote the book *Overcoming Math Anxiety* (1978), opened the clinic and interviewed hundreds of college students. Many were women who were told that ‘girls don’t do math’, while others had concluded ‘that they would either be good with numbers *or* with words but that they could not be good with both,’ she wrote in a 1990 article. It’s true that maths doesn’t have the best reputation. It’s not a subject widely known for being a good time or easy to do. ‘Maths seemed dreary, never any fun,’ Tobias wrote. For some people, however, this kind of negative perception translates into more than just a distaste.

Do this maths problem: 34 minus 19. Do it in your head without paper, and then imagine another person watching you. How does that make you feel? Mark Ashcraft, a US psychologist who studied maths anxiety, described how people in his studies responded to solving similar problems. Many showed ‘unease or apprehension’. They had ‘trembling hands, nervous laughter, and so forth,’ he wrote. ‘Many ask, defensively, if their performance says anything about their overall intelligence.’

If you had a comparable response – uncomfortable physical sensations and worry about getting the right answer – you might have some degree of maths anxiety. It can range from mild to extreme: it’s defined as feeling any tension, apprehension or fear that interferes with doing maths or maths performance.

**Maths anxiety is extremely common and it can hold you back**

You may not have realised that maths anxiety had a name at all, but if you’ve tended to go out of your way to avoid maths, it’s likely affected your life. Consider your past choices in school: you might have opted to take fewer maths classes, limiting your later educational and career options. If you have low self-esteem about yourself in regards to maths, you might have avoided jobs or hobbies that involve maths. Parents with maths anxiety can pass on the feeling to their kids: those children have been found to learn less maths over the course of a school year, and are more likely to develop maths anxiety themselves.

It’s not shameful to bristle at the thought of doing maths problems, and you’re certainly not alone if you’re discovering you’ve set up your life to do as little maths as possible. The concept of maths anxiety dates back to 1957 when psychologists first tested college students for ‘number anxiety’. Around the same time, a nun who taught maths at Catholic schools, Sister Mary Fides Gough, noticed that some of her students had what she called *mathemaphobia*.

Today, about 93 per cent of US adults say they have some amount of maths anxiety, and 17 per cent report high levels. Across 34 countries, surveys taken in 2012 have found that 59 per cent of 15- to 16-year-olds say they worry maths classes will be difficult for them. About a third feel tense while doing maths homework, and 31 per cent are ‘very nervous’ doing maths problems.

Maths anxiety is considered distinct from dyscalculia, a learning disability that affects a person’s ability to understand fundamental numerical concepts, such as counting or recognising numbers, and which is beyond the scope of this Guide. Dyscalculia is usually picked up by teachers and, similar to dyslexia, is focused more on ability than negative emotions. It can lead to maths anxiety, but should be addressed separately through learning programmes.

Struggling with maths and having anxiety around it aren’t always linked. Some people who perform poorly in maths don’t get anxious about it, whereas others who are good at maths worry about it a lot. A study in the UK in 2018 found that more than three-quarters of children who had maths anxiety had normal to high scores on their maths tests.

Even if your objective is not to switch careers and become a mathematician, maths anxiety can be a burden, causing you stress whenever you encounter maths in daily life, whether that’s at work, out shopping, sorting your personal finances or supporting your children with their homework. The good news is there are some proven ways to start changing your relationship to maths, even if your day-to-day life doesn’t currently require you to do much of it. These steps won’t easily propel you into a higher-level maths class, or turn you into a mathematical genius. But they can boost your confidence and make the prospect of doing maths in any situation more feasible, less stressful – and perhaps even fun. Some of these methods do involve sitting down and doing some maths, but many do not. This is because maths anxiety doesn’t emerge from maths alone: it stems from our ideas about maths, what we are told by parents and teachers, and cultural stereotypes about what maths is and who it’s for.