High Anxiety: How Worrying About Math Hurts Your Brain

Does math make you anxious? The latest research shows that even the thought of arithmetic can trigger a physical reaction that looks a lot like pain in the brain.

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Does math make you anxious? The latest research shows that even the thought of arithmetic can trigger a physical reaction that looks a lot like pain in the brain.

If you consider yourself mathematically challenged — meaning you break a sweat every time you have to solve a math problem or calculate the tip at dinner — then what you are feeling may be more than just embarrassment.

According to a study conducted by Ian M. Lyons and Sian L. Beilock, psychology professors at the University of Chicago, math anxiety may be much more than a psychological aversion to numbers. Many math-phobics go out of their way to avoid math-related tasks or thinking about math problems, and this reaction led the scientists to wonder whether something more than dislike was involved. And math phobia made a useful study target since people who find math challenging have no shame in talking about their fears. “You often don’t hear people walking around bragging about how they can’t read,” says Beilock.

(MORE: Study: Children Born Too Early Have Lower Reading and Math Scores)

Beilock and Lyons tracked 14 people with high math anxiety and 14 people with low math anxiety and asked them to rate how anxious they get in math-related situations such as “walking to math class” or “opening a math or statistics book and seeing a page full of problems.” Then the researchers used an fMRI to peek inside their brains when they alerted the volunteers, with a yellow-circle cue card, that they would have to solve a math problem. (For comparison, the participants also performed word tasks, which were preceded by blue-square cue cards.)

That’s when they noticed increased activity in the dorso-posterior insula (INSp), the fold of tissue in the brain that is activated when a person experiences physical pain like burning his hand, but only in the math-anxious subjects, and not in those who did not have math anxiety. It’s also the area that lights up in response to severe social rejection such as a bad romantic breakup, which can result in symptoms of physical pain as well.

Interestingly, these pain areas were more intensely activated when the math-phobics were anticipating an upcoming math-related task, and not while they were actually trying to solve a math problem. Which suggests that it’s not math itself that gets people wound up. “There’s something about the anxiety itself that may rob people of the brainpower that they could otherwise use to do math well,” Beilock said. “There may not be this distinction between the mind and body that we always talk about, especially since some of the ways our brain registers physical pain, social pain, and pain about doing math is all very much the same.”

(MORE: How Does a Child’s Weight Influence Her Math Abilities?)

But why the intense connection between math and physical pain? Most circumstances that trigger pain centers in the brain are deeply rooted in evolutionary survival strategies — which is why being rejected by a close friend or loved one is painful, since that threatens our ability to survive by thwarting our ability to reproduce and take advantage of community resources for gathering food and shelter. But math? That’s a cultural phenomenon that, while certainly useful, isn’t a matter of life and death.

Beilock and Lyons say the data suggest that even non-threatening, physically benign circumstances can tap into the anxiety and pain response — if we let them. Regardless of how a math aversion starts — a scary arithmetic teacher or tedious pages of math homework in school — even something as seemingly innocuous as math can take on anxiety-inducing and pain-triggering reactions that may be out of sync with their actual threat to our lives. And that has to do with how we respond to stress.

Fortunately, the anxiety related to math can be dialed down, and just as the brain adapts to viewing numbers as a threat, it can also adapt to seeing them as not so harmful. In her book exploring the science of how people handle high-stress situations, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, Beilock recommends that math anxious people write down their worries before performing a quantitative task or facing a math test and to focus on the positive — like the fact that they did the homework or are well-prepared for the test .

That may be useful for helping educators and students to cope with math stress, and encourage youngsters to overcome any fears they may have about the subject, rather than allowing those fears to grow into anxiety and something more. “We have to deal with not just the content of what’s going on in classes, but also making sure kids feel motivated and are enjoying the subject,” says Beilock. Especially since jobs in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) are growing at three times the rate of non-STEM jobs.

Beilock and Lyons’s study, which was supported by the National Science Foundation, was published online in PLOS ONE.

MORE: Consumers Prefer to Get More Rather Than Pay Less — Because They’re Bad at Math


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Mathematics was an essential part of my life throughout my school and Engineering College days. I just spent a few months tuned out of the discipline before joining a post graduate programme in technology when I found, to my horror, my Engineering Mathematics had flatlined on me. That was four decades ago. I constantly refer to it, mostly to myself, as "the collapse of my house of Math", and even now I picture myself standing amidst the rubble, a portion of a split wall overwritten with triple integrals;  the debris of fractured overhead beams featuring del operators and Laplace Transforms in great profusion.

The anxiety associated with the idea of rebuilding the 'house', brick by brick, just kept me from doing just that and I migrated to less intellectually challenging fields.

The lesson learnt is 'Use it, or lose it". 


Although I can do basic math, when it comes down to equations it is another story. Letters or symbols equal numbers over other numbers that have to have steps done to find the something or other, etc. Then, as much as I love words, none of the words make sense: Reflection, vector, domain, parametric, integer, radical- Who comes up with these words? I have to look them all up, and then the definitions have other similar confusing words in them that I also have to look up. 

I think the anxiety comes from feeling as if I'm lost in the woods and everyone that tries explaining it to me only makes me more lost. If I was lost in the woods and needed help, it would be like someone pointing and saying "Go that way!" Not much help when every explanation leads to more questions. In school I would ask for help and the teacher would explain, but after two or three times of asking I would start to feel increasingly stupid. The teacher would get a funny look and other kids would stare. I admit it is lame and shameful, but I learned to stop asking after once or twice. It feels like dyslexia for math, but hard to prove. I saw someone at the psychology place about this and they made me subtract backwards in my head- it took me a long embarrassing time but I did it right. He said I didn't have anything wrong with me, but I don't know what his little test proved. I can do basic math, its everything else that looks wrong somehow. 

I am an excellent study with everything, but math. Even though this article says that math cannot pose a threat to a person, I know that it can. Math caused me to fail 5th grade. Later, it caused me to be detained in 9th grade until I made up an extra half credit because of math. In 12th, due to the math credits lacking throughout all of school, I couldn't walk at graduation because I had to take a business math course over the summer to make up the credit. The first time I took my summer math final I failed. I thought I failed high school, but I think the teachers felt bad and let me try again. By some miracle I passed the second time and was given my diploma. Now that I am getting my BA for Education Studies, for the past year and a half, I have been dreading my two algebra classes. I need to pass these classes to finish college. I owe a lot of school loan money. I will need a job to pay them back and I can't afford to take the algebra classes over and over. Math can be a very big threat, trust me. 

Lastly, it does hurt. Math is a huge headache- a real life physical headache. Sometimes it leads to tears and mass amounts of frustration. I always think that I will do better and that if I study long and hard it will be fine. But, like always, I crash and burn no matter how many hours I put into it. I really wish I could go back in time- not to study, but to change all my school test answers to funny things. I would say "Sorry teach, this test question looks like the practice question in the text book. However, this one has negatives and this little symbol thingy that I can't recognize. So, in retrospect, it looks nothing like the one I practiced. Therefore, I cannot answer it." I would also say at the bottom, "I studied until I was red in the face. I'm sorry I couldn't remember nearly all of it."     By saying these things, like I wish I had, I would at least have a chance to explain why my brain couldn't grasp things and why all my answers looked like random guesses.              


I don't get anxious, I just can't see the numbers in my head and do basic math in my head. I have to see it written down. And I have a hard time remembering numbers because I can't see them in my mind.  I don't get anxious, I have accepted this & worked around it and worked harder at it for work, banking, etc. It's true, there is more stigma with illiteracy, but if you can't do math, you just learn to cope and explain. And it has nothing to do with understanding money management; people hear you can't do basic math in your head and they think you are a total numbers idiot, not true.  I managed to get through algebra, chemistry and figure out meds for nursing. Geometry was a breeze for me and I am artistic.


Well, this explains my entire childhood.